On Maundy Thursday, April 9, we will sing When Jesus died to save us, a two stanza hymn consisting of the first stanza written by F. Bland Tucker (1895-1984) and the second by John Donne (1573-1631). F. Bland Tucker has many pieces in our Hymnal 1984. Although Tucker is the author of a number of original compositions, he is perhaps better known for his translations of hymns from the original Latin or Greek into English. One of the fun things about singing this hymn is observing the contrast between Tucker’s Twentieth Century American English and Donne’s Elizabethan English.
John Donne was born in 1572, the son of Roman Catholic parents -- his father a London merchant in the ironmonger trade, and his mother the great niece of Sir Thomas More, martyr at the hands of King Henry VIII. He entered Oxford University at age twelve, and is believed to have continued his education at Cambridge University. However, he was never awarded a degree from either because, as a practicing Roman Catholic, he could not take the oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth I, head of the Church of England.
Donne later converted to Anglicanism, although the exact time is unknown, and he secretly married the daughter of Sir George More, chancellor of the garter in December 1601. As a result of his controversial marriage, he was unable to obtain a career in public service, but in 1614 King James I encouraged him, with the support of his friends, to pursue Holy Orders. He was ordained priest on January 23, 1615, and experienced a quick rise in his religious vocation becoming, among other things, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Donne quickly became noted for the eloquence of his sermons. He established himself as one of the Anglican Divines, a group of priestly scholars, including Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes, who, in their academic writings, fleshed out the theological approach of the Anglican Church and how it differed from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, especially with regard to the sacramental nature of The Eucharist.
In addition to his scholarly and theological writings, Donne became a prolific poet and produced a body of poetry that influenced the Nineteenth Century Romantic Poets such as William Butler Yeats, Robert Browning, and T.S. Eliot. John Donne fell upon his last illness, stomach cancer, but rose from his death bed to preach his last sermon, Death’s Duell, considered by many to be his own requiem sermon, from which he returned to his bed and died March 31, 1631.