William Featherstone (1848-1875) Tune: Adoniram Judson Gordon (1836-1895)
1. My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine; For thee all the follies of sin I resign; My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou; If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now.
2. I love thee because thou hast first loved me And purchased my pardon on Calvary's tree; I love thee for wearing the thorns on thy brow; If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now.
3. I'll love thee in life, I will love thee in death, And praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath, And say when the deathdew lies cold on my brow: If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now.
4. In mansions of glory and endless delight, I'll ever adore thee in heaven so bright; I'll sing with the glittering crown on my brow: If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now.
This is one of those hymns that has been in every Gospel songbook over the past 150 years. I thought it had slipped away, but now one can find hundreds of performances of it with millions and millions of viewers on Youtube—from Gospel to contemporary.
Over the past almost four months or so that I have been doing this, I have discovered something that should not have surprised me, but does. The old saw is true: What do grandparents and grandchildren have in common? The same enemy. The younger generation loves the old hymns their grandparents loved! Many of the hymns I sang in Sunday school and Bible study are incredibly popular on the web.
The generation just above me, those in charge of making new hymnals in the 1970s, from what is called the Silent Generation, wanted to change the past, update it, so the hymnal and the hymns in it would speak to the new generation, the baby boomers, who had been overthrowing tradition in the late 1960s. That effort failed. The baby boomers, for the most part, with their contemporary worship movement, eschewed the traditional hymns, revised or not, and wrote their own. But now their children are reacting against their parents in time honored fashion.
Once, at a conference of hymnologists, I attended a hymn sing led by a band from the next generation, the children of the boomers. The audience, many of them editors of the 1970s wave of mainline hymnals which we (I was among them) had edited to keep out images thought politically incorrect, inappropriate, or old fashioned. We kept saying we were preparing hymnals for the next generation, really the baby boomers. They did not appear to like them. The result was the contemporary worship movement that threw away hymnals--anything old--and moved to the screen.
Now we were hearing what their children wanted to sing. They did not use the hymnals of the Silent generation either. They wanted the hymns of the Greatest Generation, their grandparents. They were reveling in the discoveries they had made in the old gospel song books, hymns with fountains filled with blood, brides of Christ, images that the editors of the mainline hymnals had tried to spare them. They were singing their hearts out to hymns that had been dropped by both the hymnal editors and the contemporary worship movement.
It was a delicious moment. If one lives a long enough one can see the results of a debate and decisions that were made in one's youth. It is not always pretty, but always interesting.
Every generation needs it own song, for sure. But it is always surprising to see how they find it in the past. As Martin Luther learned in his Reformation, you make something new by going back to the beginnings. So here is this old gospel song that was sung fervently at camp meetings, revivals, Sunday schools, and so on, coming back, now with a beat.
This old chestnut has a text that is authentic, maybe, just a profession of love for Jesus. It is fairly conventional and of a piece with others like it. But it has its charms, maybe in its form. Filled with repetitions, in its lines and rhymes, it is not complicated at all, but deeply Scriptural and filled with hope for heaven. The surprising thing is, this was not written by an old person waiting for the end. As far as we can tell, Featherstone was around twelve to sixteen when he wrote the hymn. Maybe that accounts for the purity of the work.
Featherstone died young, at twenty-seven. We know so little about him that we don’t know if he had a lingering illness that acquainted him with suffering or death. All we know is that the song is still sung by millions of people who find its profession of love for Jesus to be their own. Most of the hymns I point readers to on Youtube have thousands of viewers, if that many. Views of this hymn and its various settings are in the millions. The hymn looks so steadfastly at Jesus, his life and death for us, and all he has done to bring us to himself. A simple song, but like most things simple, filled with riches it may take a lifetime, and more, to fathom.
Featherstone was Canadian. He lived in Montreal, and attended a Methodist church there. Before he died, he sent the text to his aunt who gave it to Gordon. Adoniram Judson Gordon (named for the famous missionary to Burma) belonged to the group of many musicians and composers who worked with Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey. Gordon, a pastor’s son from New Hampshire, had a conversion experience when he was fifteen and felt the call to be a pastor. He attended Brown University and then Newton Theological school, graduating in 1863. He went on to serve a Baptist church in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He would speak at the summer Moody revival meetings in Northfield, MA, and wrote a number of tunes for Gospel songs. He founded Gordon Bible Institute to train missionaries for work in the Congo. The school became part of what is now Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Among his many writings, The Ministry of Healing, is still in print. His most often quoted sentence was, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.”