Monday, April 28, 2014

Hymns & Hymn Writers: I Have Decided to Follow Jesus by David R. Kenney

The name of the person who uttered these words has been obscured, but his family’s story is one that ought to give every Christian a reason to think about their commitment to Jesus Christ.  The story is a powerful one as can be seen by the number of hands who have kept the story alive in the form of this song we sing.  The words became a popular Indian Folk Hymn based on an Indian Melody with a meter of to the tune which would be called ASSAM.
William Jensen Reynolds (1920 - present), Arrangement
In 1959, William J. Reynolds arranged this tune which would appear in the Assembly Songbook which was published by Broadman Press in 1959.  The song and story was made popular during one of the Billy Graham Crusades; however, one should keep in mind that the events of this story happened many years prior to the birth of Billy Graham.  
John Clark (1784-1872), Lyricist
John Clark supplied the third stanza of the song which reads “My cross I’ll carry till I see Jesus.”  He worked with William Jensen Reynolds in the final arrangement of the hymn that we have in many of our songbooks.  In the songbook edited and compiled by V. E. Howard, Church Gospel Songs & Hymns, it states of the first two stanzas were sung by Garo Christians.  Garo is the name of the tribe in the province of Assam of the country of India where the story behind the song occurred.  
Sandhu Sunder Singh (1889-1929), Lyricist & Arranger in India  
Singh is the one we can credit with this story’s preservation.  He worked in India to train missionaries to evangelize the country of India.  He was brought up in the religion of Sikhism, but he converted to Christianity in spite of the anger of his family including being almost poisoned by his brother.  Although he did not follow the Anglican Church, he was baptized, apparently by immersion, by an Anglican priest in 1905.  He renounced being a Sikh by cutting off his hair, and he would work to spread Christianity in India in a way that would be accepted the culture of India.  He was reported to carry no possessions or money, just a New Testament.  He was the one who took the report of what happened, formed the events into an Indian hymn which was re-arranged later by others in the format we sing today.  
I Have Decided To Follow Jesus
The story behind I Have Decided To Follow Jesus is one of a man of the village of Garo in an area known as Assam of northeastern India.  He was a husband and father of two children.  The village was known for its head-hunting culture.  A young man’s strength and might was viewed by the number of heads he collected and hung on his property.  Women would measure a man’s worth by his ability to be able to provide as demonstrated by the number of heads collected.
In the 1800s there was a large evangelistic effort made to convert the country of India to Christianity.  Missionaries came from several parts of the world to bring Christianity to India.  They focused on the area of northern India which was dominated by Hinduism of the most vicious types known as head-hunters.  This missionary effort was led largely by Indian missionaries that were working with these other countries.  Many of the Indian missionaries were killed by head-hunters in this campaign.  
There was a Welsh missionary who witnessed what happened to the first converts he had made in this village of Garo in Assam (which is the name for the tune of this song).  He had converted a husband and wife who had two sons.  When the village chief sought to make an example of them, he held the archers at the ready to threaten this family to renounce Christ.  When asked for their reply, the father stated “I have decided to follow Jesus, and there is no turning back.”  So the archers struck down the two boys.  When they threatened the man’s wife with the same if they refused to renounce Christ, they were reported to have said “Though no one joins me, still I will follow.”  The archers killed the wife.  As they took aim at the father, he was reported to have said “The cross before me, the world behind me.”  They shot him dead as well.  The village chief thought for some time about the incident and then he decided to follow Jesus too.  He realized he could not break their commitment to the point of death so that was true strength.  The whole village was moved and converted to Christianity as well.  The event was reported by the Welsh missionary to Sanhu Sundar Singh who was an Indian missionary at the time.  He took the words and put them to an Indian tune.  It is recognized as among the first Christian hymns unique to Christians in India to this day.  Eventually, the story and words would reach George Beverly Shea, a Canadian songwriter, who popularized it with the Billy Graham Crusade, and in time it was formed into the version we sing today.
Some versions of the song include additional verses such as “Though I may wonder, I still will follow” and “Will you decide now to follow Jesus?”  There is opposition to the song in denominational circles, particularly those influenced by Calvinism and the concept of Unconditional Election which holds that God is the one who chooses the ones for salvation, not the person.  This choice or election, according to Calvinism, was made by God before the foundation of the world.  Notice this statement from Wikipedia:  “Due to the lyrics’ explicit focus on the believer’s own commitment, the hymn is cited as a prime example of decision theology, emphasizing the human response rather than the action of God in giving faith.  This has led to its exclusion from some hymnals.”  This is an unjust criticism on two major counts.
First, God chose, but He chose to save us “In Him” or “In Christ” before the foundation of the world.  He did not choose us individually before the foundation of the world.  He has left the decision of whether or not we will be baptized into Christ to us, but we cannot be saved outside of Christ (Galatians 3:27).  Walter Scott made this plain when he was preaching in a small church in New Lisbon, Ohio on November 18, 1827 when he asked if there would be any who would choose to obey the gospel by being baptized just as they were given the choice to do in Acts 2.  Walter Scott asked “The Scriptures shall no longer be a sealed book.  God means what he says.  Is there any man present who will take God at his word, and be baptized for the remission of sins?” (William Baxter, Life of Elder Water Scott, p. 113)  That night, William Amend stepped forward in response to the call of the gospel trusting the New Testament’s invitation to be a child of God.  This freedom of choice is what Calvinists attack; however, they have overlooked the context of the song.
The second mistake people make is failing to realize this song was written by someone who was already a Christian and was being pressed to renounce Christ in the face of the ultimate form of persecution—losing your closest loved ones and even forfeiting your own life too.  Jesus said, “When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, ‘Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it’” (Mark 8:34-35, NKJV.)  
Have you once made the decision to follow Jesus but turned back?  Now is the time to turn again, the meaning of repentance, and follow Jesus with no turning back!  
Assembly Songbook, Nashville, TN:  Broadman Press, 1959.
V. E. Howard, Editor, and Broadus E. Smith, Associate Editor, Church Gospel Songs & Hymns, Texarkana, TX:  Central Printers & Publishers, 1983.
John P. Wiegand, Editor, Praise for the Lord, Nashville, TN:  Praise Press, 1997.


Helen said...

Thank you for giving us this awesome history of this song.

I've sang it many times and this is the first I've heard of the background.

May we all be so resolute in our decision to follow Jesus Christ, the Light of this dark world.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this story and an elaboration regarding the doctrine of election. I am a Garo from the same tribe and region as the man behind the song. And since ive come to faith in Christ by His grace, this song has never failed to stir deep emotions. We are indebted to the American Baptist as well as the Catholic missionaries for preaching God's word and directing us to Christ.