History of Hymns: “My Jesus, I Love Thee”

by C. Michael Hawn

"My Jesus, I Love Thee"
William R. Featherstone
The UM Hymnal, No. 172

William R. Featherstone

My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine;
For thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou;
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.


The text of this favorite hymn, especially of northern evangelicals, was likely written at the conversion of author William Ralph Featherstone (1846-1873) when he was a teenager. 

The simplicity and sincerity of the text has resonated with Christians for well over 150 years, particularly as a hymn of invitation or a prayer hymn. 

Featherstone (sometimes spelled “Featherston”) was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada where his parents were members of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, suggests that the hymn was composed sometime between the author’s conversion in 1858 and when it was included in The London Hymn Book (1864). Little else is known of Featherstone. 

A stanza omitted in the UM Hymnal appears as the third stanza in many hymnals:

I will love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death,
And praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath;
And say when the deathdew lies cold on my brow,
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.


This stanza has the earmarks of 19th-century Romantic hymnody with its focus on death. The final stanza alluding to “mansions of glory” (John 14:2) in heaven serves the same purpose in a more positive way. 

Stanzas two, three and four of the original hymn each include a reference to “brow” as a unifying theme: “wearing thorns on thy brow” (stanza two), “deathdew lies cold on my brow” (stanza three) and “glittering crown on my brow” (stanza four). 

The other unifying theme is the final line of each stanza: “If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.” This focus on the singer’s love of Christ permeates the hymn from the first line. If all four of the original stanzas are included, the words “love” or “loved” appear 10 times. 

Other expressions of affection include “gracious Redeemer” (stanza one) and “ever adore thee” (stanza four). Like many hymns of this era, this one expresses total devotion to Christ in a language of intimacy. 

Composer Adoniram Judson Gordon (1836-1895)—named for the pioneering Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) who served in India and Burma—discovered the anonymous hymn in the 1870 edition of The London Hymnal

Gordon, a graduate of Newton Theological Seminary (now Andover Newton), included the text with his tune in The Service of Song for Baptist Churches (1876), edited by Gordon and S.L. Caldwell. The pairing of text and tune has become standard to this day.
 

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

Categories: History of Hymns

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