Article

History of Hymns: ‘Lord, I want to be a Christian’

by C. Michael Hawn

African American Spiritual
The United Methodist Hymnal, No 402

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.
Lord, I want to be more loving in my heart.
Lord, I want to be more holy in my heart.
Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart.

“Lord, I want to be a Christian” is among a canon of African American Spirituals that appears both in mainline denominational hymnals and in African American hymnals in the United States. It was first published in Folk Songs of the American Negro edited by Frederick J. Work (1878?-1942) (Nashville, 1907) with an introduction by John W. Work, Jr. (1872?-1925). This publication was the outgrowth of the performances by the Fisk Jubilee Singers who codified the Spirituals in a musical style that reached a broader audience beyond the African American community. Its appearance in this important collection (page 17) had the effect of standardizing this folk song to the degree that, with one notable exception, most hymnals reprint the text in the same form as it appeared in this compilation.

The one textual alteration from the original publication is the elimination of the original stanza 4, “I don’t want to be like Judas,” reducing the stanzas to four. Few hymnals use Frederick J. Work’s exact harmonization, though most maintain the general simple diatonic character of his setting. One notable exception is the arrangement by William Farley Smith (1941-1997) found in The UM Hymnal. Smith’s arrangement incorporates a higher degree of chromaticism than the diatonic versions in most other hymnals. Smith’s arrangement is in the spirit of the concertized arrangements of Spirituals that became popular during the first half of the 20th century by composers such as William L. Dawson (1899-1990) and Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949).

A spiritual with a similar sentiment, “Lord, make me more patient,” appears in the first published collection of slave songs by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States (New York, 1867), No. 71. The melody bears no resemblance to “Lord, I want to be a Christian,” but the inscription beneath the spiritual encourages the substitution of “Any adjective expressive of the virtues: holy, loving, peaceful, etc.” with the final phrase being “until we meet again.”

Both spirituals appear in the monumental American Negro Songs and Spirituals: a comprehensive collection of 230 folk songs, religious and secular (New York, 1940), edited by John Wesley Work III (1901-1967), “Lord, I want to be a Christian” (No. 76), and the revised first stanza “Lord, I want to be more holy” (No. 86), indicating that they are distinct spirituals and both incorporated into the canon of spirituals by the mid-twentieth century.

United Methodist scholar Eileen Guenther notes:

The recurring text 'in my heart' may reasonably be seen as a statement against the hypocrisy of slave owners who said one thing and . . . treat their slaves badly and brutally. That the owners who go to church on Sunday morning and even served communion to their slaves can turn around and beat them that afternoon or the next day is a brutal irony. The slaves’ sung desire to 'be more holy' or 'be like Jesus' reinforces their intention to follow the true teachings of Christianity. (Guenther, 110)

The theological themes of conversion and salvation are complex and ubiquitous throughout the Spirituals. (Guenther, 386-389) Ultimately, this spiritual is a prayer for conversion, expressing outwardly a desire to practice ethical behaviors that indicate an inward commitment of faith. These behaviors demonstrate that one is a follower of Christ. One might even view the stanzas as a compact, condensed version of Galatians 5:22-23, the “fruit of the Spirit.”

This spiritual is a perfect example of the “expandability” factor of many of these songs, in that a word or two or a phrase can be changed to give the singers another stanza. (Guenther, 30) “Lord, I want to be a Christian” or “more Holy, or more loving” or – adding a verse that is not in common use – “I don’t want to be like Judas in-a my heart,” all reflecting the desire to live a life of purity and integrity.

The repeated phrase “in-a my heart” may indicate that this Spiritual was sung in a call-response manner, allowing a single voice to vary the text slightly for each stanza, while those assembled join in on the sections that remain constant throughout all stanzas. (Guenther, 32)

Furthermore, the apparent use of the first-person singular “I” in Spirituals equals “we” in the communal African cultural context: “The ‘I’ of the Spiritual is not a single person. It is every person who sang then, everyone who has been oppressed and, therefore, every slave everywhere.” (Lovell, 226)

The following statements place this Spiritual within the experience of enslaved Africans as they attempted to live more worthy lives while under extreme abuse and oppression:

A slave told the Rev. Samuel Davies in 1756 that he wanted to become a Christian: 'I come to you, sir, that you may tell me some good things concerning Jesus Christ and my duty to God, for I am resolved not to live any more as I have done.' (Unnamed slave in Fisher, 30)

Here is one man we present as proof of the immortality of man, while in the flesh: Praying Jacob. This man was a slave in the State of Maryland. His master was very cruel to his slaves. Jacob’s rule was to pray three times a day . . .   no matter what his work was or where he might be, he would stop and go and pray. [Jacob’s] master . . . told him if he did not cease praying he would blow out his brains. Jacob would finish his prayer and then tell his master to shoot in welcome —your loss will be my gain—I have two masters, one on earth and one in heaven—master Jesus in heaven and master Saunders on earth. I have a soul and a body; the body belongs to you, master Saunders, and the soul to master Jesus. Jesus says men ought always to pray, but you will not pray, neither do you want to have me pray. This man said in private conversation that several times he went home and drank an unusual amount of brandy to harden his heart that he might kill [Jacob]; but he never had the power to strike or shoot him, and he would freely give the world, if he had it in his possession, for what he believed his Jacob to possess. He also thought that Jacob was as assured of Heaven as the apostle Paul or Peter. Sometimes Mr. S. would be in the field about half drunk, raging like a madman, whipping the other slaves, and when Jacob’s hour would come for prayer, he would stop his horses and plough and kneel down and pray; but [Mr. Saunders] could not strike the man of God. (G. W. Offley, 14-16)

C. Michael Hawn with gratitude for the research and assistance of Eileen Guenther, Professor of Church Music, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.

Further Reading 

William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States (New York: A. Simpson & Co., 1867).

Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States (New York: The Citadel Press, 1953).

Eileen Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals (St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, 2016).

John Lovell, Jr., Black Songs: The Forge and the Flame (New York: Paragon Publishers, 1986).

G. W. Offley, A Narrative of the Life and Labors of the Rev. G. W. Offley: a Colored Man, Local Preacher and Missionary. (Hartford, Conn.: [s.n.], 1859), 14-16.

Frederick J. Work, ed., Folk Songs of the American Negro (Nashville: Press of Fisk University, 1907).

John Wesley Work III, ed., American Negro Songs and Spirituals: a comprehensive collection of 230 folk songs, religious and secular (New York: Bonanza Books, 1940).


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 at Southern Methodist University.

Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, The United Methodist Hymnal