History of Hymns: "My God, I Love Thee"
"My God, I Love Thee"
Latin 17th century, trans. by Edward Caswall
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 470
My God, I love thee,
Not because I hope for heaven thereby,
Nor yet because, if I love not,
I must forever die.
Edward Caswall (1814-1878) is often given credit for translating the text to the hymn “My God, I Love Thee.” But to understand why he wrote it, we must first know about his past.
Caswall was born July 15, 1814, at Yately, Hampshire, where his father, the Rev. R.C. Caswall, was vicar. He was educated at Marlborough Grammar School and graduated with honors in 1836 from Brasenose College in Oxford. He was ordained a deacon in 1838, and in 1839, a priest in the Church of England. In 1840, he became the curate of Stratford-sub-Castle in the diocese of his uncle, Dr. Burgess, bishop of Salisbury.
In 1850, a year after his wife died, Caswall joined the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, led by Cardinal Newman. Under his influence, Caswall converted to Roman Catholicism.
His life was marked by earnest devotion to his clerical duties and a loving interest in the poor, the sick and children. He spent the rest of his life dedicated to writing, and was praised for his general faithfulness to the original texts, purity of his poetic meter and the appropriateness of his hymns for congregations.
Caswall is best known for his translations from the Roman breviary and other Latin sources. Since his doctrinal views differed from those of many Protestants, Caswall’s original poems have mainly survived in Catholic hymnals.
His principal works included Lyra Catholica, a translation of the Breviary and Missal hymns as well as some others, The Masque of Mary and other poems, original poetry inspired by his time with Cardinal Newman, and The Catholic’s Latin Instructor in the principal Church offices and devotions, which has been reprinted and distributed worldwide as guide for the Catholic Church.
There are several variations of this text in manuscripts. The original Latin title is “O Jesu, ego amo Te” (O Jesus, I love you), but when the English was translated back to Latin, the title became “O Deus, ego amo Te” (O God, I love you).
“My God, I Love Thee” explores the reasons for our love toward God in Christ. The text is a very descriptive poem about how we should love God with unfettered and abundant love. Stanza 2 continues on to state, “Should I not love thee well? Not for the sake of winning heaven, nor of escaping hell.” We do not love God in order to go to heaven or to keep from going to hell, but rather “ . . . as thyself hast loved me, O everlasting Lord.”
“My God, I Love Thee” presents a very simple but important argument, of which Christians need to be reminded. God loves us no matter our circumstances, but we shouldn’t return the love God bestows upon us just “for the sake of winning heaven, nor of escaping hell.” We should love God “because thou art my loving God and my eternal King.”