Miles Mark Fisher, in Negro Slave Songs in the United States, writes that this African American spiritual could have been written in Virginia in the 1750s based on a story from Hanover, Virginia, 1756: “A black slave asked Presbyterian preacher William Davies, ‘I come to you, sir, that you may tell me some good things concerning Jesus Christ and my duty to God, for I am resolved not to live any more as I have done…Lord [Sir], I want to be a Christian’” (PHH).
What a powerful line – “I am resolved not to live any more as I have done.” It is very easy for us to say as Christians that we have “arrived;” we’ve accepted the call, received Christ into our hearts, and are thereby “Christian.” But how often do we use this as a crutch? How simple it is to justify our painful comments, our complacency in the face of injustice, and our actions done out of pride rather than humility, all because we bear the name “Christian.” Today, and every day, we must dedicate ourselves to being Christian - not just claiming the name as our own - and resolve “not to live any more as we have done.”
Although no one knows where the text or tune originally came from, as mentioned in the Bulletin Blurb, there are speculations as to when it originated. The hymn first appeared in Folk Songs of the American Negro, a compilation by Frederick and John Work, published in 1907. Most hymnals contain very similar texts, omitting the original fourth verse of the Folk Songs text, which reads “I don’t want to be like Judas, in my heart, in my heart.” The original text also read, “In-a my heart,” which is now changed to “In my heart” in modern hymnals. Each verse describes a different part of what it means to be a Christian: to be holy, to be loving, and to be more like Jesus. To be one of these is arguably to be all of these, but it can be helpful to think of these as separate characteristics, so we aren’t overwhelmed by the broad goal of being a Christian.
The tune, I WANT TO BE A CHRISTIAN, like many African American spirituals, can be sung as a call and response, where a soloist or small group sings the first line and the congregation echoes, “In my heart.” The same can be done for the second line, and everyone joins on the chorus. The song can be sung quite successfully a cappella. There are a number of different ways to harmonize on this tune, but in this case, simple is often best.
This hymn is often sung on Ash Wednesday, a day when we confess our need of God’s salvation, and renew our dedication to following Christ. As mentioned above, each of the verses in this song point to a different aspect of Christian living. Within a liturgy, each verse could be sung at a different time during the service. For example, “Lord, I want to be more holy” could be sung after the assurance of pardon, and “Lord, I want to be more loving” could be sung after communion. This hymn could also be paired with “May the Mind of Christ My Savior,” “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” or any other song of dedication.