Song Stories: ‘I Surrender All’

Jan 23, 2014

The day I wrote this story, little did I know the joy that awaited me.  As I read the Upper Room devotion, the author Keith Honeyman from  South Africa described his misguided desires. They were similar to what I shared when I began to write the hymn story for “I Surrender All.”

He wrote: “My dream is to rent a stadium and witness to tens of thousands or to go platinum with a gospel CD that raises the pulse-rate of millions. I daydream about making a “big splash” for Jesus.” But his message ended with a new desire to follow Jesus as a disciple and do His will.

As a child, I had my daydreams.  Because my father had been a vaudeville performer, I loved to hear his stories of the spotlight and applause. The added excitement of movies and movie stars convinced me that I wanted to be one of them.

My sister was beautiful and gained fame as Miss South Carolina in the Miss America Pageant of 1945. Could I ever achieve such renown?  So at 10-years old, I had more dreams. At least I could sing, so when I learned how to play the ukelele one summer at Lake Junaluska, I decided it would pave my pathway to fame. When I sang and played that “uke’ on a radio program in high school, that became part of my dream.

When I read the story of the composer of this hymn, “I Surrender All,” I rejoiced that he could be honest and forthright with his misguided dream for his life.  Judson W. Van De Venter (1855-1939) was born in Dundee, Michigan. From early childhood he was a budding artist and became a school teacher to provide a livelihood while he continued his study of art.

For years he struggled with his desire to be a recognized artist, or to submit to the Lord’s call on his life. His family and others in their church saw the potential of ministry within his kind and loving heart.  He was not only urged to become a minister, but the day came when he surrendered to that call from God. His first love as an artist was replaced by a first love for Jesus Christ.

In his own words he has shared that surrender: “At last the pivotal hour of my life came and I surrendered all.  A new day was ushered into my life. I became an evangelist and discovered down deep in my soul a talent hitherto unknown to me. God had hidden a song in my heart and touching a tender chord He caused me to sing songs I had never sung before.”

“All to Jesus I surrender.  All to Him I freely give.   I will ever love and trust Him. In His presence daily live.  I surrender all,   I surrender all.  All to Jesus I surrender, I surrender all.”

We can also read these words of scripture that identify Van De Venter’s faith. “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Philippians 3:7)

In Billy Graham’s book, “Crusade Hymn Stories,” we read these words. “One of the evangelists who influenced my early preaching was also a hymnist who wrote ‘I Surrender All.’ He was a regular visitor at the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity Bible College) in the late 1930s. We students loved this kind, deeply spiritual gentleman and often gathered in his winter home at Tampa, Florida, for an evening of fellowship and singing.”

Yes, this great witness to Graham enriched his life of ministry. This committed visitor to a college campus had wanted to do his own thing for many years. His surrender to the same Lord that Graham was devoted to is a testimony to the living presence of our Lord and to those who long to obey.

When we sing this hymn, we must confront our own dreams that may stand in the way of God’s will for our lives.  What dreams do we need to surrender?  What direction do we need to change? What goals do we have for living a fulfilled life?

A good friend laughed as we left church one Sunday, and said she was crossing her fingers behind her back as she sang the closing hymn of the morning, “I Surrender All.” I understood those feelings so we decided to always sing it with an open heart and no crossed fingers.

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