It’s impossible to talk about hymns for very long without running into that hymn making machine that was Charles Wesley. While he is most famous–and justly so–for his Christmas offering , he wrote some 6000 hymns.
A Charge to Keep I Have is not a well known hymn. In fact, I have never once sung it. But that doesn’t mean it’s n ot important. In fact, it was the basis for the original title of George W. Bush’s pre-Presidential book, from which we can only conclude that it continues to have a presence within the Methodist tradition (I have not verified this). What’s more, judging by the Amazon listing for versions of the song, it seems to have a home within the black gospel movement.
But what really turned me on to it was Theron Brown and Hezekiah Butterworth’s delightful treatment of the song in their collection of background to hymns. They write:
This hymn of Charles Wesley was often heard at the camp grounds, from the rows of tents in the morning while the good women prepared their pancakes and coffee, and the tune was invariably old “Kentucky” by Jeremiah Ingalls.
Sung as a solo by a sweet and spirited voice, it slightly resembled “Golden Hill,” but oftener its halting bars invited a more drawling style of execution unworthy of a hymn that merits a tune like “St. Thomas.” Old “Kentucky” was not field music.
The words are, of course, insightful. But where Wesley poeticized them, it was the classic evangelical expositor Matthew Henry who provided their substance:
We have every one of us a charge to keep, an eternal God to glorify, an immortal soul to provide for, needful duty to be done, our generation to serve; and it must be our daily care to keep this charge, for it is the charge of the Lord our Master, who will shortly call us account about it, and it is our utmost peril if we neglect it. Keep it “that ye die not”; it is death, eternal death, to betray the trust that we are charged with; by the consideration of this we must be kept in awe.
Here’s Wesley’s version:
A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.
The language of ‘the sky’ inevitably piques my interest. And let’s face it: the combination of the ‘never-dying soul to save’ and ‘the sky’ encapsulates the central critique of classical evangelical spirituality. But, as is often the case, there are other verses to this hymn.
To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!
The charge to keep is, in this case, one that wholly orients Wesley toward the present age. We stand not in a relationship of transformation or of conversion, but a relationship of service.
Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!
Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall for ever die.
Here’s the interesting feature of this song, and of Henry’s point: the emphasis on the eternality of the soul and the judgment of God creates pressure to account well for the time and resources that we are given, and that pressure isn’t soul-destroying or anxiety inducing, but moves the soul toward prayer and acknowledging its dependency upon God.
Which is to say, the eternality of the soul raises the stakes of the charge we have been given. While in some cases it might lead to a sense of escapism, here it works in the opposite direction. The stewardship we show has consequences well beyond the moment that we exercise it.