History of Hymns: “Trust and Obey”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Trust and Obey"
John H. Sammis
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 467

John H. Sammis

“When we walk with the Lord in the light of his word,
what a glory he sheds on our way!
When we do his good will, he abodes with us still,
and with all who will trust and obey.
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
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Many readers of this column grew up singing this familiar gospel song in Sunday School classes, worship services, revival meetings and other gatherings of the church. 

Gospel songs often take a kernel of Scripture and weave a personal or first- person reflection around the chosen passage. We are not sure of the text upon which the author, John H. Sammis (1846-1919), based his hymn. Some sources suggest 1 John 1:7, but, as UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young points out, there does not appear to be any substantial resemblance to this passage and the content of the hymn. 

Hymnologist Kenneth W. Osbeck cites 1 Samuel 15:22: “And Samuel said, ‘Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken better than the fat of rams.’” Perhaps this is the best we can do in this case. 

The hymn was inspired in 1886 when the composer of the music, Daniel B. Towner (1850-1919), was the music leader during one of Dwight L. Moody’s famous revivals. Towner provided the following account cited by Moody’s musical partner, Ira D. Sankey, in his biography, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns: 

“Mr. Moody was conducting a series of meetings in Brockton, Massachusetts, and I had the pleasure of singing for him there. One night a young man rose in a testimony meeting and said, ‘I am not quite sure—but I am going to trust, and I am going to obey.’ I just jotted that sentence down, and sent it with a little story to the Rev. J. H. Sammis, a Presbyterian minister. He wrote the hymn, and the tune was born.” 

Sammis is said to have composed the lines of the refrain upon receiving the letter:

“Trust and obey—for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”


As is the case with most gospel songs, these lines provide the central theme around which all of the stanzas were written. The text and tune first appeared in the 1887 collection, Hymns Old and New, and the hymn has been included in countless hymnals since then. Methodist hymnals in the United States have carried it since 1897. 

Sammis was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was a successful businessman in Logansport, Ind. Through his work with the YMCA he was called to the ministry, attended McCormick and Lane Seminaries, and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1880. After serving congregations in Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota, he joined the faculty of the Los Angeles Bible Institute. 

I can imagine that many a sermon has been based on these three words, and following the singing of this hymn at the conclusion of the sermon, many worshippers have headed home humming or whistling the refrain, providing a lyrical way to take the theme with them. 

Dr. Young points out that this hymn “is concerned with the rewards of trusting God’s word and obeying God’s will.” The ultimate reward, a heavenly one so common in hymnody, appears in the final stanza when the hymn writer muses that “in fellowship sweet we will sit at his feet.” 
 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns

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