Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "O Jesus, I Have Promised"

History of Hymns: "O Jesus, I Have Promised"

By C. Michael Hawn

"O Jesus, I Have Promised"
by John E. Bode
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 396

John E. Bode

O Jesus, I have promised
to serve thee to the end;
be thou forever near me,
my Master and my friend.
I shall not fear the battle
if thou art by my side,
nor wander from the pathway
if thou wilt be my guide.

John Ernest Bode (1816-1874) has given the church one of its most enduring hymns of Christian discipleship. It was so popular that Bishops in the Church of England were weary of singing it and discouraged its use at confirmations.

Born in London, John Ernest Bode was educated at both Eton and Charterhouse, as well as Christ Church, Oxford (B.A., 1837; M.A., 1840). His service as a Fellow of Christ Church (1841-1847) included taking Holy Orders as deacon in 1841 and priest, 1843. Bode served as a vicar at Westwell, Oxfordshire and Castle Camps, Cambridgeshire.

A high point in his life was an invitation to deliver the prestigious Bampton Lectures at Oxford (1855). The lectures were later published as The Absence of Precision in the Formularies of the Church of England, scriptural and favourable to a State of Probation, an anti-Catholicism tract delivered in the face of rising success of Catholicism in England at the time. His academic aspirations were sidetracked when he was defeated for a Professorship of Poetry at Oxford in 1857 by the distinguished and influential poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). In addition to books of poetry, his major hymn publication was Hymns from the Gospel of the Day for each Sunday and Festivals of our Lord (1860).

Our hymn has its origins in the confirmation of the poet’s daughter and two sons in 1866. It was published two years later as a leaflet by SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) entitled “Hymn for the newly Confirmed” and later in the New Appendix to the New and Enlarged Edition of Hymns for Public Worship (1870), and in Church Hymns and Tunes (1874). When it was published in the second edition of the popular Hymns Ancient and Modern (1875), the success of the hymn was assured. Most major hymnals have included it since then.

The text is based on a verse in John 12 following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his travel to Bethsaida of Galilee just before his impending passion when he shares with his disciples: “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honor” (John 12:23-26, KJV).

The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) includes four of the six original stanzas. Omitted stanzas four and six follow:

O let me see thy features
The look that once could make
So many a true disciple
Leave all things for thy Sake;
The look for that beam’d on Peter
When he thy name denied;
The look that draws thy loved ones
Close by the pierced side.

O let me see thy footmarks,
And in them plant mine own;
My hope to follow duly
Is in thy strength alone;
O guide me, call me, draw me,
Uphold me to the end,
And then in heaven receive me,
My Savior and my friend.

The first of the omitted stanzas seems somewhat poetically forced, incorporating references to Peter. The original final stanza is anticlimactic containing a reference to following Christ to “glory.”

The last lines of the final stanza in the hymnal echoes the first four lines of the hymn closely, giving a proper sense of finality:

And Jesus, I have promised
to serve thee to the end;
O give me grace to follow,
my Master and my Friend.

Stanza two is particularly appropriate for confirmation, discouraging the ways of the world – “the sights that dazzle, the tempting sounds I hear” – and evil influences – “my foes are ever near me, around me and within.” Stanza three dissuades the confirmand from the ways of the flesh: to rise “above the storms of passion, the murmurs of self will.”

More than fifty years after its publication, composer and hymnal editor Percy Dearmer noted its overuse in his Songs of Praise Discussed (1933), “Bishops have been known to implore their clergy that this hymn should not be sung at all the Confirmations they attend.”

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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