The Fascinating Story Behind the Beloved Hymn “The Head That Once Was Crowned.”

Written by on May 12, 2024

There are few hymns more poignant and theologically rich than “The Head That Once Was Crowned.” Written in the early 19th century by Thomas Kelly, its stirring lyrics recount Christ’s journey from suffering to glory in a way that is deeply moving and compelling. However, what many may not realize is that the backstory behind how this hymn came to be is almost as remarkable as the hymn itself.

Tragedy Sparks a Work of Worship

In 1827, Kelly’s five-year-old daughter Anna suddenly fell ill and passed away. Devastated by her death, Kelly struggled with immense grief and questioning of God. One night, as he sat alone contemplating Anna’s short life, his anger gave way to repentance and his sorrow found resolution in focusing on Christ’s own suffering. Inspired by this, Kelly began putting his thoughts and newly restored faith to paper.

The result was “The Head That Once Was Crowned,” which powerfully describes Jesus’ journey from crown of thorns to crown of glory. Through the lyrics, Kelly processed his own pain by meditating on Christ’s ultimate victory over suffering and death. Rather than allowing his loss to consume him, Kelly chose to transform it into an act of worship.

Deeper Meaning in the Metaphors

A closer examination of the hymn’s lyrics reveals layers of spiritual insight and depth. The “crown of thorns” speaks to Christ’s humiliation, while the “crown” he now wears represents his exaltation. References to his “bleeding brow” and “wrath” endured emphasize his atoning work on the cross. And lines about robes, honor, and glory all highlight aspects of Christ’s present reign over all things.

In just a few verses, Kelly manages to beautifully summarize the gospel story—from incarnation to crucifixion to resurrection to second coming. The imagery is both graphically vivid yet profoundly tender. Reading it, one senses Kelly’s own healing taking place as he meditates on the risen Lord whom he served even in his greatest hour of sorrow.

A Hymn for the Ages

Over 190 years since its writing, “The Head That Once Was Crowned” remains deeply cherished within Christendom. Its poignant, profound message of hope in God has ministered to countless believers experiencing their own dark nights of the soul. Rather than being confined to the past, Kelly’s lyrical meditation continues speaking life and light to each new generation that discovers it. Its place in the history of hymnody is a testament to how God can transform even our deepest pains into a bounty of praise.

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