Hymn-related dilemmas featured now and again during my East London parish ministry. I recall an occasion about twenty years ago when it struck me just before the service began that an unfortunate choice had been made. That Sunday we were observing World Peace Day: was it appropriate to begin this particular act of worship by singing “Fight the good fight”? These words with their military associations could, I feared, cause offence among our more committed pacifists. A swift negotiation with the organist followed, and though I can’t now remember which hymn I chose as a replacement, the situation as I saw it then was saved.
I say “as I saw it then,” because this happened a decade or more before I joined the Hymn Society. With hindsight my reaction to the hymn in question was superficial rather than considered. Had I been familiar back then, for example, with Ian Bradley’s The Penguin Book of Hymns (London: Penguin, 1999), I would have understood the deeper significance of John Samuel Monsell’s words, and might well have handled the supposed crisis differently.
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.
Bradley perceptively points out that “Fight the good fight” is not, despite its first line, a Christian battle- song in the style of “Onward , Christian soldiers.” Drawing on words from 1 Timothy where we are encouraged to “fight the good fight of faith,” the hymn-writer interprets this as encouragement towards steadfastness rather than warlike confrontation!
In verse two we are challenged to “run the straight race.” Again Monsell’s inspiration comes from a well-known biblical passage, this time providing reassurance: Christ is always within our sight both as our companion on the path we tread and the destination to which we travel.
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.
Resources will be faithfully provided. Verse 3 with its quotation from 1 Peter instructs us to “cast care aside.” No need to fear that reserves of energy will fail: God provides the loving support on whose constant supply we can trust.
The hymn’s final verse contains yet another insight from an Epistle-writer. Monsell incorporates into his last line the words from Colossians “Christ is all, and in all”, summarising the hymn’s overall message: knowing that we are held in God’s unchanging love enables us to live courageously, energetically and joyfully.
It has been interesting these last few days to carry out an informal survey. One HSGBI member holds records (dating back 20 years!) of what was sung on Sundays in her church. “Fight the good fight” features annually at least once or twice until 2014, but then disappears. How come? And how generally well-known is the hymn today? Non-church-going friends of my generation remember its title from their schooldays, but not its central message. “It’s a marching hymn” was one characteristic response, an assumption obviously based on the opening words. Has its somewhat diminished popularity come about principally through the gradually misunderstood opening line? Was it first sung at a time when those attending church would have recognized the scriptural references in use throughout the hymn and would therefore not made that mistake?
Additional reading has provided some amusing glimpses. Erik Routley’s book Hymns and Human Life (London: John Murray, 1952) is appropriately described on its cover as “serious yet entertaining.” Under the heading “Weddings, fashionable and humble” he writes,” The choosing of favourite, rather than appropriate, hymns at weddings…sometimes takes the couple into unexpectedly rough country. Everybody makes the joke about “Fight the good fight” “at weddings, which for all I know has really been chosen at a wedding, and a very good hymn it is too.”
And, rather refreshingly, a friend with whom I shared Routley’s reference to this old joke remarked that in her experience an occasional full-on verbal scrap can actually play a constructive part in a marital relationship! (Perhaps an experience becoming more familiar as lockdown continues!)?
Routley supplies in the same book what he calls a “canon” of hymns which ”the average churchgoing Englishman, fitful or regular, knows, and which he may reasonably expect to hear sung in any parish church.” Not surprisingly, “Fight the good fight” is included in this 1952 list of so-called “national anthems.”
I’m curious about the future of this hymn.
For now, let’s pray using some words written in the mid-19th century
Be our strength in hours of weakness,
In our wanderings be our guide;
Through endeavour, failure, danger,
Father, be thou at our side.