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Hymn Highlight | The Story Behind “He Lives”

Posted by Danielle Stringer on

The hymn “He Lives” has always been a favorite to sing on Resurrection Sunday. I had it on my mind this week and wondered about the history behind it. 

I was surprised to learn the background of why it was written and that I had something in common with it’s author.

Alfred Ackley was born in 1887 in Pennsylvania and showed great musical potential as a child. (This is NOT what we have in common! 🤪)

His father was a musician and taught him all he knew. Alfred went on to study music in New York City, and eventually went to the Royal Academy of Music in London where he played the cello and piano. He could compose music too! 

Alfred later returned to the states to attend Westminster Theological Seminary. After he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1914, he became a pastor in Pennsylvania, but he never stopped writing hymns and music.

Ultimately, Ackley was called to preach in California. He even worked with the well known evangelist Billy Sunday.

It was while preaching in California that he encountered a young Jewish man that challenged Alfred by posing the question, “Why should I worship a dead Jew?”. 

It is recorded that Ackley responded with passion by saying, “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!”.

Alfred Ackley quote about the hymn “He Lives”

His response is backed up by scripture as well. In Matthew 28:6 we read, “He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay”.

With this conversation still circulating in his mind, Ackley woke and began shaving to prepare for church that day. He was listening to a special Easter broadcast on the radio as he dressed when he heard a well known preacher address the listeners.

What he heard him say made him furious!

“Good morning!” The preacher began. “It’s Easter! You know folks, it really doesn’t make any difference to me if Christ be risen or not. As far as I am concerned His body could be as dust in some Palestinian tomb. The main thing is, His truth goes marching on!”

Ackley shouted at the radio set and some say he threw it across the room causing his wife to hear the commotion.

This is where me and Alfred have something in common. False teaching and bad theology really grind my nerves!

His wife checked on him and encouraged him to pen out his frustration in the form of music.

After returning home from preaching a passionate Resurrection Sunday sermon, Ackley did just that. 

He wrote the words and composed the music to the classic hymn we know and love today as “He Lives”. In some hymnals it is also known as “I Serve a Risen Savior”.

The lyrics answered the question of that young Jewish man, and challenged the preacher on the radio with truth.

I pray these lyrics minister to you and have an even more special meaning now that you know the hymn’s history.


Hymn page of He Lives in Baptist Hymnal

Verse 1:
I serve a risen Savior,
He’s in the world today.
I know that He is living,
whatever men may say.
I see His hand of mercy,
I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him,
He’s always near.
He lives, He lives!
Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me
along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart!
Verse 2
In all the world around me
I see His loving care,
And tho’ my heart grows weary
I never will despair;
I know that He is leading
thro’ all the stormy blast,
The day of His appearing
will come at last.
Verse 3
Rejoice, rejoice, O Christian,
lift up your voice and sing
Eternal hallelujahs
to Jesus Christ the King!
The Hope of all who seek Him,
the Help of all who find,
None other is so loving,
so good and kind.

He Lives Lyrics and sheet music

Knowing the background of the hymn makes it that much richer. Now when I sing it, I understand the writers motivation!

Can you attest to Jesus being alive in your heart as well? 

Our hand lettered hymn board of He Lives is a wonderful reminder of God's power and goodness! Use it to decorate your home and have the song in your heart every time you pass it by.



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  • Thank you for sharing this…I love the stories behind the beloved songs! He is Risen! He Lives! Hallelujah!!!

    Vickie on

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