Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Cross To Bear

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 5, 2015

Every once in a while, you may hear someone say that a difficult situation is the cross they have to bear.  What they mean by that is that they must accept an unpleasant situation or responsibility because there is no way to avoid dealing with it.  What’s more, it’s a situation or responsibility that can’t be shared or passed along to someone else.  The idiom refers to an emotional or mental burden that brings with it a marked amount of stress and suffering, and, despite its origins, has nothing to do with a physical burden.

The expression, of course, alludes to the crucifixion of Christ who was made to carry his own cross as was the custom during Roman Times.

The idiom was used in the Herald-Journal on January 4, 2007 in an article about the diverse student population and how there were concerns that displaying a cross in the sanctuary in the campus chapel at Virginia’s College of William and Mary might upset some of the non-Christian students attending there.  The second oldest college in America, it was founded at the request of the Anglican Church.  The article by J.R. Labbe was entitled, “Is Tolerating Tolerance A College’s Cross To Bear?

You might wonder if the idiom always has a religious aspect to it.  It doesn’t.  On March 28, 1957 the Milwaukee Sentinel published a news story entitled, “Resemblance to James Dean Riles Actor Dean Stockwell.”  The former child actor was now a striking 20-year-old in film and while his portfolio of performances was impressive, he wasn’t finding himself on easy street.  In fact, the article reported this:

All is not rosy for young Stockwell.  He has a cross to bear:  The late James Dean.  He has the same hair and much the same brooding handsomeness of Dean.

The “Class Leader’s Treasury” by respected Methodist Pastor, Reverend John Bate, was published in March of 1881, and published by the Wesleyan Conference Office in England.  Reverend Bate was also the author of “Cyclopedia of Illustrations of Moral and Religious Truths.”  It’s on page 440 of the “Class Leader’s Treasury” that the following is found:

You would find a heavier cross to bear on turning back than you have to bear in going forward, to say nothing of what you would find when you came to the City of Destruction.

It was undoubtedly a favorite expression of religious men, and it was used in a poem collected by Reverend John Newton, Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch Haw Churches, and included in the “Olney Hymns In Three Books” published on February 15, 1779.  He attributes the poem to the late Dr. Watts. This was part of Hymn 51 in “Book 1 on Select Texts of Scripture.”

Lord, we return thee what we can!
Our heart shall sound abroad,
Salvation, to the dying Man,
And to the rising God!

And while thy bleeding glories here
Engage our wond’ring eyes,
We learn our lighter cross to bear,
And hasten to the skies.

It was used in 1607 to refer to the act of suffering troubles patiently.  It was in the play by John Webster and Thomas Dekker titled, “The Famous Historie of Sir Thomas Wyat” in scene 14 that the term was used.  As you may or may  not know, The Wyatt Rebellion was led by Tudor courtier Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger (his father being English poet and ambassador Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder) during the reign of Mary I of England.

It was, however, in a letter to Catharine of Aragon (16 December 1485 – 7 January 1536), written by Dutch Renaissance humanist, social critic, and theologian Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (27 October 1466 – 12 July 1536) — also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam — that the idiom is found. The letter was written after her divorce from Henry VIII in 1533.

It is most rare to find a lady born and reared in courts, who binds her hope on acts of devotion, and finding her solace in the word of God. Would that others, more especially widows, would learn to follow your example; and not widows only, but unmarried ladies too, for what so good as the service of Christ? He is the Rock — the Spouse of pious souls — and nearer than the nearest humanitie. A soul devoted to this Husband is at peace alike in good and evil times. He knows what is best for all; and is often kindest when He seems to turn the honey into gall. Every one has his cross to bear; without that cross no soul can enter into rest!”

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this idiom, and therefore, it’s assumed that the saying, “we all have our cross to bear” is thanks to Erasmus, dating back to 1533.

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