Judson Wheeler van DeVenter, a pre­vious Hillsdale student, wrote the famous hymn “I Sur­render All.” Wiki­media Commons

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.”