A Charge to Keep I Have (Hymn Story)
The brothers, John and Charles Wesley, had a tremendous impact in the 18th century –– an impact that continues even today. John, of course, was the great preacher and evangelist. Charles was the great writer of hymns. His hymns include "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," and at least six thousand more.
If you were looking for poetic inspiration, you would not likely go to a commentary on one of the Biblical books –– and especially not a commentary on the book of Leviticus. But that is where Wesley found his inspiration for this hymn. Leviticus 8:35 says:
"Therefore shall ye abide
at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation
day and night seven days,
and keep the charge of the Lord,
that ye die not:
for so I am commanded" (KJV).
In his commentary on that verse, Matthew Henry said:
"We shall everyone of us have a charge to keep,
an eternal God to glorify,
an immortal soul to provide for,
our generation to serve,
and it must be our daily care to keep this charge,
for it is the charge of the Lord and Master,
who will shortly call us to an account about it,
and it is our utmost peril if we neglect it."
So it takes very little imagination to see how Wesley derived the following lines from Henry's commentary:
"A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify,
a never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky.
"To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill;
O may it all my powers engage to do my Master's will."
Wesley first published this hymn in his Short Hymns on Select Passages of the Holy Scriptures in 1762.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan