Whereas Horatius Bonar's and Frances Havergal's hymns had several themes - worshipful, experiential, and evangelical, almost all of J G Deck's are most suitable for singing at the Lord's Supper.¹ Perhaps the most used is Lamb of God, our souls adore Thee…in one or both of its parts. But for all of these hymn writers, their central theme was Christ and the heavenly calling of believers, whilst their life stories were quite different.
James George Deck was born on 1st November, 1802 at Bury St. Edmunds where his father was postmaster. It is on record how his mother's godly influence, especially her prayers, greatly blessed all her eight children. It is said she never punished any of them without first praying with them. All of them were saved, although for James this did not happen until he was about 24 years old.
As a young man he had ambitions for a military career and then to enter Parliament. So he went to study in Paris under one of Napoleon's generals. Then in 1824 he was commissioned into the 14th Madras Native Infantry in the service of the East India Company. Once there he tried to forget about God and his Christian upbringing, but he could not. His conscience kept calling. At one time he wrote out and signed with his blood a "declaration of improvement", but it would not work! Peace with God would not come this way. After two years in India he went down with cholera and had to be shipped home, a weak and chastened young man. He later described his experience in India in the following verses:
Alas! in mad rebellion, I hoped there were no God:
I cared not for His favour, though trembling at His rod;
I wished His word a fable that warned of wrath to come;
"No God", my heart would mutter, "No future weal, or doom!"
And yet my mother taught me, in tones so sweet and mild,
To know its holy pages e'en when I was a child;
She read to me of Jesus, of all His grace and love;
And sought with tears my blessing - His blessing from above.
His sister Clara, not long saved, took him to hear a godly preacher through whose ministry he found peace in believing. This changed his ambition. He now wanted to follow Christ and reach others with the gospel. In 1829 he married Alicia Field, and soon after that returned to India where he boldly took his stand for Christ in the army, and God blessed his witness.
But he soon found his position in the armed forces incompatible with his new ambitions. He resigned his commission and returned to England in 1835 with his wife and two children, intending to become a clergyman like his father-in-law, Samuel Field. While staying with him at the vicarage of Hatherleigh in Devon, his second son was "christened". A sceptical remark about what the Baptists practised aroused his curiosity to "search the Scriptures to see if these things were so" (see Acts 17.11). He found out that baptismal regeneration and the sprinkling of infants was contrary to the teaching of the New Testament. He could not now with a clear conscience be ordained and consent "to all and everything contained in the Book of Common Prayer". He said to Alicia, "I have left the army to become a clergyman, but now see that the Church of England is contrary to the Word of God; what shall we do?". She replied, "Whatever you believe to be the will of God, do it at any cost".
So they left the Church of England and its traditions and were baptized themselves, coming into contact with other Christians in the district who had become known as "brethren". Mr Deck began to preach Christ in some of the Devon villages where many were saved and baptized and gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus. He also laboured for his Lord in villages around Taunton in Somerset, then later in Weymouth and district. Along with Henry Dyer from Plymouth he ran a school and both of them would often be found preaching at street corners. Souls were won and new assemblies of believers were formed.
During the earlier years of this fruitful period of ministry Deck wrote hymns to help new believers find expression for their worship at the Lord's Supper, and we still enjoy singing them, e.g., Abba, Father, we approach Thee; A little while! our Lord shall come; Lamb of God our souls adore Thee; and Jesus we remember Thee.
Tragically there was a serious rift among assemblies in the West Country around this time. Deck was heartbroken to see those he had nurtured and worked with so sadly alienated from others nearby (over the "Bethesda Question" – see BM, June, 2014). Partly due to this, and partly because of overwork, his health broke down and his public ministry and schoolwork were suspended. His eventual solution was to emigrate to New Zealand in 1852 with Alicia and their eight children. J N Darby acknowledged that Deck was blessed by God in his evangelistic efforts, and was "of gentle spirit and godly," but he added, "he had not the courage to investigate the matter, and fled". But many would question that last statement. Posterity might judge that Deck's course was the better and less damaging one.
In New Zealand, he settled with his family at rural Waiwerro near the village of Motueka in Nelson province, South Island. Sadly, after only three months there his loving wife died following a brief illness. In 1855, he remarried and they had five more children, but after the birth of the fifth, both baby and mother died when they contracted measles. This second sad bereavement occurred during new and fruitful gospel efforts. He had begun to reach out to Maoris near his home, many of whom responded to the gospel and were baptized. Deck gave a great lead to European believers in crossing cultural boundaries to preach Christ to other races. He also promoted the distribution of literature and arranged for the translation of tracts into the Maori language.
In 1865 he moved to Wellington with his family. He found fruitful opportunities for service in that city and province, both in gospel preaching and Bible teaching, and several assemblies were formed. He wrote more hymns also, such as: Jesus Thy Name we love; Lord Jesus are we one with Thee?; Lord, we are Thine; O happy day when first we felt; Oft we, alas, forget the love; The veil is rent. He later visited Invercargill in the south of the island, where his son Dr J Field Deck was practising medicine. In his house a dozen or so believers had commenced to remember the Lord in the breaking of bread, and he was a great help to them.
It is of passing interest that G V Wigram visited New Zealand in the 1870s, and Darby in 1875, spending at least seven months there. He claimed that Deck returned to "exclusivism" at the end of his life, but the evidence for this is slim.
With less energy which comes with advancing age, he returned to Motueka with his family in 1882. But there he became an invalid until the Lord called him home on 14th August, 1884. Many of his own children in the faith made up the large crowd at his funeral in Motueka Cemetery. They sang his own hymn: Thou hast stood here, Lord Jesus.²
For him, however, what he once wrote had become a reality, as it will be for us all someday:
We shall behold Him, whom unseen we love,
We shall be with Him, whom we long to see –
We shall be like Him, fit for realms above –
With Him, and like Him, for eternity!
If now to sit at Jesus' feet our choice,
How will fruition then our souls rejoice!
¹ He published a collection of 101 of his hymns and 65 poems in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1st edition 1876, and 1889 edition, London). In the preface he wrote, "I have sought rather to render the hymns scriptural and true in their tone and character, than to please the natural ear and taste by an attempt at poetic composition".
² See Hymns of Light and Love, no. 587