William Longstaff was an active member of the church at New Brighton, England. One day a preacher said the following words that left a lasting impression on Mr. Longstaff. He said:
My text is found in I Peter 1:16, ‘Be ye holy, for I am holy.’ If you will turn in your Bibles to the Old Testament, and read Leviticus 11:44, you will find the words which St. Peter quoted in his first letter in the New Testament. For the writer of the third Book of Moses said these words in that passage, ‘For I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves, therefore and be holy, for I am holy.’ The forty-fifth verse concludes with the very same admonition, couched in these words, ‘For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.’
As he thought about the sermon, He came to this conclusion:
Since holiness is the life of God in the life of man, surely we need not scream and shout as if God were deaf, nor make fools of ourselves in our services of public worship as if God Himself were a fool …. We are not to be holy as idiots are holy, or as drunkards and fools are holy, but we are to be holy as God Himself is holy.
Later, a missionary to China, Dr. Griffith John, spoke at a Keswick Conference in England and used the phrase, ‘take time and be holy,’ Mr. Longstaff changed the phrase just a little bit to form a personalized command: “Take time to be holy.” In meditating on the message, he wrote out what it meant to him to be holy as a businessman. It was not long before the words and phrases began to form and the poem began to take shape.
In 1873, Moody and Sankey were looking for a second church to use to conduct their evangelistic meetings. Rev. Arthur A. Rees, pastor of Bethsaida Chapel of Sunderland, England, was willing for D.L. Moody to come preach at the church, but not Ira Sankey! He explained that his people thought the organ was the devil’s box of whistles, and so not only did they rule out instruments but also solos in worship. It was suggested that the pastor in fairness give Ira Sankey a “trial solo” and William Longstaff’s house was chosen for the event. Sankey came and sat at Longstaff’s harmonium and played and sang, passing the test with high honors. As a result, Bethsaida Chapel became the second church to host Moody and Sankey.
But while Sankey was there in Longstaff’s house, he noticed the personal poem Longstaff had written, and insisted on getting his own copy of “Take Time to Be Holy.” Because of Longstaff’s persistence in making time to be holy, his devotion was evident to all those that came within his influence.
The poem was published in 1882 and found their way into several Christian journals from the files of Sankey. A friend clipped the poem for Stebbens, who put them with his other papers and then while in India with George Pentecost at evangelistic meetings, set the words to music.
To Longstaff’s surprise, the hymn appeared in 1892 in the Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs and Solos, with the tune composed the year before by Stebbins for the poem called “Holiness.”
Lewis Sperry Chafer at Dallas Theological Seminary used to stop his students when they sang this hymn and have them change the words to “Take time to behold Him …”
Ernest K. Emurian, Forty Stories of Famous Gospel Songs (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1977), pp. 128-131.
J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 2 Co 3:18.
William J. Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1976), pp. 435-436.
Ira David Sankey, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns and of Sacred Songs and Solos, (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Sunday School Times Company, 1907), pp. 381-382. Stebbins portrait on page 157.
Warren Shiver, 104 of My Favorite Hymn Stories, (Biscoe, North Carolina: Springmaid Publishing House), Vol. 2, No. 77.