Literary BMGD #8: Twas on that dark, that solemn night

Manchester Hymnal

Active Mormons hear poetry about the atonement each Sunday in the sacrament hymn, so finding a poem to go with Jacob’s discourse on the atonement in 2 Nephi 9 isn’t too much of a burden. The hard part is finding something that isn’t already well known and is unique to Mormonism, which I’ve generally tried to do in this series.

There are 28 sacrament hymns in the current hymnal, most of which are probably familiar. However, there have been a number of other sacrament hymns that are no longer in our current hymnal. Most of those are not by Mormons. And, while I have not been able to identify the author of this hymn, I have so far only found it in Mormon hymnals, starting with the Manchester Hymnal put together by Brigham Young, John Taylor and Parley P. Pratt in 1840.

As far as I can tell, it was eliminated from LDS Hymnals in the early 20th century, but I don’t know why. It feels to me a little more graphic than other sacrament hymns, but I haven’t read it in comparison to them, so I can’t exactly say. In addition, some of the imagery seems more protestant than we have in other hymns — the image of meeting at the table, and calling the sacrament the “marriage-supper of the Lamb” are unusual in LDS symbolism, in my experience.


1. ‘Twas on that dark, that solemn night,
When powers of death and hell arose,
Against the Son, e’en God’s delight,
And friends betrayed him to his foes:

2. Before the mournful scene began,
He took the bread, and blessed, and brake;
What love through all his actions ran!
What wondrous words of grace he spake!

3. “This is my body broke for sin,
Receive and eat the living food:”
Then took the cup, and blessed the wine,
“Tis the new cov’nant of my blood.”

4. For us his flesh with nails was torn,
He bore the scourge, he felt the thorn;
And justice poured upon his head,
Its heavy vengeance in our stead.

5. For us his precious blood was spilt,
To purchase pardon for our guilt:
When for our sins, he suffering dies,
And gave his life a sacrifice.

6. “Do this” he cried, “till time shall end,
In memory of your dying friend;
Meet at my table, and record
The love of your departed Lord.”

7. Jesus, thy feast we celebrate,
We show thy death, we sing thy name,
Till thou return, and we shall eat
The marriage-supper of the Lamb.

Of course, there are also at least 28 other sacrament hymns that include imagery that speaks of the atonement. I’m sure there are also many more recent poems (undoubtedly some that aren’t hymns at all) that use this imagery.

Still, I would have thought there would be more than I found — it almost makes me wonder if the subject of the atonement is so intimidating that artists shy away from it. If true, I have to admit that I understand that feeling.

5 comments for “Literary BMGD #8: Twas on that dark, that solemn night

  1. I like it. The pragmatist in me wonders if it was cut simply because of the (now) general rule of thumb that we don’t sing more than three or four verses at a time and this hymn doesn’t have any easy truncation points.

    A Selection of Shape-Note Folk Hymns: From Southern Unites States Tune Books, 1816-61 edited by David W. Music. notes that the hymn is written by Issac Watts. It further notes it was first published in 1719 and sung to a tune called “Rockbridge.”

    This blog further notes that Watts was asn “Anglican Non-Conformist; Attacked by Calvinist Jonathan Edwards.”

    I don’t know how reliable either source is.

  2. Janell, thanks for your research. Somehow when I searched I didn’t find any non-Mormon sources for the hymn.

    Of course, the fact that it is by Watts is not surprising, given that our current hymnal still has many of his hymns in it (a quick look at the Church’s music site shows 10 Watts hymns in the current hymnal, including He Died! The Great Redeemer Died (#192), Joy to the World (#201), Sweet is the Work (#147) and O God, Our Help in Ages Past (#31).

  3. I’ve always regretted a bit that Joy to the World has been relegated to the Christmas season. It’s such a happy song and one that could just as easily be about Easter or the Second Coming as it is about Christmas.

    Out of curiosity, I just skimmed the Sacrament hymns in the current hymnal (#169-#196). I was surprised to see that they only touch the Atonement lightly. They’re more a collection of poetic prayers about the sacrament: what its symbols are, why the sacrament is taken, that we need to repent, why the Atonement was needed, what the symbols teach us, and what blessings we may receive by partaking it. The bulk of the hymns are more centered on the sinner’s experience than that of the Savior’s Atonement.

    These are the nearest hymns I noticed in terms of being comparably “graphic” to verse 4 of Watt’s hymn:

    #184 Upon the Cross of Calvary describes the Savior’s death on the cross, but it’s not as detailed as to the pains born as Watt’s poem.

    #185 Reverently and Meekly Now is unique in that it’s written as the Savior speaking. “Think what I for thee have done. With my blood that dripped like rain, Sweat and agony of pain, With my body on the tree I have ransomed even thee.”

    #191 Behold the Great Redeemer Die Eliza R Snow goes into much detail about the agony on the cross.

    You may be right in that artists tends to shy away from the intimidating subject of the Atonement. I know from personal experience that it’s much easier to teach and talk about the symbols of the Atonement rather than the Atonement itself. Now, when you start digging into the symbols they do teach interesting things about the Atonement, but it’s still not the same as discussing the topic directly. Perhaps it’s because it’s such an important and sacred topic, yet perhaps also it’s because it is such a difficult subject to understand and studying it in depth quickly leads towards questions to which we don’t have answers.

  4. Great observations, Janell — the stuff that could make is own post. I’ll now be on the look out for poems and other works that more significantly and deeply explore the atonement.

    And I appreciate your look at the other sacrament hymns and how graphic they may be. Fascinating.

    Given all this, I guess there is probably room for more sacrament hymns, especially those that talk more deeply about the atonement.

  5. Thanks Kent. I love the posts for 2012. It seems there is a greater quantity of direct gospel posts as opposed to the peripheral stuff.

    Great thoughts Janell. I feel that way as well!

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