Reading the Hymns: A Charge to Keep I Have

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.

email
  • http://twitter.com/ScottAniol ScottAniol

    Good commentary on a good hymn. http://j.mp/9YiFhP

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

    Matt,
    I’m taking the bait. You refer to the central critique of classic evangelicalism being a focus on the next world and on evangelism and then contrast that (transformation, conversion) with service. This contrast, while making for a nice point of contention between new and old evangelicals, is scarcely compatible with the old evangelicalism and, as Wesley aptly points out in his hymn, is one that dissolves when we consider why we ought serve others. We ought to serve others because God has given us this charge and will hold us accountable to it at the Last Judgment and the service he charges us with is to do the will of the Master.

    There is no contrast here between old evangelical pie-in-the-sky piety and gritty new evangelical social justice. The latter gains all its impetus from an unswerving commitment to God and a strong belief that we will be called home one day, but will also be called to give an accounting for our actions. In other words, the transformation and conversion necessarily precede the service.

  • Pingback: Web Pulse – April 11, 2010 | Religious Affections Ministries

  • http://www.gloria-deo.blogspot.com Daniel

    I’m a faithful United Methodist Christian myself and am happy to verify for you that this song, while not used as frequently as some of Wesley’s other hymns, has been sung in a couple of different United Methodist Churches that I’ve been invovled with in Louisiana and Texas.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    Tex,

    I’m not sure I understand. I think you’re saying everything I wanted to say, except more clearly and forcefully. My goal was to point out that the classic evangelical emphasis on the soul led to a distinctly new evangelical focus: serving this world. I was utterly ambiguous when I mentioned “transformation” and “conversion.” I actually intended (in my mind alone) those to be referring not to the individual, but to our relationship with culture.

    This was clearly a failed effort on my part. Thanks for cleaning up my mess.

    And Daniel, that warms my heart to hear! While I’m not a huge fan of the tune, the words are too good to be forgotten.

    Maybe someone should take up the mantle of creating accompaniment more befitting of its words?

    matt

  • http://lakeshawomack.com LaKesha Womack

    Thank you for publishing the background of this song. It was a favorite of my late grandfather and is sung quite often in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church.

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      LaKesha, thanks for the kind words! It really is a good tune. : )

  • winnns

    It’s been several years since the last comment; I do hope someone reads my comment – I hope Mathew sees it. It’s just gone into 2014, and for the first time in many years I decided to spend a quiet evening and chant “We praise thee oh God…”. It reminds me of when I was very young and my Mum and her sisters would break into this chant at midnight on New Year’s Eve. I felt like going that route, and was filled with something special which brought this song to mind. Interestingly, just like one of a previous commenter, the song happens to be one of my late grandfather’s hymns. At a very young age I found it to be very special; we had a different tune for it which I think you would find quite richer. It’s an old Anglican tune, absolutely beautiful.
    I cherish this hymn, and find it to have a very deep meaning and message. I’m glad you feel the way you do about it.

  • Tiffany

    I love this hymn :)!!