This hymn was written by James Montgomery (1771-1854), who was born in Scotland of Irish parents. His father, John Montgomery, was a Moravian pastor—apparently the only Moravian pastor serving in Scotland at the time.
Montgomery’s parents felt a call to serve as missionaries on the island of Barbados, West Indies, in the Caribbean. When James was only five years old, his parents departed for the West Indies, leaving James with a Moravian group in County Antrim, Ireland. His parents died in the West Indies a few years later, so James never saw them again. One wonders how well he remembered his parents—and whether he resented them for abandoning him at such an early age.
The Moravians made it possible for James to enter Fulneck Seminary in Yorkshire, but that turned out to be a bad fit. James had the soul of a poet, and poetry was banned at Fulneck. In 1787, he apprenticed himself to a baker, which also proved unsuitable. He bounced from pillar to post during his late teens.
But in 1792 he began working for Joseph Gales, who published the Sheffield Register, a local newspaper. Gales supported a number of radical causes, and in 1794 was forced to flee to Germany to avoid prosecution. Montgomery, although still in his early 20s, was able to gain control of the newspaper, and changed its name to Sheffield Iris. Under his leadership, the paper continued its radical bent for more than three decades—advocating such seditious causes as abolition. Montgomery was twice imprisoned for his editorials, but his imprisonments only added to his popularity.
As a young man, Montgomery drifted from the faith, but as he matured he returned to the Moravian church and became an advocate for Christian missions.
In the hymn, “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” Montgomery recounts Jesus’ Gethsemane experience, as told in Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-51; Luke 22:39-53; John 18:1-11. The place is called Gethsemane in the Matthew and Mark accounts and Mount of Olives in the Luke account. In John’s account, it is simply called a garden. The Mount of Olives was a series of three peaks just east of Jerusalem. Gethsemane (meaning “oil press”) was probably located on one of those peaks.
The story is familiar. Anticipating his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus went to Gethsemane to pray. He asked his disciples to “watch with me” (Matthew 26:36), but they fell asleep as Jesus prayed—not once, but twice.
Then Judas arrived with the chief priest, the elders of the people, and an armed crowd. Peter struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear, but Jesus repaired the damage and rebuked Peter. The authorities arrested Jesus and took him to the council (the ruling authority for the Jews) to be tried. The disciples, seeing Jesus arrested, fled for their lives.
In this hymn, the first verse invites us to go to Gethsemane to experience “the tempter’s power”—and to watch with Christ in his agony—and to “learn of Jesus Christ to pray.”
The second verse invites us to see Jesus “in the judgment hall”—where he was “beaten, bound, revised, arraigned.” It further invites us to “learn of Christ to bear the cross.”
The third verse invites us to climb the mount of Calvary—and to hear him say, “It is finished” (John 19:30). It further invites us to “learn of Jesus Christ to die.”
The fourth verse happily sings, “Christ is risen!”—and invites us to pray, “Savior, teach us so to rise.”
The point of this hymn is that we can learn much from Jesus as we see him experiencing his death and resurrection. Hopefully, we will hear of Jesus’ death and resurrection often in sermons and song. The Lord’s Supper is especially powerful in helping us to remember those events.
(NOTE: Check these words against the words in your hymnal. Adjust for differences.)
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan