James George Deck (1807-1884) was born at Bury St. Edmunds,
Suffolk, England, where his father, John Deck, was postmaster. Their
godly Huguenot heritage was carried forward in Mrs. Deck's piety. She
"never punished her children without first praying with them." Every
evening she set aside one hour alone with God to pray for her eight
children, and her children's children, and she had the joy of seeing
every one come to Christ.
When only a teenager, James went through officer's training in Paris
under one of Napoleon's generals, and was then commissioned to India in
1824 as an officer in the East India Company, in the 14th Madras Native
Infantry. Of this time he would write:
Alas! in mad rebellion,
I hoped there were no God:
I cared not for His favor,
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.
Oh, why did I so madly
My mother's law forsake?
Oh, why did I so basely
God's righteous precepts break?
Oh, why did I so blindly
His warnings all despise,
And from the Friend of sinners
Avert my heart and eyes?
Under such conviction he tried to shed his burden by
self-improvement. He took his moralism seriously enough, once even
signing a page of resolutions with his blood. But Mount Sinai did not
engender liberty. Stricken by cholera, he returned to England in 1826
as a sick and humbled young man. His ambition was to become a heroic
soldier and to eventually represent his hometown in parliament. But the
sickly nineteen-year-old on the stretcher did not look too gallant, or
His sister Clara had recently been converted listening to an
evangelical Anglican, and she brought James to hear him. There "he was
brought under the power of the gospel" and was converted. Old things
passed away, and all things became new, his life's ambition then being
to follow Jesus and win souls for the kingdom. Three years later, he
married a godly young lady named Alicia Field.
Returning to India, he made a bold stand, witnessing alongside other
Christian officers, and several soldiers became believers through his
work. There in 1833 he met Anthony Norris Groves who may have
influenced him in a major life decision. Distressed by a conflict of
interests he saw in the goals of the military and the goal of the
Christian, James took a stand for non-resistance and resigned his
commission in the army. He 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 his father-in-law at the vicarage of Hatherleigh
in Devon, his second son, J. Field Deck was "christened." In
conversation, Field complained to his son-in-law about those
troublesome Baptists. This stirred James' curiosity to go to the Word
of God to find what it said about baptismal regeneration and the
sprinkling of infants. What he found, or should we say did not find,
turned him against the errors in the Prayer Book. How could he ever be
ordained as an Anglican priest? He could never consent "to all and
everything contained in the Book of Common Prayer." He told 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."
Leaving the Anglican Church and a future in a salaried pastorate,
James and Alicia were baptized by immersion as believers. Once outside
the auspices of the state church, he began to preach Christ wherever
possible, all the while trusting the Lord to supply the young family's
material needs. His son would later testify that his parents enjoyed "a
trust never disappointed." James preached in the villages of Colaton,
Raleigh, and Kingston. It was in Devon county that he contacted simple
gatherings of Christians, and acquired both lifelong friendships and
settled convictions about what the church is. Moving to Somerset
county, he labored in the gospel in the little villages around Taunton.
This was a happy time of ingathering and upbuilding.
The rediscovery of the blessed hope so rejoiced the believers that
in that part of England singing was a trademark of the awakening.
During this period (1838-1844), brother Deck penned his hymns, Abba!
Father! We Approach Thee; A Little While! Our Lord Shall Come; Lamb of
God! Our Souls Adore Thee; and Jesus, We Remember Thee. The themes of
worship, consecration, and our Lord's return are prominent. Hymns for
the Use of the Church of Christ was published by Robert C. Chapman in
1837. In 1839, A Selection of Hymns by Sir Edward Denny appeared.
Deck's hymns were published as Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs in
1842. In 1838, George V. Wigram published a collection of hymns called
Hymns for the Poor of the Flock. This hymnbook was the basis for A Few
Hymns and some Spiritual Songs Selected for the Little Flock of 1856.
The most common edition in use was edited by J. N. Darby in 1881. The
Little Flock hymnbook has forty-four hymns by J. G. Deck and one by
Deck's sister, Mary Jane Walker. Mary's husband, Edward Walker, was
responsible for introducing Deck's hymns to the church at large by
publishing The Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship in 1855.
This excellent hymnbook went into several editions. It contains the
best of Darby, Denny, and Chapman's poetry.
The Decks moved on to Weymouth in Dorset county. Some time after
1846, he began to work closely with Henry Dyer, who had come over from
Plymouth. For a time, young Henry lived with the Deck family, and
helped run a school. Henry had a remarkable gift in personal
evangelism, as he and James preached from street corners to audiences
smothered beneath the pretensions of high church traditionalism. Souls
were won for God and assemblies of saints spontaneously formed. This
was strenuous, but more taxing still was the rift among assemblies that
occurred at that time called "the Bethesda Question." A poem he had
written in 1838 had been cited by B. W. Newton as teaching the same
doctrine that had caused the rift. Deck immediately issued a public
retraction of the questionable lines. Beside this embarrassment, many
of Deck's close associates, such as William Dyer, Henry's older
brother, had been too closely involved with the controversy. It was
deeply upsetting to see assemblies Deck had worked with, such as in
Taunton, alienated from neighboring congregations.
Deck's physical health wore so thin he backed off entirely from
public ministry and shut down his schoolwork. Medical advisers thought
a sea voyage might be the needed catalyst for his recovery. Whether
Deck's problem was physical or emotional, we are not told. What we do
know is that Deck's solution was to emigrate with Alicia and their
eight children to New Zealand in 1852. Years later, J. N. Darby
suggested in a letter that the reason that Deck left for New Zealand
was that he "had fallen under the influence of Bethesda." Darby freely
acknowledged that Deck was blessed by God in his evangelistic efforts,
and was "of gentle spirit and godly," but he immediately added, "he had
not the courage to investigate the matter, and fled." Was it that Deck
had less courage than Darby, or did he possess more discretion? That
will all be manifest at the judgment seat of Christ. What does seem
apparent is that Deck did not enjoy the smell of the arena.
Deck purchased land and settled with the family at Waiwerro, near
the village of Motueka, in the Nelson province of the South Island. The
climate seemed good, and it appeared that James might rebound when the
family took another severe blow. Only three months into their new home,
Alicia fell sick, and after a brief illness was ushered into the Lord's
presence. Despite this shock, Deck's health was restored enough for him
to resume his gospel labors.
In 1855, he remarried and his second wife bore him five children,
but after the birth of their fifth child, both the baby and mother died
when they contracted measles. This second shock occurred in the midst
of fruitful gospel efforts. In the 1860s, he had begun to reach out to
the Maoris near his home. Many of these Polynesians responded to the
gospel and were baptized. Deck was a great impetus to the believers of
European extraction to cross over cultural boundaries in order to
preach the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Deck also promoted the
distribution of literature and arranged for the translation of some of
Charles Stanley's tracts into Maori.
In 1865, he moved his family to Wellington, and saw a happy,
vigorous assembly raised up. The work spread out and several other
meetings sprang up in the district. The hymn writer in Deck reappeared,
too. He penned the baptismal hymn, Around Thy Grave, Lord Jesus, and
The veil is rent, lo! Jesus stands
Before the throne of grace;
And clouds of incense from His hands
Fill all the Holy Place.
This poem appeared in Deck's Hymns and Sacred Poems, published in
1876. It has one-hundred-and-one hymns and sixty-five poems. Deck's
contribution to the hymns of the church is not in any poetic
innovation. His style is not so different from Isaac Watts or Charles
Wesley. It is the subject matter that has earned Deck a lasting place
in our hymnbooks. His hymns are written as worshipful expressions
directed to God. Deck would not approve of the way popular evangelistic
lyrics put words into the lost sinner's mouth. He felt that the song of
the redeemed should be sung by the redeemed, directed to God.
G. V. Wigram visited New Zealand in the 1870s and John Darby also
made the voyage in 1875, spending at least seven months ministering to
the assemblies. According to Darby, Deck returned to the fold of
exclusivism at the end of his life, although many of his descendants
have not done so.
Paying a visit to his son, medical doctor J. Field Deck, in
Invercargill, Deck found a dozen saints meeting in his home to break
bread. The aged patriarch stayed on to help the fledgling assembly.
Needing a rest from his exertions, he returned with his family to
Motueka. But this time he was not going to recover. For the next two
years he was a complete invalid. It was in August of 1884 that he
entered by practical experience into what he had taught so many to sing:
Soon the bright glorious day,
The rest of God, shall come,
Sorrow and sin shall pass away,
And we shall reach our home.
Then of the promised joy possessed,
Our souls shall know eternal rest.
As Martin Luther taught the theme of the Reformation in hymns, and
Charles Wesley taught the doctrines of primitive Methodism by song, so
Deck gave popular expression to the hope of the Church and the heavenly
citizenship of the Christian. David said, "Thy statutes have been my
songs in the house of my pilgrimage." God's children not only believe
the doctrines of God's Word, we sing them!
Material for this article taken from:
Louis F. Benson, The English Hymn, Its Development and Use in Worship, Hodder & Stoughton (1915)
Jack Strahan, Hymns and Their Writers, Gospel Tract Publ. C. Knapp, Who Wrote Our Hymns, Loizeaux Bros.
J. N. Darby, Letters of J.N.D. (1868-1879), vol. 2