History of Hymns: ‘I Have Decided to Follow Jesus’
By C. Michael Hawn
“I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”
Attr. to Sadhu Sundar Singh
The Faith We Sing, 2129
I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back; no turning back.
Sometimes even a simple hymn may provide problematic challenges for the researcher. Usually hymnologists are able to locate documentation in print or find facsimiles of publications upon which to base their research. Folk songs or hymns of non-Western origin sometimes require researchers to piece together information like a jigsaw puzzle and draw tentative conclusions based on the information at hand. Such is the case of “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” a hymn where traditional sources of scholarship are virtually nonexistent, and a researcher must rely almost totally on internet sources. While internet sources can be helpful, they require careful scrutiny.
Very few hymnals ascribe an author or composer to the song, usually indicating “source unknown” or “anonymous.” Yet, there is no question that this simple, sincere tune is widely sung. Several hymnals produced during the decade of the 1950s include this song, the earliest catalogued in Hymnary.org being Choice Light and Life Songs (Winona Lake, IN, 1950). Baptist hymnologist William J. Reynolds describes the origins of the song as follows:
This is a folk song that originated in India as a song of new converts to Christianity among the Garo tribe who live in an area which is now the state of Meghalaya, but was until 1970, the state of Assam, in northeastern India. William J. Reynolds discovered the song in 1958 in a small undated collection of gospel songs that had been published in Australia. With two original stanzas, and a third by John Clark, the melody was arranged by Reynolds and first published in Assembly Songbook (Nashville, 1959, No. 17). The tune [ASSAM] was named by the arranger for inclusion in Christian Praise (1964). (Reynolds, 1976, p. 191.)
This brief paragraph provides most of the scholarly information available. “John Clark” is one of several pseudonyms used William J. Reynolds. The song appeared in earlier evangelical convention collections before Reynolds found it in an Australian publication. Given the prominence of Reynolds’ work, however, his publication of the song in 1959 and in subsequent hymnals, and his designation of the name ASSAM to the melody appears to have propelled the song into greater usage. Donald P. Hustad, hymnal editor and one-time organist for the Billy Graham Crusades, noted, “This anonymous song appeared in the United States during the 1960’s and was prominently featured in Billy Graham crusade meetings. It may have originated among national Christians in India” (Hustad, 1978, p. 152). Most subsequent publications of the song designate the tune as “anonymous” or “source unknown,” a few indicating “Folk Melody from India,” “Attributed to an Indian prince,” or “Attr. S. Sundar Singh.” Since this hymn appears in more than fifty collections in North America published since 1950, it has obviously been formative for many and deserves our attention.
Musical Internal Evidence in Indian Culture
Let us begin with the internal evidence available to us—evidence contained within the song. The tune name most often assigned to the hymn is ASSAM, a state in far northeastern India near the Himalayas. Earliest missionary activity in this region can be traced back to 1626, before British colonial rule, when two Portuguese Jesuit priests visited the area. These priests were followed by others who had a more lasting influence (Syiemlieh, 2012, p. 511). Protestant mission activity in this part of India was highly influenced by American Baptist missions. This is the result of the influence of Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), a pioneering Baptist missionary who established Christianity in Burma (now Myanmar), adjacent to the state of Assam, at that time a part of British India (1824-1937). The extent of Baptist missions in Assam is documented in the Jubilee proceedings of The American Baptist Missionary Union that focused on the Assam Mission in 1886, indicating that mission activity extends back to 1836, when a missionary came from Burma (Papers and Discussions, 1886, p. 20; Syiemlieh, 2012, p. 512). The first Assamese convert was baptized in 1841 (Papers and Discussions, 1886, p. 22). Other mission groups followed. Thus, the tune name long associated with this text appears rooted in a significant and sustained center of Christian activity.
Looking at the music itself, most available YouTube recordings provide little internal evidence that suggests that the song was composed in or based on northern Indian styles. Almost all renditions adopt a 1960s folk-style accompaniment, often with guitar. However, if one looks more closely at the melody only, there are some possible indications of its Indian origins. First of all, the tune, usually appearing in C Major, does not imply the usual harmonic changes found in most Western folk songs. In fact, the melody revolves almost totally around a C Major chord and does not appear to be based on the usual Western harmonic assumptions. ASSAM would adapt quite well to traditional Indian drone accompaniments on a multi-stringed sitār or the open fifths of the śruti (an instrument with bellows that provides a drone in Indian classical music). The following YouTube video provides a sustained drone being played on the śruti box in C (or Sa in the Indian scale). Using this video, play the drone and hum ASSAM. You may agree that it fits very well with only a simple drone used in congregational singing and with simpler Indian folk styles. A recording provided by ethnomusicologist Paul Neeley demonstrates a rendition on sitār in what Dr. Neeley calls a fusion style with some Western influences but also some improvisation characteristic of this instrument in India.
The tradition of the bhajan may provide further insight. Bhajan is a Hindustani popular devotional song of reverence with a spiritual theme. The bhajan has roots in ancient Sanskrit (bhajana), and songs derived from the bhakti religious tradition are used as “an approach to union with God” (Simon, 2020, n.p.). Bhajans are composed in a local language and used in the context of Indian religions, especially Hinduism and Jainism. The musical structure is open with no set forms, and the melodies are simple and more direct than the complex ornamented melodies found in Indian classical music (Simon, 2020, n.p.).
Rites involving bhajan are congregational, ranging from small groups to several thousands and may be performed any place, including the lively practice of singing devotional songs while on pilgrimage to holy sites. While missionaries may not have encouraged congregational singing in local styles, this does not mean that local musical practices including use of instruments and rāgas (a complex aesthetic system of melodic scales) were not employed by Indians who were isolated from Western styles in the mid-nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that the Major scale (Ionian) that forms the tonal reservoir for the melody of “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” is identical to the Bilãwal (or Bilāval) rāga, a basic scale of North Indian or Hindustani music beginning in the early part of the nineteenth century. India rāgas are said to be of divine origin and induce specific feelings in combination with distinctive tāla (time cycles). The Bilãwal is a morning rāga that carries with it a deep feeling of devotion. The national anthem of India, “Jana Gana Mana” (“Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people”), employs the Bilãwal rāga (See Grove Music Online, Subcontinent of India, 2020, n.p. for more information). The rāga system has been used in the Assam region for thousands of years. Thus, the rāga upon which ASSAM may be based appears to be ideal for communicating the devotional meaning of the text.
Thus, internal evidence derived from the traditional tune name ASSAM, the level of mission activity in the region, and the possible correlation of the melody with traditional local musical practices suggest a connection with northeastern India. It is a stretch to imply that “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” is a Christian bhajan, however, but the cultural context in northern India suggests that composing popular devotional songs would be a common practice. For a recent Napali Christian interpretation of this song, listen to a recording provided by ethnomusicologist Paul Neeley.
Peramangalam Porinju Job
A possible origin of this song was spread through the ministry of Indian evangelist Peramangalam Porinju Job (1945-2012), who was internationally known and sometimes referred to as “the Billy Graham of India.” Numerous internet accounts repeat virtually the same story taken from Job’s book Why God, Why? (n.d., information unavailable to this author). The narrative begins, “About 150 years ago, there was a great revival in Wales, England. As a result of this, many missionaries came from England to northeast India to spread the Gospel” (Stier, 2014, n.p.). The Assam region consisted of many tribes that were known for their aggressive head-hunting. Welsh missionaries came into northeastern India in 1841 after the formation of the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Foreign Missionary Society and established their presence in this region throughout the 1840s (Avery, 2016, n.p.; Papers and Discussions, 1886, p. 211). This may have been the revival referred to in Job’s book—“about 150 years ago”—though there was another awakening in 1859.
According to Job’s account, the words that form the basis for the song were the last words spoken by a martyred Garo tribal man from Meghalaya (then a part of Assam) named Nokseng. Accounts vary, some claiming that Nokseng was evangelized through the efforts of an American Baptist missionary (Bibliatodo Reflection, 2020, n.p.) and others suggesting a Welsh Methodist missionary evangelized the man and his family (wife and two children) [Stier, 2014, n.p.]. The account of what happened is taken from Job’s book and appears on several internet sources. Upon hearing of the man’s conversion, the
[a]ngry . . . village chief summoned all the villagers. He then called the family who had first converted to renounce their faith in public or face execution. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the man sung his reply, “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back.”
Enraged at the refusal of the man, the chief ordered his archers to arrow down the two children. As both boys lay twitching on the floor, the chief asked, “Will you deny your faith? You have lost both your children. You will lose your wife too.”
But the man replied, again singing, “Though none go with me, still I will follow. No turning back.”
The chief was beside himself with fury and ordered his wife to be arrowed down. In a moment she joined her two children in death. Now he asked for the last time, “I will give you one more opportunity to deny your faith and live.”
In the face of death, the man sang, “The cross before me, the world behind me. No turning back.” He was shot dead like the rest of his family.
But with the deaths, a miracle took place. The chief who had ordered the killings was moved by the faith of the man. . . In spontaneous confession of faith, he declared, “I too belong to Jesus Christ!” When the crowd heard this from the mouth of their chief, the whole village accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior (Stier, 2014, n.p.).
Unable to locate Job’s book Why God, Why?, it is difficult to ascertain the source of the story and how Job came to learn of it. Such a compelling narrative, however, would seem to have been documented in other missionary accounts, but this author could not find such evidence. American Baptists record that “Nidhi Levi was the first Assamese convert, baptized at Jaipur in 1841 by Dr. Bronson. In 1846 there were a number of converts at each station (Papers and Discussions, 1886, p. 22). A paper delivered in 1886 by Rev. E. G. Phillips describes in some detail the early work of the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Mission beginning in 1841 (Papers and Discussions, 1886, pp. 213-216). The indigenous people are described as “non-idolatrous, demon-worshiping savages of the hills” (p. 213), but the work soon prospered. It would seem that the conversion and martyrdom described by Dr. Job would have been legendary in the missionary annals, but it does not appear.
Sadhu Sundar Singh
A few more recent hymnals indicate that the song is attributed to Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929), a Sikh who converted to Christianity as a boy and, as a result, was rejected by his father (For a description of Singh’s conversion see Tentmaker, n.d., n.p.). He became an Indian Christian missionary who, even after conversion, adopted the yellow robe and turban of a Hindu sadhu in 1906.
Singh maintained his Sikh dress while attending the Anglican seminary in Lahore (now part of Pakistan), but was discouraged from completing his work because he would not become an Anglican priest. He preached a universalist theology, believing that all people, including Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, would eventually attain salvation, a view that received no recognition or affirmation among Christian missionaries. He traveled widely outside of Asia in Great Britain, the United States, and Australia, and is said to have influenced other spiritual leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and C.S. Lewis (Lindskoog, 2005, n.p). He found the West too materialistic and was most at home living an ascetic lifestyle and teaching in Tibet. Singh is the subject of several biographies and is considered to be one of the most significant figures in Indian Christianity (Singh, 2019, n.p.).
This author could find no mention of Singh’s connection to “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” in any sources on Singh and his life. One internet link states that, following the martyrdom of the Garo family, Singh was responsible for forming the words spoken by the man into a song (Bibliatodo Reflection, 2020, n.p.), but this is not corroborated by scholarly accounts available to this author. If Singh is responsible for the music, it may reflect his journeys abroad in 1920 and 1922. Because the song is in English, these experiences beyond Asia may have influenced its possible Western compositional leanings (Neeley, 2020, n.p.).
Other undocumented sources suggest that the composer was Simon K. Marak (1877-1937), a Garo man from Jorhat, Assam. No other information is available on Marak.
Virtually all hymnals include the stanzas:
I have decided to follow Jesus. . . No turning back.
Though none go with me [Though no one join me] I still will follow. . . No turning back.
The world behind me, the cross before me. . . No turning back.
Other stanzas that appear in selected hymnals include:
My cross I’ll carry till I see Jesus. . . No turning back. [John Clark, a.k.a. William Reynolds]
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?. . . No turning back.
Several scriptural references have been cited as the basis for the words including John 12:26a—“If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be” (KJV)—and the narrative of the calling of the disciples in Mark 1:16-20.
This hymn has been cited as a prime example of “decision theology”—the belief held among evangelicals, including Baptists and Methodists, that each person must make a conscious decision to follow Christ and be “born again.” Thus, this hymn appears primarily in hymnals associated with evangelicals as well as convention publications used in revival settings. The narrative proposed by P. P. Job earlier would fit decision theology as well as the conscious decision by S. S. Singh to endure the rejection of his family to follow Jesus.
This apparent “free will” stance of the song has caused some controversy among Calvinist and conservative Lutheran groups about its theological validity. As one blogger states, “There is no making a decision for Jesus. He comes to you in word and sacrament and saves you. You need God the Holy Spirit to come to you and change your heart so that you can see the things that are spiritually discerned” (Armchair Theologian, 2017, n.p.). An evangelical blogger responded to this argument as follows,
. . . 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 (Johnson, 2013, n.p.).
What appeared to be a simple campfire song sung by generations of young people, has inspired a robust theological debate.
While neither the story of the martyrdom of the Garo man and his family and Singh’s possible role in preparing the song can be verified by this author, I can attest, having grown up in an evangelical context, that similar and verifiable missionary narratives of faith and martyrdom are a part of the tradition. Whether the evidence chronicled above is fact, there is undoubtedly truth to be derived from the general cultural and historical contexts and accounts of rejection, even banishment, experienced by many converts. Historically, some of the contextual circumstances can be documented, including extensive missionary activity in the region by several groups, especially American Baptists. Furthermore, the internal evidence provided by the music itself, when compared with long-established traditional musical practices of northeastern India, suggests that the melody may fit into the rāga system. The song’s simple structure and message could possibly draw upon the larger spirituality of the bhajan tradition.
The ultimate efficacy of “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” lies in its intrinsic message and compositional coherence that come together in a way that expresses the experience and faith of those who sing it. This efficacy has been proven in this case for nearly three quarters of a century in numerous North America publications.
A line from the second stanza was chosen as the title for the television drama Though None Go With Me (2006), a film that explores the hardships faced by a woman who devoted her life to God.
Andrew J. Avery, Review of Andrew May, Welsh Missionaries and British Imperialism: The Empire of Clouds in North-east India (2015), Reviews in History (July 2016), https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1960 (accessed 10 April 2020).
Armchair Theologian, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus: by Nokseng,” (October 16, 2017), https://actheologian.com/2017/10/16/i-have-decided-to-follow-jesus-by-nokseng (accessed 20 April 2020).
Bibliatodo Reflection, “The Story behind the song “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” (January 15, 2020, https://www.bibliatodo.com/En/christian-reflections/the-story-behind-the-song-i-have-decided-to-follow-jesus (accessed 10 April 2020).
Adrienne S. Gaines, “Saving India’s Daughters,” Charisma (2011?), https://www.charismamag.com/life/social-justice/12198-saving-indias-daughters (accessed 10 April 2020).
Donald P. Hustad, Dictionary-Handbook to Hymns for the Living Church (Carol Stream, Illinois: Hope Publishing Company, 1978).
“Dr. Peramangalam Porinju Job,” Missionaries of the World (Geo Ministries, February 27, 2013). http://www.missionariesoftheworld.org/2013/02/drperamangalam-porinju-job-drppjob.html (accessed 10 April 2020).
Jesse Johnson, “Why We Sing ‘I have decided to follow Jesus’,” The Cripplegate (May 29, 2013), https://thecripplegate.com/why-we-sing-i-have-decided-to-follow-jesus/ (accessed 20 April 2020).
Kathryn Lindskoog, “C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and Sadhu Sundar Singh,” John Mark Ministries (February 25, 2005).
Dean Nelson, “The Indian Preacher and the Fake Orphan Scandal,” The Daily Telegraph (October 28, 2011), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/8856050/The-Indian-preacher-and-the-fake-orphan-scandal.html (accessed 10 April 2020).
Paul Neeley, email to the author (19 April 2020).
_____, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” (India/Nepal), Global Christian Worship (September 16, 2019). https://globalworship.tumblr.com/post/187762203490/i-have-decided-to-follow-jesus-indianepal?fbclid=IwAR0WeFYgVKo-ivd4CtT-8EuSHkEALytmlXR3mzefArKL8TzeQs4fRFoATgk (accessed 11 April 2020).
Regula Qureshi et al., “India, subcontinent of,” Grove Music Online (Oxford Music Online) (31 January 2020). https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000043272#omo-9781561592630-e-0000043272-div1-0000043272.3 (accessed 9 April 2020). See section (d) Kanada and Teluga devotional songs.
William J. Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976).
“Sadhu Sundar Singh,” New World Encyclopedia Contributors, New World Encyclopedia (31 August 2019), https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Sadhu_Sundar_Singh (accessed 10 April 2019).
“Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929),” Tentmaker (n.d.), https://www.tentmaker.org/biographies/singh.htm (accessed 10 April 2020).
Robert Simon, “1. Hindu: India, subcontinent of,” Grove Music Online (Oxford Music Online) (31 January 2020), https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000043272#omo-9781561592630-e-0000043272-div1-0000043272.3 (accessed 10 April 2020).
Leon Stier, “The Story Behind the Song ‘I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” Email Meditations (23 August 2014), https://emailmeditations.wordpress.com/2014/08/23/499-the-story-behind-the-song-i-have-decided-to-follow-jesus/ (accessed 10 April 2020).
David R. Syiemlieh, “Colonial Encounter and Christian Missions in North East India,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 73 (2012), 509-527. https://www-jstor-org.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/stable/pdf/44156244.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_SYC-5152%252Ftest (accessed 10 April 2020).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.