Home History of Hymns: "Take Time to Be Holy"

History of Hymns: "Take Time to Be Holy"

"Take Time to Be Holy"
William D. Longstaff
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 395

C. Michael Hawn

Take time to be holy,
speak oft with thy Lord;
abide in him always,
and feed on his word.
Make friends of God’s children,
help those who are weak,
forgetting in nothing
his blessing to seek.

This beloved devotional hymn comes to us from British layman William Dunn Longstaff (1822-1894). Since his father was a wealthy ship owner, Longstaff was a person of independent financial means. Due to his generous philanthropy, he was influential in evangelical circles. The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, notes that he followed his friend and persuasive Welsh preacher Arthur A. Rees when he left the Anglican priesthood in 1842 after disagreements with his rector and bishop. As a result, Rees established the Bethesda Free Chapel in Sunderland, where Longstaff served as his church treasurer. He married Joyce Burlinson in 1853 and together they had seven children.

Longstaff befriended a number of well-known evangelists such as William Booth (1829-1912), founder of the Salvation Army. Some of Longstaff’s hymns were published in the official magazine of the Salvation Army magazine, The War Cry, during the 1880s. In 1873 the famous American preacher Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and his chief musician Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908) arrived in England to hold a series of evangelistic meetings. The financial sponsor for their revivals died, leaving them with meager means to continue. They were desperately seeking funds, and Longstaff came to their rescue, helping to establish a donor base that allowed Moody to hold revivals in London and Scotland.

Methodist hymnologist Robert Guy McCutchan notes that Longstaff was inspired by the words of Griffith John, a missionary to China, repeated in a meeting in Keswick, England in the early 1880s. John cited I Peter 1:16, "Be ye holy; for I am holy" (KJV), a reference to Leviticus 11:44. The hymn text appeared in Hymns of Consecration, the collection of hymns used during the Keswick event.

Longstaff showed the hymn to Ira Sankey, who in turn passed it on to American songwriter George C. Stebbins (1846-1945) to set in 1882. Stebbins laid it aside and did not recall it until an evangelistic meeting in India, during which the theme of holiness was explored. Stebbins recalled Longstaff’s hymn and set it to music for the revival. He sent his tune HOLINESS to Sankey, who published the hymn in New Songs and Sacred Solos (1888).

Each of the four stanzas begins with the invitation, "Take time to be holy." The first stanza begins with a devotional request, "speak oft with thy Lord." The invitation to holiness extends to care for "God’s children" and "those who are weak," echoing the twin commandments, Matthew 22:36-40, to love God and neighbor.

The second stanza seeks to be alone with Jesus while "the world rushes on." Through time with Jesus, "like him we shall be," and, as a result, others will witness this "likeness." In Methodist theology, this might be seen as a journey toward Christian perfection.

In stanza three, Jesus becomes the "guide" that we follow and trust. The final stanza suggests that when we "Take time to be holy," our souls become calm. This calmness leads to Jesus' control in our lives. Control manifests itself in "fountains of love." This love in turn "fit[s us] for service above."

Carlton Young distinguishes between Longstaff’s use of holiness and the Wesleyan understanding of personal holiness that demands a "radical change of heart and the resulting release from the bonds of sin as embodied in the Wesleyan precepts of entire sanctification, perfecting grace, perfect love, and Christian perfection." To illustrate the transforming nature of holiness, the Rev. Young cites a section of the opening stanza of Charles Wesley’s hymn, "Love divine, all loves excelling":

Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
end of faith as its beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.

In addition, Longstaff’s sense of devotional holiness also does not embrace a Wesleyan sense of social justice. This hymn has appeared in Methodist hymnals in the United States since 1901, reflecting the evangelical roots of Methodism in this country.

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.