The hymn Almost Persuaded has a distinguished history in evangelicalism. Its key refrain is derived from the Authorised Version’s (KJV) wording of Acts 26:28:
“Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
Before analysing the history of the hymn in more depth, we must recognise that the Authorised Version gives an inaccurate representation of what Agrippa says to St. Paul. Commentaries have long noted that the wording of the Authorised Version is misleading.
Charles J. Ellicott, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, wrote in his 1878 commentary:
At the cost of giving up a familiar and impressive text, it must be admitted that the Greek words cannot possibly bear the meaning which is thus put upon them. The words run literally, in, or with, a little thou persuadest me; and this may be completed by, “with little speech,” “with little labour,” or “little evidence.” So in Ephesians 3:3 we have precisely the same phrase rendered “in few words.”
Agrippa’s words, accordingly, are the expression, not of a half-belief, but of a cynical sneer. Thou art trying to make a Christian of me with very few words, on very slender grounds, would be the nearest paraphrase of his derisive answer to St. Paul’s appeal.
The Scottish Baptist preacher and Greek scholar, Alexander Maclaren, wrote in his own commentary:
They are very familiar words, and they have been made the basis of a great many sermons upon being all but persuaded to accept of Christ as Saviour. But, edifying as such a use of them is, it can scarcely be sustained by their actual meaning. Most commentators are agreed that our Authorised Version does not represent either Agrippa’s words or his tone. He was not speaking in earnest. His words are sarcasm, not a half melting into conviction, and the Revised Version gives what may, on the whole, be accepted as being a truer representation of their intention when it reads, ‘With but little persuasion thou wouldst fain make me a Christian.’
Modern translations show the nuances of the statement better:
(NIV) Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
(NLT) Agrippa interrupted him. “Do you think you can persuade me to become a Christian so quickly?”
(ESV) And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
(HCSB) Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily?”
Whatever the inaccuracies of the AV’s translation, this hymn has had a powerful effect on many congregations. Sources indicate that when sung after a sermon, it had the capacity to reduce thousands of people to deathly silence, or else tears:
One of the most impressive occasions on which this hymn was sung was in the Agricultural Hall in London, in 1874, when Mr. Gladstone was present. At the close of his sermon Mr. Moody asked the congregation to bow their heads, while I sang “Almost Persuaded”. The stillness of death prevailed throughout the audience of over fifteen thousand, as souls were making their decisions for Christ.
“While engaged in evangelistic work in western Pennsylvania,” writes the Rev. A. J. Furman, “I saw the people deeply moved by singing. I had begun my preparation to preach in the evening, from the text, ‘Almost thou persuaded me to be a Christian,’ when it occurred to me that if Mrs. B-, an estimable Christian and a most excellent singer, would sing, ‘Almost Persuaded’ as a solo, great good might be done.
At once I left the room and called on the lady, who consented to sing as requested. When I had finished my sermon, she sang the song with wonderful pathos and power. It moved many to tears. Among them was the principal of the high school who could not resist the appeal through that song. He and several others found the Pearl of Great Price before the next day. After the close of the sermon, I spoke to Mrs. B about the effect of her singing, and she told me that she had been praying earnestly all that afternoon, that she might so sing as to win sinners for her Saviour that night, and her prayers were surely answered.”
A couple of observations. First, these sources describe a palpable tension among 19th century congregants. The gospel message they were hearing was clearly presented to them as being supremely serious and important. A decision to repent and believe in Christ was demanded and none of them walked away from the service with any illusions that a half-baked confession was going to suffice.
So powerfully was this impressed upon people, that a sad story serves to illustrate just how important the moment of decision was preached.
(Please note: the following story bears the imprint of “cautionary tales of dubious authenticity” that have tended to be common in Christian “preaching lore”. Obviously it is impossible to verify the particulars of this story since no names or specific details are mentioned other than a certain Reverend Young (who could be anybody!). The story, in my opinion, is probably inauthentic since it does not pass the credibility test.
But, the fact that these stories were in circulation at all, and no doubt proclaimed from the pulpit, tell us something about how people saw faith in Christ. It was desperately urgent! Time was of the essence! Delay was foolish and hazardous!)
Said a young man to the Rev. Mr. Young: “I intend to become a Christian some time, but not now. Don’t trouble yourself about me. I’ll tend to it in good time.”
A few weeks after, the man was injured in a saw-mill, and, as he lay dying, Mr. Young was called to him. He found him in despair, saying: “Leave me alone. At your meeting I was almost persuaded, but I would not yield, and now it is too late. Oh, get my wife, my sisters and my brothers to seek God, and do it now, but leave me alone, for I am lost.”
Within an hour he passed away, with these words on his lips, “I am lost, I am lost, just because I would not yield when I was almost persuaded”.
The essence of the story should not fail to make its impression upon us, even if it is not historically true. There is nothing more bitter, nothing more terrible than “to be lost”.
The hymn was written by Philip Paul Bliss. The inspiration was a severe warning he heard at the close of a sermon:
“He who is almost persuaded is almost saved, and to be almost saved is to be entirely lost,” were the words with which the Rev. Mr. Brundage ended one of his sermons.
P. P. Bliss, who was in the audience, was much impressed with the thought, and immediately set about the composition of what proved to be one of his most popular songs.
Philip Bliss’s life was cut short five years after this hymn was composed. Both Bliss and his wife were involved in a train wreck. Philip Bliss survived the wreck, but turned back and braved the flames to rescue his wife. Subsequently, both were killed.
Although Philip Bliss died at the age of 38, his life bears the imprint of one who was busy using his talents while he could. He composed 132 hymns, about 38 hymn tunes, and published 6 volumes of hymns, roughly one for each of the years proceeding his death. If only Christians were as active in the world today.
According to one source, he was living the light of eternity, right up to the point of his death:
The night before that terrible railroad accident at Ashtabula… he said to his audience, “I may not pass this way again”.
Then he sang a solo, I’m Going Home Tomorrow. This indeed proved prophetic of his own home going.
In the past, Christians were much more mindful of the fragility of life in a way that has increasingly become a struggle in our scientifically successful, entertainment saturated, our-best-life-now oriented society.
In the past, people learned to “number their days aright”, make certain their were “fully persuaded”, and took eternity very seriously. They applied their hearts unto wisdom.