Sung by Christians locally and around the world for generations, the words of “I Surrender All” have inspired many, from Rev. Billy Graham to talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, since a former Hillsdale College student first wrote them down.
Judson Wheeler van DeVenter, a student in Hillsdale’s commercial and telegraph department from 1874-1876, according to college archivist Linda Moore, wrote the hymn “I Surrender All” as he struggled between continuing a career in art or moving into full-time ministry.
In 1891, van DeVenter found himself arguing with God. He wanted to continue as a public high school art teacher and supervisor in Pennsylvania. Despite being an active member in his Methodist Episcopalian church and participating in evangelistic meetings, van DeVenter felt God was calling him to do more. His friends encouraged him to pursue a career in ministry. But he resisted.
“All to Jesus I surrender,/ All to him I freely give;/ I will ever love and trust him,/ In his presence daily live.”
Van DeVenter grew up on a small farm in Dundee, Michigan. Although born in a Christian household on Dec. 5, 1855, he did not become a follower of Jesus Christ until he was 17.
He attended Hillsdale with his older brother, Virgil, who graduated in 1879 with a degree in literature, but Judson van DeVenter did not obtain a diploma. He did take art and music classes, however, and could play 13 instruments by the end of his life.
In 1880, he married and had two sons and a daughter who died at the age of 20. After his wife died in 1924, he married a pianist and music teacher in 1925.
Van DeVenter’s own musical talents would end his struggle with God after five years, as he began full-time ministry, sources said. While leading a meeting at the Ohio home of national evangelist George Sebring, he wrote the words of “I Surrender All.”
“For some time, I had struggled between developing my talents in the field of art and going into full-time evangelistic work,” van DeVenter said, according to hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck in “101 More Hymn Stories.” “At last the pivotal hour of my life came, and I surrendered all. A new day was ushered into my life. I became an evangelist and discovered down deep in my soul a talent hitherto unknown to me. God had hidden a song in my heart, and touching a tender chord, He caused me to sing.”
“I surrender all,/ I surrender all,/ All to thee, my blessed Savior,/ I surrender all.”
In 1896, evangelist song leader and vocalist Winfield S. Weeden put the words to music and the song was published in a book of hymns called “Gospel Songs of Grace and Glory.” Since then, van DeVenter’s song has appeared in hundreds of other hymnals, and its title is on Weeden’s epitaph.
Van DeVenter evangelized throughout the United States, England, and Scotland, visiting art museums along the way. He also had his own radio program called “The Gospel in Song and Story.” Van DeVenter published 60 more hymns, but “I Surrender All” remains the most well-known.
In the 1920s, van DeVenter taught as a professor of hymnology for four years at the Florida Bible Institute, now Trinity Bible College.
After retirement, while still living in the community, van DeVenter frequently returned to the Bible Institute to visit with students and conduct singalongs, according to David P. Bruce, executive assistant to Billy Graham, the uncle of Hillsdale Professor of English John Somerville. Graham met van DeVenter and helped to take care of him.
“We students love this kind, deeply spiritual gentleman and often gathered in his winter home at Tampa, Florida, for an evening of fellowship and singing,” Graham recounted in “Crusade Hymn Stories,” by Cliff Barrows.
Graham said van DeVenter was influential on his earlier preaching and was present at the time of his death on July 17, 1939, in Tampa, Florida.
“And I’ll never forget just before he went to be with God, barely audible but we could hear it, he sang, ‘All to Jesus I surrender,’” Graham said in May 1958, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “He went to be with Christ with a smile on his face, looking forward to seeing Christ.”
Van DeVenter returned home for burial in Dundee’s Maple Grove Cemetery, and Graham carried on van DeVenter’s story by popularizing “I Surrender All” at his revivals.
“All to Jesus I surrender,/ Humbly at his feet I bow,/ Worldly pleasures all forsaken,/ Take me, Jesus, take me now.”
Recorded by many artists since then, the song earned pop singer Deniece Williams a Grammy Award for Best Female Soul Gospel Performance in 1986 after she did her own rendition of it.
Country singer Faith Hill performed “I Surrender All” on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” prompting Winfrey to share how the song had brought her comfort when she believed she lost an audition to play a role in the 1985 film “The Color Purple.” After running around a track singing “I Surrender All,” she received a call from director Steven Spielberg, who told her that she had gotten the part, which earned her nominations for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe in 1986.
Michael Hawn, who has written about van DeVenter and is a professor of church music at the Perkins School of Theology in Texas, said “I Surrender All” continues to resonate with audiences through its repetition and clear message of submitting to God’s will.
“Every congregational song we sing starts with someone’s witness to God’s grace or leadership or whatever in their lives,” Hawn said. “Different traditions interpret that differently, but this song particularly spoke to a lot of people in that era. I think the ‘I Surrender All’ is key in that it was a strong time for foreign mission in an evangelical context…What did it mean to surrender all? It meant being totally open to God’s will.”
The song continues to inspire many today, even at van DeVenter’s alma mater.
Senior Jared Eckert wrote a song he calls “Majesty,” which he said is about remembrance and its response — surrendering. Toward the end of the song, he includes the chorus of “I Surrender All” as a refrain.
“It’s one of those songs that every time I hear it, it always shakes me,” he said. “Every day, I’m trusting God. I’m still learning this lesson and failing and growing… It takes a daily effort of surrender.”