“I have decided to follow Jesus” is a polarizing hymn. Made popular by the Billy Graham crusades, it is inseparable from the concept of altar calls and emotional pleading. For some, it stands as a sort of Arminian anthem—a testimony to the power of human volition and an example of all that is wrong with modern Christian lyrics. For others, it is a song celebrating the simplicity of conversion–simple and sincere.
But when you know the story behind the song, you realize that it is not a statement about free will, nor about the ease of placing your faith in Christ. It actually stands as a monument to the international nature of the gospel, as well as a radical call to suffer and die with Jesus.
The late 1800’s saw an evangelistic explosion in India. Entire provinces formally closed to the gospel were swept up a missionary movement perhaps unparalleled in history. Wales in particular sent hundreds of missionaries to Northern India, and they were joined by Indian evangelists, as well as missionaries from England, Australia, and the United States. This movement was remarkable for two reasons; first, it was led mostly by Indians themselves, and those men became national figures. Second, this missionary endeavor was focused on Northern India, which was firmly in the grips of the most oppressive forms of Hinduism. It was a place where the caste system was entrenched, and where headhunters ruled.
These provinces often prided themselves on the hostile reaction they gave foreigners. Dozens and dozens of these missionaries were martyred, but despite the opposition and violence (or perhaps because of it) the gospel made inroads into this previously off-limits area.
In the 1880’s a Welsh missionary who had endured severe persecution finally saw his first converts in a particularly brutal village in the Indian province of Assam. A husband and wife, with their two children, professed faith in Christ and were baptized. Their village leaders decided to make an example out of the husband. Arresting the family, they demanded that the father renounce Christ, or see his wife and children murdered. When he refused, his two children were executed by archers. Given another chance to recant, the man again refused, and his wife was similarly stuck down. Still refusing to recant, the man followed his family into glory.
Witnesses later told the story to the Welsh missionary. The reports said that when asked to recant or see his children murdered, the man said: “I have decided to follow Jesus, and there is no turning back.”
After seeing his children killed, he reportedly said, “The world can be behind me, but the cross is still before me.” And after seeing his wife pierced by the arrows, he said, “Though no one is here to go with me, still I will follow Jesus.”
According to this missionary, when he returned to the village, a revival had broken out, and those that had murdered the first converts and since come to faith themselves. The Welsh man passed along these reports to the famous Indian evangelist Sadhu Singh. Singh had risen to prominence in India because he was training foreign missionaries, and a theme in his teaching had been the necessity of avoiding the cultural trappings of Western Christianity. He insisted that the missionaries now pouring into India focus on the essentials of the gospel while allowing the now vibrant Indian Christian community to develop their own Christian customs.
The accounts of the family that had been martyred in Assam were so astonishing and widely circulated that most Indian believers were familiar with it. So Singh took the martyr’s last words, and put them to traditional Indian music in order to make one of the first uniquely Indian hymns. The song immediately became popular in Indian churches, and it remains a mainstay of worship music there to this day.
Eventually some of the American missionaries returned from India and they brought that song with them. Finally, it ended up with Canadian song writer George Beverley Shea, and he made it a staple at the Billy Graham crusades.
When viewed through the lens of Calvinism vs. Arminianism, the song seems decidedly about free will. It can easily strike us as singing about our role in salvation, while minimizing the work of God in regeneration. Yet for the Calvinists, it is helpful to know the history, to understand that not all music was written in the context of debates about God’s role vs. people’s work in salvation. In this song, the word “decided” doesn’t have a minimalistic feel to it, but rather has a once-for-all commitment attached to it; a commitment that the author knew would lead to imminent death.
For those that use this song as an emotional manipulator, or as an example of how easy salvation is, they too should be embarrassed. Nothing could be further from the author’s intent. This song does not capture the ease of making a decision, but rather is about the staggering cost of picking up your cross and following after Christ.
This song reminds me of Christian, from The Pilgrim’s Progress. As his neighbors came out to persuade him not to leave the city and press on to the gate for eternal life, Christian put “his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying ‘Life! Life! Eternal Life!’ So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the Plain.”