History of Hymns: “He Lives”
By C. Michael Hawn
by Alfred H. Ackley;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 310
But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:8-11, NRSV)
“Why should I worship a dead Jew?” asked a young Jewish student of Alfred Ackley (1887-1960) at an evangelistic revival (Young, 1993, 391).
Ackley’s response to the question echoed Matthew 28:6, “He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay” (KJV). Hymnologist George Sanville records Ackley’s response to the young student that, in turn, led to the writing of this hymn: “He lives! I tell you, He is not dead, but lives here and now! Jesus Christ is more alive today than ever before. I can prove it by my own experience, as well as the testimony of countless thousands” (Sanville, 1943, 34).
Compared to many Easter hymns, “He Lives” does not recount the biblical narrative of witnesses to the risen Christ, such as Mary or the disciples on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Neither does the hymn explore classic theological themes of the Resurrection such as Christus Victor, Christ the victor over death: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:54b-57, KJV).
Ackley’s assertion, as articulated in the refrain, is totally personal:
You ask me how I know he lives?
He lives within my heart.
This has led to Carlton Young’s unflattering commentary on this hymn in his Companion, “’I see his hand of mercy,’ [Stanza 1] ‘I see his loving care,’ [Stanza 2] is insufficient evidence of the Resurrection until verified by those who claim to have experienced Christ in their hearts. Fortunately, the section of hymns on the Resurrection and exaltation of Christ [hymns 302-327 in The UM Hymnal] provides many alternatives that are more gospel centered, theologically convincing, and musically substantial” (Young, 391).
While I agree with Dr. Young’s comments, especially with the idea that the central concept of the Resurrection must be sung from the perspective of many witnesses throughout time and social location, the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century gospel song brings to the larger witness a peculiar perspective and power; that is, sheer unity of theme reinforced by the rhetorical device of repetition. As noted above, there is no biblical narrative that retells the story of Christ’s rising from the dead. There is a strong declamation in the present tense reiterated again and again that “He lives” – six times each the refrain is sung (eight, if you count the echo “He lives” in the men’s voices), a total of eighteen times (or twenty-four with the men’s echo added)! Other forms of this central theme are scattered throughout the song: the participial form in stanza one – “He is living” – and the subject of the pronoun “He” in the refrain – “Christ Jesus lives today.” This is a hallmark of the gospel song.
Another characteristic of the gospel song exemplified here is frequent borrowing of phrases. It is quite likely that Alfred Ackley knew “In the Garden” by C. Austin Miles (1868-1946) and borrowed the phrase “He walks with me and he talks with me” verbatim from Miles’ refrain for his own refrain thirty years later. Such borrowing was a common practice, reflecting not so much plagiarism as a common personal piety. Indeed, www.hymnary.org displays more than 130 hymns, most of them gospel songs, that combine the rhyming words “walk” and “talk” or “walking” and “talking.”
The Easter-themed songs by Ackley and Miles share something else: the lilting musical meter of 6/8. Its dancing quality suits the more intimate nature of the gospel song.
Alfred Ackley was born in Pennsylvania in 1887 and died in California in 1960. Receiving his early musical education from his father, he studied musical composition in New York and at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he became an accomplished cellist. After graduating from Westminster Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey, Ackley was ordained in 1914 and served Presbyterian churches in Pennsylvania and California.
The author compiled hymnals and songbooks for the Rodeheaver Publishing Company, a leading publisher of gospel songs. He is credited with 1,500 hymns, gospel songs, and children's songs, as well as secular and glee songs. In recognition for his contributions to sacred music, Ackley was awarded an honorary Doctor of Sacred Music degree from John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
“He Lives” first appeared in the Rodeheaver Company's Triumphant Service Songs in 1933. It has been a favorite of revival meetings since its publication. The hymn has many characteristics of the gospel song genre. The refrain carries the central theme. Not only does the text identify the main thrust of the song, but also the music lifts the song to an emotional climax. The message is direct and unmistakable.
In many gospel songs, the refrain is so important that people know the song by the refrain rather than by the opening line of the first stanza. The stanzas revolve around the theme of the refrain. Most often, the stanzas are in the first person (gospel songs often reflect a testimony of an individual believer). The message outlines an understanding that is at the core of Christian belief – in this case, that core belief is that Christ lives.
Gospel songs often defy the popular notions of the world. For example, the world often denies the reality of the living Christ: “[W]hatever foes [originally, “men”] may say,” the living Christ is “always near.”
The second stanza provides further evidence from the experience of the singer’s life. This living Christ is powerful, leading us through “the stormy blasts” of life. The risen Christ is our hope and “the day of his appearing will come at last.” These sentiments – the abiding presence of Christ through all difficulties, and eschatological hope – are echoed nearly four decades later in “Because He Lives” (1971) by Bill (b. 1936) and Gloria (b. 1942) Gaither (The United Methodist Hymnal, 364).
The final stanza exhorts the broader Christian community to affirm the testimony of the individual believer. In this stanza, the singular “I” becomes a community “I.” As all individual singers lift their voices together, the community confirms the central message of the song.
The ultimate confirmation of the song's central message is not in an intellectual argument, but in a heart-felt faith – “He lives within my heart.”
For further reading:
Young, Carlton R. 1993. Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Sanville, George W. 1943. Forty Gospel Hymn Stories. Winona Lake, IN: Rodeheaver Hall-Mack Co.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.