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History of Hymns: "A Charge to Keep I Have"

"A Charge to Keep I Have"
Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 413

Charles Wesley

A charge to keep I have,
a God to glorify,
a never dying soul to save,
and fit it for the sky.

In their recent book, Presidential Praise: Our Presidents and Their Hymns (Mercer University Press, 2008), authors C. Edward Spann and Michael E. Williams Sr. note that the title of President George W. Bush’s autobiography, A Charge to Keep, was drawn from Charles Wesley’s hymn.

The choice of this title is but one indication of the role this hymn has played in the life of President Bush, as well as the influence of this hymn 250 years beyond its composition.

As is the case with hymns by the Wesleys, “A charge to keep I have” is grounded in Scripture. In this case, Leviticus 8:36 is the primary source: “Keep the charge of the Lord, that ye die not” (KJV).

The hymn was included in Short Hymns on Select Passages of Holy Scripture (1762), a massive two-volume collection of 2,030 hymns based on biblical texts from Genesis to Revelation. UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young also points out additional references: 2 Peter 1:10, Hosea 6:2, and Matthew 25:30 and 26:41.

Wesley scholars F. Hildebrandt and Oliver A. Beckerlegge propose in their commentary on the important Wesley hymnbook A Collection of Hymns for Use of the People Called Methodists (1780) that Charles Wesley (1708-1788) based his text on Mathew Henry’s Commentary on Leviticus. Henry notes:

“We have every one of us a charge to keep, an eternal God to glorify, an immortal soul to provide for, needful duty to be done, our generation to serve; and it must be our daily care to keep this charge, for it is the charge of the Lord our Master, who will shortly call us to an account about it, and it is our peril if we neglect it. Keep it ‘that ye die not’; it is death, eternal death, to betray the truth we are charged with.”

This hymn is an unequivocal call to commitment to follow the Master and to fulfill our vocation through service. The language is unambiguous. Our calling is to save a “never dying soul” and “fit it for the sky”—that is for eternal life with Christ. This eschatological goal is central to Charles Wesley’s hymns: Our goal is heaven.

In the second stanza, we find that we fulfill this calling by our service to “the present age.” Fulfilling this calling requires us to engage “all [our] powers.” The third stanza is a petition that God should “arm [us] with jealous care” as we live in God’s sight. Wesley is not afraid to offer a stern admonition that we will one day be required to give “a strict account” of our activities in pursuit of our calling.

The final stanza is perhaps the most uncompromising. The singer begins with the imperative verb—a petition to the unnamed Holy Spirit—to “Help me to watch and pray . . . ” Rather than suggesting a positive reward for faithfulness, Wesley warns us of the outcome “if [we] our trust betray”: we “shall forever die.”

Hymnology scholar Fred D. Gealy notes that there have been several attempts to alter the final lines in order to soften the ominous judgment that is implied. The Historical Companion to the influential Hymns Ancient and Modern concludes the hymn with these two lines:

And let me ne’er my trust betray,
But press to realms on high.

The British Methodist hymnal, Hymns and Psalms (1983) altered the final two lines as follows:

So shall I not my trust betray,
nor love within me die.

Professor Gealy notes that the “alteration [of these lines] weakens the intensity of the hymn. The Gospel always comes with [both] threat and promise.”

This hymn has traditionally been a favorite at annual conferences, or in African-American congregations at the conclusion of Holy Communion. The tune BOYLSTON was composed by the famous New England music educator Lowell Mason (1792-1872) and was first found in his The Choir, or Union Collection of Church Music (1832).

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.