History of Hymns: 'I Know Whom I Have Believed'
By Logan Herod
“I Know Whom I Have Believed”
by Daniel W. Whittle
The United Methodist Hymnal, 714
I know not why God’s wondrous grace
To me he has made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for his own.
But I know whom I have believed,
And am persuaded that he is able
Go keep that which I’ve committed
Unto him against that day.
Mark Twain was one of the most critically acclaimed American authors of the late nineteenth century. However, Mark Twain is a pseudonym, or pen name, for the real person behind his novels, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Mark Twain is not the only writer who used a pen name to publish under during this time period. Daniel Webster Whittle (1840-1901) wrote multiple hymns texts under the pseudonym “El Nathan.” Whittle fought in the army during the American Civil War and marched with General William Tecumseh Sherman through Georgia. At the end of the war, he was given the title of Major, and is still known by many hymnologists as Major Whittle. After the war, Whittle became closely associated with the evangelistic campaigns of the famous Dwight Lyman Moody (1837-1899). Whittle’s daughter married Moody’s son. His war experiences served as a basis for the gospel song, “Hold the Fort for I Am Coming” by Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876). Major Whittle, who composed around 200 hymn texts, continued to travel on evangelist tours in North America and Great Britain with Moody and Bliss until his death (Watson and Young, n.p.).
His hymn “I Know Whom I Have Believed” (1883) was also given the tune name EL NATHAN. The tune, written by prominent music publisher and gospel song composer James McGranahan (1840-1907), was given this tune name to match Whittle’s pseudonym. One of his more popular hymns, it was first published in Gospel Hymns, No 4 (New York, 1883), edited by a distinguished trio of gospel song musicians and promoters that included Dwight Moody’s evangelist, Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908), McGranahan, and George C. Stebbins (1846-1945). This hymn has been extremely popular in the United States, and it can be found in every Southern Baptist hymnal since The Baptist Hymn and Praise Book (Nashville, 1904), in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), as well as in more than 200 other hymnals published in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Another gospel hymn by this duo that is well known is “Showers of Blessing” (1883) [The Cokesbury Hymnal, 208].
The tune of this hymn sounds like a typical gospel hymn tune with modest harmony and simple melodic lines. Dotted rhythms give it some added interest. The tune is written in an easy-to-sing D major: not too high or low for congregational singing and easily sung in four-part harmony. The direct quotation of Scripture results in an extended phrase in the refrain. The Psalter Hymnal Handbook praises the effectiveness of continuing the long phrase by using staggered breathing during the refrain, which can create a “musical communion of saints” by singing without a break in sound (Brink, 665).
“I Know Whom I Have Believed” is in Common Meter, 86.86, with an added refrain. This hymn features four stanzas, and the title comes from the first line of the refrain. Sometimes, it is known by its first line, “I know not why God’s wondrous grace.” The refrain, launching with the word “But. . .” acts as a positive rebuttal of the ideas in each of the four stanzas that begin “I know not…”
The text of this hymn is a direct quotation from 2 Timothy 1:12: “. . . I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (KJV). In this letter, the apostle Paul has been imprisoned, yet he feels empowered in his suffering because it mirrors the suffering of Jesus Christ. Paul uses his plight to encourage his fellow Christian Timothy to remain strong in his faith, no matter the difficulties he is facing. Paul would argue that even though he feels that he may not able, he is made able through the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. Like in the first stanza, while we are unworthy, “Christ in love” has “redeemed me for his own.”
Each stanza discusses a faith issue with which Christians struggle. The first stanza addresses how we cannot understand God’s saving grace; the second stanza addresses how we cannot explain our faith in the Word; the third stanza addresses how we cannot comprehend the work of the Holy Spirit; and the fourth stanza addresses how we cannot clearly perceive the future of our earthly lives. The refrain contrasts with these stanzas by reminding us that even if we cannot fully know the mysteries of our faith, we are fully known by God and we do know by faith that God is true to his word.
While the version of “I Know Whom I Have Believed” in The United Methodist Hymnal contains four stanzas, some editions of this hymn feature an additional stanza. The fourth stanza in The United Methodist Hymnal is actually the fifth stanza in the original text. The fourth stanza is similar in thematic material to the fifth stanza, referencing how we cannot know the end of our life.
I know not what of good or ill
May be reserved for me,
Of weary ways or golden days,
Before his face I see.
Liturgically and in keeping with its original use in evangelistic gatherings, “I Know Whom I Have Believed” functions well as a response to testimony or as a profession of faith. This hymn can be very uplifting and helpful during times of trouble or when there is a need for renewal of faith. This hymn is a great asset to the repertoire of The United Methodist Church and will continue to be sung in the church for years to come.
Emily R. Brink and Bert Polman, Psalter Hymnal Handbook (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1998).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
J. Richard Watson and Carlton R. Young, “Daniel Webster Whittle.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed May 15, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/d/daniel-webster-whittle.
_____. “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed May 15, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/i/i-know-not-why-god’s-wondrous-grace.
Logan Herod is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, where she studied hymnology with Dr. Marcell Steuernagel, director of the Sacred Music program.