History of Hymns: 'Take, O Take Me as I Am'
By Mykayla Turner, Guest Contributor
“Take, O Take Me as I Am”
by John L. Bell
Worship & Song, 3119
Like many songs arising from the collaborative work of the Iona Community, “Take, O Take Me as I Am” finds a home in numerous denominational hymnals, even appearing in French and Spanish in several cases. The text and corresponding tune appear in various sections of Catholic and Protestant songbooks, including “Confession, Lament, and Healing,” “Giving,” and “I Will Follow You.”
In Gather, 4th Edition (2021), the original song by John L. Bell (b. 1949) appears as a refrain with additional stanzas written by Gabe Huck. These stanzas extrapolate the general theme of commitment to express penitence through eucharistic references, making it more decidedly appropriate for Mass. By writing stanzas for use in the Catholic liturgy, Huck responds to Bell’s call to employ short songs “to enable the liturgy or order of worship to progress” (Bell, 1994, p. 7). Bell explains in the introduction to Come All You People: Shorter Songs for Worship, a volume containing “Take, O Take Me as I Am” among other selections, that “short songs,” often called “wee songs” in Scotland, differ from Taizé chants not just by virtue of their contrasting origins, but also because they function to accompany action rather than encourage meditation (Bell, 1994, pp. 7–8). While “Take, O Take Me as I Am” appears in the “Leaving” section of this volume, it might just as readily pair with other liturgical events occurring earlier in a service.
Rather than encouraging stasis, this song’s repetition creates momentum and compels worshipers to act. In Bell’s words, they “enable new things to happen” (Bell, 1998, 4). With this comment, Bell encourages creative use and revision of his work. After all, his musical endeavors are often collaborative long before they solicit worldwide attention. Especially in the last decades of the twentieth century, when Bell’s first two volumes of “short songs” were coming to fruition, he commonly worked alongside other members of the Wild Goose Worship Group to exchange feedback and refine ideas. In the words of Bell and Graham Maule (1958–2019), co-author of “Take, O Take Me as I Am,” such songs are “the product of ongoing argument, experiment, study, discussion, questioning and listening” (Bell and Maule, 1989, p. 8).
Bell’s texts and tunes are frequently included in Iona materials. Through workshops, lectures, books, and compositions, Bell fulfills the role of a congregational song “enlivener,” boosting the confidence of churchgoers who might otherwise doubt their singing abilities (Hawn, 2003, 242; Bell, 2000). Although “Take, O Take Me as I Am” is one of his well-known songs, his musical corpus extends far beyond this shorter work to include longer texts often set to Scottish folk tunes. As an example, “Will You Come and Follow Me” is a lengthier but equally popular song that might fare well in a call-and-response pairing with “Take, O Take Me as I Am” (Daw, 2016, p. 666).
In addition to the impetus to repeat shorter songs as a whole, “Take, O Take Me as I Am” features much internal repetition, leading the editors of RitualSong to distinguish it as an “ostinato refrain” (2016). Technically speaking, “Take, O Take Me as I Am” retains an AA’BC structure, but singers experience repetition through the same melodic phrase occurring three times, moving from its initial form to a version that alters the final note, then climaxing with a third iteration at a higher interval. This third musical phrase emphasizes the line with the most obvious scriptural reference to Song of Songs 8:6 before coming to a four-syllable summary of the same idea: “Set your seal upon my heart and live in me” (emphasis mine). The last words are set to a new musical idea that nevertheless recycles the basic sequence appearing in the opening line: an upward leap to a note followed by a stepwise descent.
Likewise borrowing from earlier lines, the fourth phrase of “Take, O Take Me as I Am” does not resolve the tension of the foregoing suspension and half cadence through a perfect authentic cadence; instead, Bell evades any notion of a strong finish, forsaking arrival at a strong chord in favor of another suspension resolving to a dominant chord.
Although Bell often receives greater recognition than his collaborators, Graham Maule is just as deserving of credit for the text “Take, O Take Me as I Am.” Together, Maule and Bell crafted words that propel singers through distinct stages of faith in a few short phrases. First, the opening line invites singers to offer their entire selves to God, regardless of faults or failures. The second line, “Summon out what I shall be,” invites God to take whatever goodness exists within humans and allow it to shape the future, while the final two lines convey the gravity of this action by comparing it to a seal upon one’s heart. The thematic progression may be summarized in four phrases: “surrender and conversion,” “transformation,” “sealed and marked by God’s covenant,” and “new life together with and in God” (Discipleship Ministries, 2012).
One of the most distinctive aspects of the text is the rephrasing of Song of Songs 8:6 so that the human takes the lead in welcoming God into their life. In Maule and Bell’s text, rather than God instructing humans to “set me as a seal upon your heart,” the narrator asks God to “set your seal upon my heart.” What were Maule and Bell’s intentions here? Does this line suggest that God waits for an invitation to enter the human heart? Perhaps the line functions as the human’s response to God’s initial instruction in Song of Songs (i.e., when God asks to enter our hearts, we answer in the affirmative). Regardless of the particularities of this phrase, the use of Song of Songs 8:6 to envision mutual love and respect between God and humans “provides a valuable orientation for appreciating the intentions of this text” and keeps us from confusing surrender to God with devaluation of our own selves (Daw, 2016, p. 666).
John L. Bell, The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2000).
John L. Bell and the Wild Goose Worship Group. Come All You People: Shorter Songs for Worship from the Iona Community (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994).
———, There is One Among Us: Shorter Songs for Worship (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 1998).
John Bell and Graham Maule, Heaven Shall Not Wait. Vol. 1, Songs of Creation, Incarnation, and the Life of Jesus (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1989).
Carl P., Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).
C. Michael Hawn, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2003).
“Take, O Take Me as I Am.” Discipleship Ministries (March 5, 2012), https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/take-o-take-me-as-i-am (accessed September 5, 2023).
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).
Mykayla Turner holds a Master of Sacred Music with a Liturgical Musicology concentration. She recently obtained her A.C.C.M. in Piano Performance from Conservatory Canada, and she is currently completing a Master of Theological Studies. Mykayla has presented research at conferences in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Apart from her academic work, she is an active church musician and liturgist. She works as a worship coordinator for a Mennonite congregation in rural Ontario.