History of Hymns: "Would I Have Answered When You Called"
By C. Michael Hawn
"Would I Have Answered When You Called"
by Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr.;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2137
Would I have answered when you called,
“Come, follow, follow me!”?
Would I at once have left behind
both work and family?
Or would the old, familiar round
have held me by its claim
and kept the spark within my heart
from bursting into flame?*
Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr. (1923-2007) was one of the most prolific and theologically thoughtful hymn writers in the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century.
Originally from Clarion, Pennsylvania, he was educated at Susquehanna University (A.B.), Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg (B.D.), Union Theological Seminary, New York (S.T.M.), and Southern California School of Theology at Claremont (Th.D.). After serving parishes in Pennsylvania and Maryland between 1947 to 1959, the Rev. Stuempfle joined the staff of the Board of Social Missions of the United Lutheran Church in America in 1959. In 1962, he became Professor of Preaching at Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg, a position he retained until his retirement in 1989. Dr. Stuempfle also served the seminary as Dean from 1971-1976, and as President from 1976-1989. He was active in much of his retirement in Gettysburg, continuing to teach, preach, lead workshops and conferences, and write hymns. He died on March 13, 2007 after a long battle with ALS.
“Would I have answered when you called” employs the poetic device of rhetorical question effectively throughout the hymn to engage the singer with Christ’s invitation to discipleship. Many hymns written in the first person express an emotional relationship between the singer and Christ. The Rev. Stuempfle’s hymn, however, moves the singers beyond sentimental piety to the challenge of deep Christian commitment.
Throughout the four stanzas, Dr. Steumpfle interweaves biblical allusions with first-person experience. Stanza one, though personal in its application, anchors the singer in the Scripture and the mandate of Christ, “Follow me.” Stanza two references “ancient Galilee,” the place of Christ’s ministry, while still suggesting that the singer might have chosen to “hurr[y] back where home and comfort drew” rather than following Christ.
The test of discipleship becomes more intense in stanza three as the scene changes to the crucifixion and the angry crowds yelling, “Crucify!” Again, the singer is posed with the hard question: “. . . would I too have slipped away/ and left you there alone”?
The relentless soul-searching questions of the first three stanzas give way to the realization we struggle to know what our response might be if we are directly addressed by the Savior:
O Christ, I cannot search my heart
through all its tangled ways,
nor can I with a certain mind
my steadfastness appraise.
We can only pray, according to the hymn writer, that when we hear the call to discipleship, Christ will “give [us] strength beyond [our] own to follow faithfully.”
Two years before his death, during the slow, but inevitable advance of ALS, the Rev. Stuempfle reflected on this hymn to this writer: “'Would I have followed' is more subjective than most of my texts. It was prompted by reading and reflecting on Mark 1:16-20. Mark’s brief narrative is like a mirror that insists upon self-examination. Does the security net of comfort and privilege most of us enjoy keep us from making the immediate and total response of those four fishermen? Are we willing to pay what Bonhoeffer calls ‘the cost of discipleship?’ Such questions cannot be answered in the abstract. Answers appear only when our life circumstances bring us to moments of decision.”
Dr. Stuempfle was the author of several books on preaching and theology including Theological and Biblical Perspectives on the Laity (1973), Preaching in the Witnessing Community (1973), Preaching Law and Gospel (1978), and Images for Ministry: Perspectives of a Seminary President (1995). His collections of hymn texts are published by GIA Publications, Inc., and include The Word Goes Forth (1993), Redeeming the Time (1997), Awake Our Hearts to Praise (2000), and Wondrous Love Has Called Us (2006). His hymn texts have also been published by the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and are found in numerous hymnals and choral works. Dr. Stuempfle was honored as a Fellow of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, the Society’s highest honor, in 2004 for his contributions to hymn writing.
His obituary, published by The Hymn Society states: “Stuempfle is among the most honored and respected of hymn writers of the 20th and 21st Centuries. His four volumes of hymn texts, published by GIA Publications, include songs of devotion and reflection; dancing and jubilation; sorrow, wonder, and delight.” Herman Stuempfle promoted the relationship between preaching and hymn writing: “hymns are the sung testimony to God’s mighty acts of grace and judgment.” To compose hymns was for him a “fundamental vocation to communicate the Gospel.”