The true story behind the song ‘I have decided to follow Jesus’
‘I Have Decided to Follow Jesus’ is a Christian hymn originating from India. The lyrics are based on the last words of a man in Garo, Assam.
About 150 years ago, there was a great revival in Wales. As a result of this, many missionaries came from England to northeast India to spread the Gospel” (Stier, 2014, n.p.). The Assam region consisted of many tribes that were known for their aggressive head-hunting. Welsh missionaries came into northeastern India in 1841 after the formation of the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Foreign Missionary Society and established their presence in this region throughout the 1840's (Avery, 2016, n.p.; Papers and Discussions, 1886, p. 211).
Into these hostile and aggressive communities, came a group of missionaries from the American Baptist Missions spreading the message of love, peace and hope in Jesus Christ. Naturally, they were not welcomed. Accounts vary, some claiming that Nokseng was evangelised through the efforts of an American Baptist missionary (Bibliatodo Reflection, 2020, n.p.) and others suggesting a Welsh Methodist missionary evangelised the man and his family (wife and two children) [Stier, 2014, n.p.].
One missionary succeeded in converting a man, his wife, and two children. This man’s faith proved contagious and many villagers began to accept Christianity.
Angry, the village chief summoned all the villagers. He then called the family who had first converted to renounce their faith in public or face execution. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the man instantly composed a song which became famous down the years. He sang:
“I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.”
Enraged at the refusal of the man, the chief ordered his archers to arrow down the two children. As both boys lay twitching on the floor, the chief asked, “Will you deny your faith? You have lost both your children. You will lose your wife too.”
But the man sang these words in reply:
“Though no one joins me, still I will follow. Though no one joins me, still I will follow. Though no one joins me, still I will follow. No turning back, no turning back.”
The chief was beside himself with fury and ordered his wife to be shot down. In a moment she joined her two children in death. Now he asked for the last time, “I will give you one more opportunity to deny your faith and live.”In the face of death the man sang the final memorable lines:
“The cross before me, the world behind me. The cross before me, the world behind me. The cross before me, the world behind me. No turning back, no turning back.”
He was shot dead like the rest of his family. But with their deaths, a miracle took place. The chief who had ordered the killings was moved by the faith of the man. He wondered, “Why should this man, his wife and two children die for a Man who lived in a far-away land on another continent some 2,000 years ago? There must be some remarkable power behind the family’s faith, and I too want to taste that faith.”
In a spontaneous confession of faith, he declared, “I too belong to Jesus Christ!” When the crowd heard this from the mouth of their chief, the whole village accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
The song is based on the last words of Nokseng, a man from Garo tribe of Assam (now Meghalaya and some in Assam), India. It is today the song of the Garo people.
Source: Dr. P.P. Job in ‘Why God Why’
The formation of these words into a hymn is attributed to the Indian missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh. The melody is also Indian and with the title “Assam” after the region where the text originated. An American hymn editor, William Jensen Reynolds, composed an arrangement that was included in the 1959 Assembly Songbook.
An alternative tradition attributes the hymn to Simon Marak, from Jorhat, Assam.
Many Christians use this hymn during their services, some of them ignoring the background. If you love this song before knowing its story, you will love it even more because you know what it really means.