Unitarian Universalist Music

Several readers have asked about what kind of music Unitarian Universalist services use. Of course, the quality of the music varies from one UU congregation to another. I’m lucky — my local congregation has pretty good music.

UUs have their own hymnal, with a mix of songs in it. Most are hymns I’ve never heard before; some mention God in one form or another, but most don’t. Instead, most focus more on universal themes like nature, personal growth, love, and peace.

Here are some examples:

Gather the Spirit

Gather the Spirit; Harvest the Power
Our separate fires will kindle one flame
Witness the mystery of this hour
Our trials in this light appear all the same

Gather in peace, gather in thanks
Gather in sympathy now and then
Gather in hope, compassion and strength
Gather to celebrate once again

Gather the Spirit of heart and mind
Seeds for the sowing are laid in store
Nurtured in love, and conscience refined
With body and spirit united once more

Gather in peace, gather in thanks
Gather in sympathy now and then
Gather in hope, compassion and strength
Gather to celebrate once again

Gather the Spirit growing in all
Drawn by the moon, and fed by the sun
Winter to Spring, and Summer to Fall
The chorus of life resounding as one

Gather in peace, gather in thanks
Gather in sympathy now and then
Gather in hope, compassion and strength
Gather to celebrate once again

And this one:

For All That Is Our Life

For all that is our life we sing out thanks and praise
For all life is a gift which we are called to use
To build the common good
And make our own days glad

For needs which others serve, for services we give,
For work and its rewards, for hours of rest and love;
We come with praise and thanks
For all that is our life.

For sorrow we must bear, for failures, pain, and loss,
For each new thing we learn, for fearful hours that pass:
We come with praise and thanks
For all that is our life

For all that is our life we sing out thanks and praise
For all life is a gift which we are called to use
To build the common good
And make our own days glad

Some hymns, though, are ones familiar from my youth. But what’s interesting is that the UU version of these hymns is often slightly changed. Let me give an example. Last week we sang Joy to the World. Instead of the traditional words, though, we sang this:

Joy to the World

Joy to the world! The word is come:
Let earth with praises ring.
Let every heart prepare a room
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! Now gladness reigns:
Let hearts their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground
Let righteousness its glories show
As far as love is found
Far as the love is found,
Far as the love is found,
Far as, far as, the love is found.

The UU version of Joy to the World is perhaps edited more than most, but it’s a decent example of the way those who compiled the hymnal went about “universalizing” classic Christian hymns.

It should also be remembered that UUs are not constricted to using songs in their hymnal. My local UU choir, for instance, frequently sings songs that aren’t even religious in nature, including classic rock songs. I love this ability to draw form a variety of sources, perhaps in part because it’s so different from the hymn-and-praise-chorus music of the evangelical megachurch where I grew up.

Anyway, I hope that helps answer the question about UU services and music. If you’re a UU yourself, feel free to leave a comment regarding the sort of music you sing in your local congregation!

Why I've Been Talking about Unitarian Universalism
Five Things I Love about My Local UU Church
Unitarian Universalism: "Not Interested" v. "Opposed"
Unitarian Universalism and Diversity of Belief
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Little Magpie

    OOh! first comment! :) Okay, a joke… and I want to say straight up that I’m saying this in love not dissing on the UU. You may have heard the saying 70 Unitarians equals 150 points of view… well, so there’s a joke going around that UU choirs are futile, because they’ll never agree on what key to sing in. :P (And I’m sure that this is totally counterfactual; my exposure to UU has been limited to my grandparents’ funerals and my grandfather’s memorial, so I’m speaking in totally ignorance of UU choral quality..)

    Part of my heritage is UU. My mom’s side is Reform Judaism; my dad’s mom’s family were Friends (Quakers), and my dad’s dad was a Unitarian minister. My dad ended up straight-up atheist, but my uncles and cousins are still involved to varying degrees. I get my Unitarian jokes from my cousin, who is a practising Unitarian, with a good sense of humour about it all.

    (Oh, and is it any wonder coming from that mix of background that my views on religion are, well, anti-authoritian, and asking the questions, and generally taking none of it as being dead serious?)

    So anyway, even though I’m not myself involved, I do <3 <3 <3 the UUs for so very many reasons.

    And because it can never be said enough, love your blog Libby Anne! Pardon the language, to quote a meme that went past me on facebook a few weeks back: "You! You're totally f'in awesome! Keep that s*** up!" :)

    • http://Patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Here’s another: Why are UUs such bad singers? Because they’re always reading several lines ahead to see if they agree with the words. :-P

      • Christine

        Well now I’m embarrassed. The fact that this is a joke makes me think that it’s not standard to do that with unfamiliar hymns. (That’s not why I’m a bad singer, I have the same problems when I know the words too).

      • Little Magpie

        heard that one too, Libby. :)

      • Little Magpie

        Speaking of changing words to Xtian hymns… this is a Pagan, not coming from UU (as far as I know) – is “Lord of the Dance” – which I’m sorry, never really quite “fit” from my outsider’s viewpoint with Christianity – or perhaps, it’s rather a different representation of Jesus than I pick up from, well, anything. OTOH totally fits for several possible gods from assorted polytheistic pantheons (panthea?)

        And I’d hear “They’ll know we are Pagans by our love” a jillion times before I ever *heard of* “They’ll know we are Christians..”

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com Ubi Dubium

    At a recent H.S. service at our local UU, a few of the kids performed the theme song from Firefly! Very cool.

    I’ve noticed that a lot of the UU hymns are rewritten versions of standard hymns. I suppose that’s good, because those hymn tunes are part of our culture.

    But the hymns aren’t exclusively the old standards, and there’s a supplemental hymnal as well, and it includes “Lean on Me” and Harry Belefonte’s “Turn the World Around” (The song he did on The Muppet Show!).

  • http://sarahoverthemoon.com Sarah Moon

    My UU church (which I haven’t attended in awhile, honestly) is gathering up favorite pop songs to make a new pop “hymnal.” Suggestions people have given are like Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, etc.

  • conrad

    i recognize those songs and like them also. UU’s have a goon natured sense of humor and are willing to have a good laugh at themselves- they are not stuffy. Sunday meetings are often a celebration with an emphasis on facing up to the reality of life.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    Okay, Libby. You’ve convinced me. I’m actually pagan, not athiest (love your blog though, keep the good posts coming!), but I had many of the same “Isn’t it just watered-down Christianity” worries that you’ve addressed with your last few posts. Things are hectic at work and home right now, but come the new year, I will definitely be looking for my local UU Church, and giving them a shot. Thanks for settling some of my worries.

    As long as we’re telling UU jokes:

    How do you scare a UU out of your neighborhood? Burn a big wooden question mark on their lawn.

    • Adele

      Hi Vision,

      I hope you have a good experience at your local UU Church. Like everything else, the amount of pagan presence varies from congregation to congregation. My church had very little when I first started attending, but now we have an active group that holds full-moon rituals once a month (I guess the frequency of that ritual is rather obvious lol) and does other things. If you have a choice of more than one UU congregation, you can find which ones have an active chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist pagans here: http://cuups.org/ as well as lots more information besides!


      • Karen

        Annoying Pedantic Post — if a month has two full moons, the second one is the blue moon, which should suggest some music for the pagan group the next time on eof those happens.

    • Little Magpie

      VFA – heard that one from my cousin, too, and it’s frankly my favourite.

      Oh, and here’s another one (which gets UU and *another* liberal religious denomination from my family at the same time!!) : Q: How do you tell Reform Jews and Unitarians apart? A: The Reform Jews are the ones with a Christmas tree.

  • http://www.foodalyst.com Ruby Leigh

    The local UU church, which I’ve only attended once but plan to visit again, sang that very “Gather in the Spirit” song when I was there. Also, they are big enough that they brought in a professional folk music band which was very good. While I’m sure there is variance between congregations, I was very impressed with the music, and had not planned on being.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    What is the purpose of music in the UU church? I have to say this confuses me, because I tend to think the purpose of music in church is to sing to God, to worship God. But some of the UU songs aren’t being sung to God or anyone in particular.

    And I’m really uneasy about “Joy to the world” with all references to Jesus removed. The original message of the song is that there is joy precisely because of Jesus, so when his name is removed from the song, it means something completely different than how the song was originally written.

    • Anat

      My guess: the purpose of the music is to create a certain atmosphere and to be part of an experience that all those present share and enjoy, to express sentiments the participants find meaningful and suitable for the occasion.

      The original message of the song is that there is joy precisely because of Jesus, so when his name is removed from the song, it means something completely different than how the song was originally written.

      This may be intentional, you know.

    • Rae

      There have been sociology and psychology studies that have found that doing things in unison – singing, sitting and standing, reciting a pledge, chanting your favorite team’s cheer – contributes to a sense of feeling more connected to other members of the group that you’re doing it with, whether that group is a church, your classmates at school, other people in a sports stadium, and so on.

      If you think of it, most religious traditions have some sort of group activity done in unison. And you, personally, can probably associate warm, fuzzy feelings with your favorite songs in church, or the moments at sporting events that someone started up a specific cheer.

  • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot.com JW

    I think the UU is a psuedo church meant for those who still want religion and want to be one with others of different beliefs. Call it a political correct form of a religious system. It makes me laugh every time I read anything dealing with the UU. THere is a small grew near here called Unity Chapel. It used to be called Unity in the Grove because of the orange trees surrounding it but then that area got developed.
    My mom remarried in that place but used her own pastor to do it. I look around at leaflets and could only shake my head at what I read.

    • Christine

      And the relevance of your comment is? You’re saying “I don’t like it”, but you’re not actually saying anything about UU.

  • ronalon42

    I started changing words to hymns when I was forced to keep going to church after not believing it anymore. I love singing and I like a lot of the hymn tunes. My church would change words too if they went against the doctrine so I was used to it.

    Joy to the World is particularly easy to do, because while Jesus is supposed to be the source of the joy, the song is more about joy itself. I’ve seen about half a dozen pagan versions of it too.

    I have also been convinced to try UU, though I had been planning on it anyway. We’re moving back to the states soon and there’s a church about 20 mins away. At the very least it will be good for the kids, especially since my family and in-laws will live near us and want to take the kids to their church.

  • grumpygirl

    UUs believe at MOST in one god!

  • Tyro McGee

    Actually, quite a number of UUs are pantheistic.
    How many UU youth does it take to screw in a lightbulb? We don’t screw in lightbulbs, we screw in sleeping bags!

  • Second Thought

    I was part of a folk band that started up in my UU church. We used to play at services about once a month, providing some variation in music and giving the choir a day off. We had a lot of fun and so did our congregation. We drew our repertoire from wherever we found music that appealed to us with messages we wanted to share (that message might be as simple as joy is good). We did have some songs from the UU hymnal in our repertoire too. These we tried to play with energy and a faster tempo than the choral versions generally had.

    Why music in a UU church someone asked? Community building. Singing together is a wonderfully connecting activity. And it can be fun, or uplifting, or moving, or empowering, depending on the piece. Music speaks more dirctly to our emotions.

  • http://www.thedrantherlair.com quietpanther

    One of my brothers participated in a college choral performance that was held at a local UU church. My parents had (mis)informed us that UU was a “watered-down” version of Christianity that tries not to “offend” anyone, and that was why they had modified so many of the hymns. I remember poking through the hymnal with my siblings and shaking our heads at the content (especially one we found called “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword”).

    Now I kinda want to attend a UU church, especially after reading all the awesome things you have to say about them. If only their services weren’t so darn early Sunday morning … why can’t church be, say, seven thirty Saturday night?

    • http://www.thedrantherlair.com quietpanther

      I meant to specify that this was several years ago, before my exodus from fundy-lite Christian conservatism….