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The song was written while I was conducting a meeting at East Palestine, Ohio, and in the home of George Sebring (founder of Sebring Campmeeting Bible Conference . . .). For some time, I had struggled between developing my talents in the field of art and going into full-time evangelistic work. At last the pivotal hour of my life came, and I surrendered all. A new day was ushered into my life. I became and 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.
This testimony makes more sense when knowing more about the author’s life. Judson Van de Venter (1855-1939) was raised on a farm near Dundee, Michigan. After graduating from Hillsdale College, he taught art in public schools in Sharon, Pennsylvania. Van Deventer was active as a layman in his Methodist Episcopal Church, including participation in revivals held at the church.
Based on his fervent faith and service to the church, friends encouraged him to leave his field of teaching and become an evangelist. It took five years for him to finally "surrender all" and follow the advice of his friends. His ministry took him to various places in the United States, England, and Scotland.
Perhaps the most important influence that Van de Venter had was on the young evangelist Billy Graham. The Rev. Graham cites this hymn as an influence in his early ministry. His account appears in Crusade Hymn Stories, edited by Graham's chief musician, Cliff Barrows:
One of the evangelists who influenced my early preaching was also a hymnist who wrote "I Surrender All" -- the Rev. J. W. Van de Venter. He was a regular visitor at the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity Bible College) in the late 1930's. 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.
More than sixty of Van de Venter's hymns appeared in various twentieth-century hymnals, but "I Surrender All" (1896) is his most famous.
One of the characteristics of many gospel songs is the repetition of a key word or phrase throughout the hymn. Each of the five stanzas begins with the line, "All to Jesus I surrender." The refrain includes the phrase, "I surrender all" three times in the melody and an additional two times in the men's part. This means that the one who sings all five stanzas would sing the word "surrender" thirty times. The other key word – "all" – would be sung forty-three times!
The stanzas all revolve around the key word. Stanza one stresses complete surrender: "all to him I freely give." In stanza two, the singer forsakes "worldly pleasures." Stanza three prays to "feel the Holy Spirit." Stanza four asks for Jesus' empowerment, to be filled with "thy love and power." In the final stanza, the singer "feel[s] the sacred flame," an image of the Holy Spirit. The result of feeling Christ's "full salvation," is to sing "glory to his name."