Behind the Hymn: He Lives
Can you imagine what the disciples and followers of Jesus must have said as word spread
that he was not in the tomb? The words, “He lives” seem to be one option that is plausible.
The hymn was composed in 1933 by Alfred Henry Ackley.
Alfred Ackley was born on January 21, 1887. His father was a Methodist Minister who provided a strong foundation for him in music. He played at least the piano and cello.
As a young man, he began composing songs. He felt called to the pastorate and graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary in Maryland. He was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister in 1914. He pastored churches in Pennsylvania and California. Even while pastoring churches, he never stopped composing and writing. He often composed with his brother, Bentley DeForest Ackley. Alfred Ackley even worked alongside evangelist, Billy Sunday for a while.
He Lives is also often referred to as “I Serve a Risen Savior”, the first line of the hymn.
In Forty Gospel Hymns stories, we are told “In the 1930’s, there was preacher named Alfred Ackley. During a time of evangelistic meetings he was holding, a young Jewish student asked the question, “Why should I worship a dead Jew?” Using the Scriptures to witness to him, Pastor Ackley began to explain to this young man how that Jesus was alive. “He Lives! I tell you; He is not dead, but lives here and now! Jesus Christ is more alive today than ever before. I can prove it by my own experience, as well as the testimony of countless thousands.”
The thought of our resurrected Savior was on his thoughts after that conversation. As he prepared for his Easter sermon, the thought became even more present.
” On that Resurrection Day as he rose early to prepare, Ackley turned on his radio. He was then shocked to hear a liberal preacher say something like this, “You know, it really doesn’t matter to me if Christ be risen or not. His body could have turned to dust long ago in some Palestinian tomb. But what’s important is that His truth goes marching on!”
“It’s a lie,” Pastor Ackley yelled. He was worked up by what he had heard and it mixed with his continual thoughts of the Scripture, “He lives! I tell you, He is NOT dead, but lives here and now! Jesus Christ is more alive today than ever before. I can prove it by my own experience, as well as the testimony of countless thousands.”
Ackley preached with great fervency both that morning and evening on the realization of our Lord’s resurrection. But later that night, he still could not shake the question of that young Jewish student and the words of that liberal preacher. It was then that his wife encouraged him to do something about it.”
Rev. Ackley, in telling the story later, said that he preached that Easter Sunday quite differently than he had ever preached before, but at the end of the day, still felt that he had not yet said everything he wanted to say!
He turned to the passage in Mark that described Christ’s resurrection. The words “He Lives” in the passage stuck out to Ackley. He then began to write, as the words flowed from him. In moments, he was at the piano adding music to the words he’d been inspired to write.
The hymn first appeared in Triumphant Service Songs, a hymnal published by the Rodeheaver Company in 1933. It has been a favorite with evangelical congregations since that time.”
John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, awarded Alfred Ackley an honorary Doctor of Sacred Music degree.
Alfred Ackley died on July 3, 1960 in Los Angeles, California. He wrote over 1500 hymns and secular songs in his lifetime, including God Has Not Forgotten, I Am Coming Home, When Jesus Shall Appear, Somebody Knows, Take Up Thy Cross and There’s a New Day Dawning.