Saturday, July 9, 2016

My Jesus, I Love Thee -- William Ralph Featherston

‘Oh to remember my commitment afresh as in my youth’, someone has said in more or less these very words. If you or I wanted to recapture what it was like, as a teenager, to sense the zeal for our Creator-Redeemer, we wouldn’t need to make something up out of thin air. A 16-year-old Canadian wrote, probably from his Montreal home (see its flag here), “My Jesus, I Love You” to show how that fervor played out for himself. And, how his words came to be published showed he wanted to share this overflowing sensation. But, could he have expected that what he wrote would travel so far, to another continent? This sequence of events showed the potency of his expression, of how universal his thoughts and the One to whom they were directed must have been.

William Ralph Featherston is believed to have written “My Jesus, I Love Thee” in 1862 in the afterglow of his conversion, kicking off a series of further events that have allowed his thoughts to endure for the last 150-plus years. He must have been a young man (even if just 16) in touch with his own moral imperfections, prompting his turn to the Divine to salvage himself and spurring the heartfelt poetry he chose to mark the occasion. It was further evidence of this ebullience when he sent the words to an aunt in Los Angeles. She must have been someone he reckoned would especially appreciate his life-changing decision and rejoice with him in the poem he related to her. Did she also have connections in the music publishing world, or under what circumstances did she pass along her nephew’s rhyme to someone in England, where it was in print two years later? Since he died a bare 10 or 11 years later, was William a sickly individual, suffering a physical malady that ultimately took his life, while also compelling this teenager’s self-examination and spiritual commitment? Many hymns have been planted and grow in the soil of someone’s health struggle. Featherston wrote no other hymns that we know of, heightening our appreciation for what he said this one time. Was it perhaps even something to which he clung because he could sense his own demise was near? Jesus was his, William said, so the accessibility of his God was once facet of Jesus that struck him (v. 1). His sacrifice (v.2) and the promise of eternity (v.4) also drew his heart to Him, mature concepts that this teen had nevertheless accepted. William was ready for Him, and God was ready to use him in return.                 

God doesn’t really care how youthful I am. He used someone else in her early life to do something quite unexpected, in fact incredible and totally unique by any standards before or since. Mary, of course, had little to offer, except for how she was prepared to respond once she got over the shock of what Gabriel told her. “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38) Could it be that He finds a malleable heart more often in the young, in someone who’s unaccomplished, unassuming, and maybe a bit shy and uncertain of herself? William Featherston may have been, as a 16-year-old, once perceived that way, and look what he did! Oh to be a teenager again. Hey, with God, all things are possible.  
See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003. 

Also see this link, showing all four original verses:

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