Fight the Good Fight


HYMNS in which Christians are portrayed as warriors seem to have a special resonance these days, and Fight the Good Fight is one of the best.

The words were written by John Samuel Bewley Monsell (1811-1875) and published in Hymns of Love and Praise for the Church’s Year in 1863.

Monsell was born in Londonderry, the son of an archdeacon. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and ordained priest in 1835. The same year he married Anne Waller. Their eldest son Thomas died at the age of 18 in a shipwreck off Italy on the way to fight in the Crimean War in 1855.

In 1853 Monsell was appointed vicar of Egham, near Windsor. This is where he wrote Fight the Good Fight and another hymn which is still popular, O Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness.

In 1870 he became rector of St Nicolas, Guildford, Surrey, and a chaplain to Queen Victoria. During his time at St Nicolas the church was rebuilt, and while Monsell was inspecting the work on the roof in 1875 he fell to the ground, and later died.

The hymn is based on St Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, Chapter 6, verse 12: ‘Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.’ (King James Bible)

Fight the good fight with all thy might;
Christ is thy strength, and Christ thy right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.

Run the straight race through God’s good grace,
Lift up thine eyes, and seek His face;
Life with its way before us lies,
Christ is the path, and Christ the prize.

Cast care aside, upon thy guide,
Lean, and His mercy will provide;
Lean, and the trusting soul shall prove
Christ is its life, and Christ its love.

Faint not nor fear, His arms are near,
He changeth not, and thou art dear.
Only believe, and thou shalt see
That Christ is all in all to thee.

The tune I know is Duke Street, by John Warrington Hatton (c1710- 1793), about whom very little is known except that he lived on Duke Street in Warrington, that he was probably a Presbyterian, and that he was reportedly killed in a stagecoach accident.

Here it is by the Choir of First Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska.

This is a performance by the Woodfalls Band, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. 

Another tune is Pentecost, written in 1864 by William Boyd (1847-1928). Boyd was born in Jamaica, and attended Hurstpierpoint College, a boarding school in Sussex. One of his teachers was Sabine Baring-Gould, the writer of Onward Christian Soldiers, which I wrote about here. Boyd subsequently studied at Wor­ces­ter Col­lege, Ox­ford. While he was there Baring-Gould, by now a curate in the West Yorkshire parish of Horbury Bridge, asked him to com­pose a tune to Come Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire, to be sung at a large meet­ing of York­shire col­liers.

This work is attributed to Rabanus Maurus (ca. 780-856), an archbishop of Mainz, and translated in 1627 by John Cosin (1595-1672), an Anglican priest who became Bishop of Durham. It has a long history of use for the celebration of Pentecost, the sending of the Holy Spirit to empower and commission the ministry of Christ’s church. It was sung to a plainsong melody, as here:

Presumably Baring-Gould thought his miners would prefer a jollier tune.

This is Boyd’s account from the Musical Times of 1908:

‘I walked, talked, slept and ate with the words, and at last evolved the tune which I na­tur­al­ly named Pen­te­cost. [He contributed it to the 1868 collection Thirty-Two Hymn Tunes Composed by Members of the Un­i­ver­si­ty of Ox­ford].

‘One day, as I was walk­ing along Re­gent Street I felt a slap on my back, and turn­ing around saw my dear old friend Arthur Sullivan. My dear Bil­ly, he said, I’ve seen a tune of yours which I must have. (He was then ed­it­ing Church Hymns) All right, I said, send me a cheque and I agree. No co­py of the book, much less a proof was sent to me, and when I saw the tune I was hor­ri­fied to find that Sul­li­van had as­signed it to Fight the good fight!

‘We had a regular fis­ti­cuffs about it, but judg­ing from the fa­vour with which the tune has been re­ceived, I feel that Sul­li­van was right in so mat­ing words and mu­sic.’

Boyd was ordained an Ang­li­can priest in 1877 and became vicar at All Saints Church in Nor­folk Square, Lon­don.

Here is a lovely old recording said to have featured in the film Chariots of Fire, though I can’t find the clip:

And here is a modern setting of the hymn by the English composer John Gardner (1917-2011).

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