Sadhu-Sundar-Singh.jpg Today for our series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth we turn to a familiar hymn, or song. It is one that is well-known in most Christian circles, but until I looked it up for this feature, I did not know who had written it. Its lyrics are simple and evoke an image of gospel crusades and altar calls… an image that is starting to call up mixed emotions for some of us. I find new insight into the lyrics by reviewing the life of its author.

Sadhu Sundar Singh was born September 3, 1889 into an important landowning Sikh family in Patiala State in northern India. Sundar Singh’s mother took him week by week to sit at the feet of a Sadhu, an ascetic holy man, who lived in the jungle some miles away, but also sent him to a Christian high school where he could learn English.

The death of his mother when he was fourteen plunged him into violence and despair. He persecuted the missionaries’ Christian converts and ridiculed their faith. In defiance of the Christian faith, he bought a Bible and burned it page by page in his home compound while his friends watched. Three nights later, he determined to commit suicide on a railway line. Sitting on the railway track, Sadhu loudly asked who is the true God. If the true God didn’t show Himself that night, he would commit suicide. Before dawn and shortly before the arrival of the train, God came to Sadhu. He wakened his father to announce that he had seen Jesus Christ in a vision and heard his voice: henceforth he would follow Christ forever, he declared. His father demanded that he give up this absurd conversion. When Sadhu refused, Sher Singh gave a farewell feast for his son, then denounced him and expelled him from the family. Several hours later, Sundar realized that his food had been poisoned, and his life was saved only by the help of a nearby Christian community. He was baptized on his 16th birthday.

Then, in October 1906, he set out from the Christian Leprosy Home at Sabathu where he had been serving. He wore a yellow robe and turban, the traditional garb of a Hindu sadhu, an ascetic devoted to the gods who either begged his way along the roads or sat meditating in some lonely place. The young Sundar Singh had chosen the sadhu’s way, but he desired to be a sadhu of a different sort. “I am not worthy to follow in the steps of my Lord,” he said, “but, like Him, I want no home, no possessions. Like Him I will belong to the road, sharing the suffering of my people, eating with those who will give me shelter, and telling all men of the love of God.”

He traveled through the Punjab and over the Bannihal Pass into Kashmir then through Muslim Afghanistan into the brigand-infested Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan. His robe gave him little protection against the snow, and his feet were torn by the rough path. Soon the Christian communities of the north referred to him as “the apostle with the bleeding feet.” In his travels he was stoned, arrested, and left to sleep in a wayside hut with a cobra for company. He was also visited by a shepherd who talked with strange intimacy about Jesus and then was gone. He made the first of several trips into Tibet.

[In 1908 Singh] recognized a basic dilemma of the Christian mission to India. A brahmin had collapsed in the hot, crowded carriage and, at the next station, the Anglo-Indian stationmaster came rushing with a cup of water from the refreshment room. The brahmin — a high-caste Hindu — thrust it away in horror. He needed water, but he could only accept it in his own drinking vessel. When that was brought, he drank and was revived. In the same way, Sundar Singh realized, India would not widely accept the gospel of Jesus offered in Western guise. That, he recognized, was why many listeners had responded to him in his Indian sadhu’s robe.

He returned to Tibet in 1912, followed by annual trips. Stories from those years are incredible at times, and some contended that these were mystical rather than real happenings. From this trip, he returned with an account of finding a three-hundred-year old Christian hermit in a mountain cave, the Maharishi of Kailas, with whom he spent several weeks in deep fellowship.

Before age 30, his image was widely known. His talks and personal speech sprang out of his early-morning meditations, especially on the Gospels, and many people said, “He not only looks like Jesus, he talks like Jesus must have talked.” In 1918 he made a long tour of South India and Ceylon, and the following year he was invited to Burma, Malaya, China, and Japan. Travels to Britain were paid for by his father, who had recently converted to Christianity as well. Sundar visited the United States, Australia, and Europe, returning to India in 1922.

In 1923 he made the last of his regular summer visits to Tibet, returning home exhausted to spend the next few years, in his own home or those of his friends in the Simla hills, meditating, fellowshiping with others, and writing. In 1929, against all his friends’ advice, Sundar determined to make one last journey to Tibet. He was last seen on the 18th of April 1929 setting off for Tibet. In April he reached Kalka, a small town below Simla, “a prematurely aged figure in his yellow robe among pilgrims and holy men” beginning their own treks to one of Hinduism’s holy places some miles away. He was not seen again; his death remains a mystery, but he is believed to have died somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas in 1929.

I have decided to follow Jesus

I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.

Though I may wander, I still will follow;
Though I may wander, I still will follow;
Though I may wander, I still will follow;
No turning back, no turning back.

The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
No turning back, no turning back.

Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
No turning back, no turning back.

Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
No turning back, no turning back.

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