Sunday I preached at Camden Town Methodist Church and it happened to be my last service in pastoral charge of that congregation. It wasn’t really a goodbye because I will remain Superintendent Minister and I will still be preaching there from time to time. However with the arrival of a new minister Revd Donghwan Kim, who will assume duties on 1st September and a reorientation of my own responsibilities in the circuit, I did have a sense of moving on – which was one of the reasons for chosing ‘Captain of Israel’s host’ as the last hymn – and my hymn of the week. The other reason is because the ‘continuous’ option of Old testament readings has now moved into the cycle of stories about the Exodus, an event which is specifically referenced in the hymn, characteristically reapplied by the writer Charles Wesley to the church.
The hymn was originally published in Short Hymns on Select passages of the Holy Scriptures (1762) and it is short – just two verses – although in some hymnals it has been been attached to verses from other hymns to form a longer composite. The passage in question here is Exodus 13:21: “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night.”
Companions to Hymns and Psalms comments: “Here the pilgrims have as their end the glory of the Lord, but they are led by the Holy Spirit (not by the pillars of cloud and fire) and accompanied by ‘love, almighty love’.”
A quick note on the tune. In British Methodism it is invariably sung to MARIANLYST, composed by John W. David, a Guernsey Methodist. I was surprised to discover that apart from a single hymnal, the association of words and tune only goes back to the an event in 1932 celebrating Methodist Union. The following year the hymn was published to this tune in the Methodist Hymn Book, since when they have been inseparable.
‘Captain of Israel’s host’ has a special place in the heart of British Methodism, for it is traditionally sung at the end of the annual Conference. It is loved by members of other denominations too, as I was reminded after the service on Sunday when one of our Ghanaian adherents, a Presbyterian by upbringing, commented that it was good to end with a “Presbyterian hymn”. I told him that it was written by Charles Wesley, to which he answered “he must have got it from the Presbyterians”. To which I had no reply.
Captain of Israel’s host, and Guide
Of all who seek the land above,
Beneath Thy shadow we abide,
The cloud of Thy protecting love;
Our strength, Thy grace; our rule, Thy Word;
Our end, the glory of the Lord.
By Thine unerring Spirit led,
We shall not in the desert stray;
The light of man’s direction need
Or miss our providential way;
As far from danger as from fear,
While Love, almighty Love, is near.