Tuesday, September 26, 2017
The Hymn that Changed a Country
Researching historical novels can take you into some surprising rabbit holes. Most distract, but some are real blessings, even when they never impact the eventual book. I have an alter call in my current project and wanted to find a suitable hymn.
I’ve always loved the hymn, I have Decided to Follow Jesus, because it was the first hymn I learned to play on the piano. And it fit the mood of the scene so well.
The lyrics are based on the last words of Nokseng, a Garo tribesman from Meghalaya, then called Assam in India. Nokseng and his family were converted to Christianity by a Welsh missionary. When called to renounce his faith by the village chief, Nokseng declared, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” As his two children were killed, he continued with the now familiar lyrics, “Though none go with me, still I will follow.” When his wife was killed, his response was, “The cross before me, the world behind me.” Each time he was prodded to recant, he repeated the haunting refrain, “No turning back, no turning back.”
The tribal chief who witnessed the executions was so moved, he later converted to Christianity, along with most in the village. Nokseng’s last words of testimony were often repeated until an Indian missionary, Sadhu Sundar Singh, wrote the hymn and set it to the Indian melody, Assam.
Today, Meghalaya is a lush state in northeast India. It is one of three Indian states with a Christian majority. Close to ninety percent of the Garo tribe is Christian. Because of British rule, beginning in the 1830s, English is the official language. The language and the beautiful scenery make it a popular tourist attraction.
It wasn’t until 1959 that an American hymn editor composed an arrangement of the song, and it became a regular feature of Billy Graham’s evangelistic meetings before they switched to Just as I Am.
Since my book is set in the 1880s, I can’t use the hymn as I intended. But I’m glad I stumbled across Nokseng’s testimony. It affirms the power of one man’s faith. Instead of remaining a hidden rain forest of head-hunters in the high Indian plateau, Meghalaya is a place of lush forests, lakes and waterfalls. Its people are industrious farmers and tradesmen whose villages are dotted with churches, where I’m sure this hymn is frequently heard.
What is your favorite hymn? Maybe I can find one that’s old enough to use in my story.