Changed Hymn Lyrics: Pet Peeve or Serious Concern? (And An Invitation to Nominate Worst Examples)

Changed Hymn Lyrics: Pet Peeve or Serious Concern? (And an Invitation to Nominate Worst Examples)

There seems to be a trend toward changing hymn lyrics—especially when the lyrics contain words perceived as associated with war, violence, blood, conflict or gender inequality. Hymnal editors, worship leaders, performers all engage in this sometimes seeming freewheeling and cavalier altering of hymns, gospel songs and worship songs. Occasionally serious thought seems to have been put into the alterations. Rarely does one get to ask the person who changed the words why they did it, so individuals and congregations are left scratching their heads and wondering why they are singing the right-now-wrong words.

My wife knows most familiar hymns (and some not-so-familiar-ones) by heart. So do I. But she prefers to sing them from memory and not be tied to a hymnal or “worship folder” containing the lyrics or to the words projected on a screen. We both grew up in a form of Christian life where closing one’s eyes and singing a familiar hymn, gospel song or chorus with hands raised was common, even normal.

But for the past few years, as old hymnals go and new ones replace them I’ve sometimes heard her singing the right-now-wrong words. That’s why I prefer to keep my eyes glued to the words. But it’s often extremely distracting to try to adjust to new lyrics to familiar hymns.

Is this just a pet peeve or a serious concern?

It probably would fall into the pet peeve category except that, often, it seems the changes to the lyrics are arbitrary or poorly considered or done just for the sake of someone’s idea of  political correctness or their discomfort with the “old words.” In other words, it seems, the hymns are often simply Bowdlerized by hymnal editors.

Now, I understand that sometimes, especially in the case of really old hymns, lyrics need to change because of changes in language. Some hymns were written in (or translated into) an older English that now makes no sense to anyone (except an expert in older English). Even then, however, I cringe a little. Imagine Shakespeare being performed in contemporary English. Still, I understand that when a hymn is being sung by a congregation it’s best if the lyrics are understandable to most of the congregation.

On the other hand, hymns have been one of the ways congregations pass Bible literacy on to generations. Some of the lyrics of older hymns sent me, as a child, on quests to find out the biblical stories behind them. For example, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come” (in the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”) refers back to a biblical story. I am dismayed that so many biblical references like that have been stripped out of hymns and gospel songs.

In the church I grew up in the pastor would occasionally step to the pulpit in the middle of a hymn and explain the words in a mini-sermon or lesson. It made singing hymns and songs much more meaningful and impressed on the congregation that the words are important.

I think that’s partly why I feel I have a different consciousness about hymns and songs sung in worship than a lot of my fellow congregants who seem to be singing them without really meditating on the words.

Perhaps that’s why when I’m singing a hymn whose lyrics have been radically altered it jars me. I think about why the lyrics were changed. What do the new lyrics say and how do they alter the message of the song?

Here’s a case study. Recently I attended a worship service using a new, recently published hymnal. One of the hymns was “This Is My Father’s Word.” I love that hymn! In fact, I’ve often used it with classes to illustrate a theological view of God’s sovereignty and present evil. My favorite lines are in verse three: “This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done. Jesus who died shall be satisfied and earth and heav’n be one.” That stands in some apparent tension with an earlier line in the hymn that says “And though the wrong seem oft’ so strong, God is the ruler yet.” However, I argue, one can and should believe both! The hymn has it exactly right. God is the ruler now, but we live in the “already but not yet” situation where the battle with evil continues until the eschaton. God is our ruler but the territory in which we live is still party enemy occupied territory.

The new version of the hymn contains the lyrics (to replace “the battle is not done…”) “This is my Father’s world, why should my heart be sad? The Lord is King! Let heaven ring! God reigns! Let earth be glad.”

Now, I should note that those lyrics are not invented by editors. They are taken from other, rarely used lyrics of the hymn. So this isn’t a case of sheer Bowdlerizing.

Still, it makes me wonder why the verse was altered by the hymnbook editors.

An expert in hymns suggested to me that the hymnal editors may have felt uncomfortable with the “satisfaction” language, perceiving it to be related to the “satisfaction theory” of the atonement. If so, that seems to me mistaken. The original words (“Jesus who died shall be satisfied and heav’n and earth be one”) aren’t about the atonement but about the eschaton! Jesus will be satisfied when his reign is so realized that heaven and earth are one. The expert also suggested that perhaps the hymnal editors were uncomfortable with the battle language. But the Bible is full of battle language and, in this hymn’s case, the battle language is not about physical battles but about spiritual battles (I assume it refers to our wrestling not against “flesh and blood but against powers and principalities in heavenly places”).

I also worry that perhaps the change in this hymn’s lyrics reflects a Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty. I don’t know that to be the case, but the substituted lyrics are more consistent, in my opinion, with Calvinism that the original lyrics.

Now, of course, I realize the editors of the hymnal I held in my hands and sang from that day may have simply adopted an already altered version of the hymn from other hymnals. The change, in other words, may have been made by others, not this hymnal’s editors. Still, I would prefer that they used the original lyrics when putting together this hymnal. My point is not to criticize them but to express my own, hopefully reflective and considered, opinion that lyrics of hymns should not be altered without good reasons and that, in many cases, the reasons do not seem strong or good enough to me.

May I be so crass as to suggest hymnal editors consult theologians before altering lyrics?

Now I open it up to you, my readers, to offer your own examples of hymn lyrics changes that you consider inappropriate, ill-considered, offensive or just plain dumb. What are your nominations for the worst examples? Be careful not to include links or lengthy quotations from copyrighted materials. If you quote from a copyrighted hymn, keep it very brief as I have done above. Explain your reason(s) for opposing the change(s).

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  • Dante Ting

    Speaking of changing lyrics, what are your thoughts on the recent debacle regarding the Presbyterian hymnal committee to omit the Getty/Townend hymn “In Christ Alone” due to the copyright holders not allowing them to change the line “the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified”?

    • Roger Olson

      I think if hymnal editors start making every phrase of every hymn agree with their favored theology, to the detriment of theological diversity (reflecting the read diversity within orthodox Christianity) hymnals will be dull affairs. If I were Getty and Townend I wouldn’t want someone changing my poetry to fit their theology.

      • labreuer

        But, but, what if members of the congregation encounter contradictory theologies? What oh what will they do? Won’t their brains asplode?

  • I’m going way back for these recollections. Growing up, we used the Baptist Hymnal that replaced the old Broadman Hymnal. One of the changes from the older hymanl was in “At the Cross” by the great hymnist, Isaac Watts. The old version was:
    “Alas and did my Savior bleed
    And id my Sovereign die?
    Would he devote that sacred head
    For such a worm as I?”

    In the newer version, the last line was changed to “For sinners such as I?” I was always amused when we sang the hymn and the older folks would start out singing the older version until they remembered the word change. It usually came out “Would he devote that sacred head for such a such as I?”

    Fast forward to the NEW Baptist hymnal in the late 1970s. One of my seminary profs, Dr. William Hendricks, had sat on that hymnal committee. I heard him once talk about some of the wording changes. One example he gave was from “To God be th Glory,” by Fanny Crosby. The Baptist Hymnal had the version that read:
    “But purer, and higher, and greater will be
    Our wonder, our transport when Jesus we see.”

    The New Baptist Hymnal read, “Our wonder, our victory, when Jesus we see.” Dr. Hendricks mentioned that the word “transport” had a different meaning in the 19th century from current usage. I figured that the hymnal committee did not want to encourage the “rapture enthusiasts,” or maybe they did not want worshippers to envision a Star Trek-styled transporter device. (I must admitt to a feeling of inner transport when I think back on those days.)

    • Roger Olson

      I went through both those changes as well–we must be around the same age! And I bristled at those changes. Why not admit we’re “worms?” There’s some truth in that. Again, I think hymns should be left alone and explained by worship leaders and pastors, not Bowdlerized.

  • Ryan

    In the “churches of Christ” denomination there is a popular hymnal called ‘Songs of Faith and Praise’, (Alton Howard publishing). Depending on which printing you pick up from the pews, during the song ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ the lyrics sometimes say:

    Holy , holy, holy! Merciful and mighty!
    God over all, and blest eternally.
    [Instead of: “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!”]

    Admittedly, I don’t know why this change was made and then reverted back in later printings; however, it always leads to a strange cacophony of Trinitarian and
    anti-Trinitarian sentiment. For me it belies the underlying problem with ‘restorationists’ in their attempt to move from bible to theology.

    • Roger Olson

      I know Restorationists are diverse, but I once had a long talk with a friend who “converted” to the Disciples of Christ (from Pentecostal) and he told me Restorationists believe in the Trinity but not the concept, the doctrine of the Trinity. I was a bit confused by that. Still am.

      • samloveall

        Being a “Restorationist” (I guess; I’ve never used that term to describe myself, but I’ve been in the Christian Church/Church of Christ all my life)minister and minister’s son,I’ve been around their/our churches, ministers, teachers and theologians since shortly after the cradle, but, as far as I know, I’ve never known one to not believe in and teach the Trinity. I don’t have any idea where this lyric change would have come from.

        • Ryan

          In Google books you can find an old ‘American Restorationist’ hymnal, “The Christian Hymnal: A Collection of Hymns and Tunes for Congregational and Social Worship” that shows another example of this song (p.55) with the modified lyrics. I have not been able to trace this back further, but I’m quite sure this did influence the way this song has sometimes been recorded in later churches of Christ hymnals.

          I also agree that I have not heard anyone in the churches of Christ deny the doctrine of the Trinity; however, this songs helps trace the very real earlier controversies over doctrine (e.g., Barton W. Stone’s explicit rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity) and our contemporary difficulty in moving from bible to theology. For if, as some say in the churches of Christ still say, that we must call “bible things by bible names”, then where is this Trinity…(book, chapter, verse)?

    • Sean H

      I’ve heard similar changes in some Pentecostal churches. (It was something like, “God is our Savior, Lord we worship Thee.”) These are not Oneness Pentecostals, but I suspect some cross-pollination.

  • mzellen

    I believe it’s a matter of ethics. The author wrote the hymn. Leave it along. A VERY pet peeve of mine is what I call “raping the hymn” – non-consensual insertion of a foreign object – taking a hymn, adding a littlte chorus and collecting royalties as if the original work was your own.

  • labreuer

    You hit a pet peeve with “Here I raise my ebenezer / hither by thy help I’ve come.” The word ‘ebenezer’ is explained immediately afterward! Furthermore, we need the word ‘ebenezer’, as it sounds awesome, and it stands for an incredibly important concept: remember what God has done for us! To remove it is to make the Faith shallow.

    The new version of the hymn contains the lyrics (to replace “the battle is not done…”) “This is my Father’s world, why should my heart be sad? The Lord is King! Let heaven ring! God reigns! Let earth be glad.”

    Oh my goodness this is terrible. This denies that we have a God-given battle to fight in our own lives, against evil. This, by the way, is why I said I dislike the line “Jesus paid it all”—it is often misinterpreted to say that Jesus did it all, and that we don’t have to do anything except keep ourselves pure until Judgment Day (sounds awfully Jewish, doesn’t it?). Jesus defeated death—the thing we could not defeat. But he left lots of battling for us to do! To remove the idea of a battle is again to make the Faith shallow.

    • Dan

      I generally don’t like to see the words changed, but I draw a line at “Ebenezer”. 🙂

      • labreuer

        If you’d be willing to humor me a bit, would you explain why you say that? I don’t want to get all 1984 on you, but I do think that, sometimes, when we choose to limit our vocabulary, we limit how much we can say and how precisely we can say it.

        Ebenezer has very specific denotation and connotation. Are you replacing it with something that makes the concept “fuzzier”? You’re not allowed to judge whether it’s fuzzier yourself, because you know you’re talking about “ebenezer”. But what about the folks who don’t know what an ebenezer is?

        • Roger Olson

          I’m not sure whom this is addressed to. I prefer to keep “Ebenezer” (a proper noun so capitalized) in the hymn and somehow explain its meaning to congregations.

          • labreuer

            Now there are two confused people. :-/ I was questioning why Dan would “draw a line at ‘Ebenezer'”. Thanks for correcting me on the capitalization; I hadn’t realized it was a proper noun.

          • Dan

            I was only making a joke, but now that I have thought about it, I would just say this. The issues are 1. Changing what an author wrote and 2. Watering down theology, but both are balanced against a congregation knowing what they are singing. If we draw a hard line that says we never abandon an archaic word, would we also oppose new translations of the bible for the same reasons? I am old enough to remember the Latin mass. Not all that meaningful to a six year old. Ebenezer can be explained, but you would have to do it every time it is sung, or try to translate into the vernacular without losing the authors intent. So, generally, I would leave things alone, but make exceptions when something is way out of common usage to the point almost no one understands.

  • Richard H

    I dislike how the United Methodist hymnal changed from “High King of Heaven” to “Great God of Heaven” in the hymn Be Thou My Vision. Horrible.

  • Jack Hairston

    Ellis Crum edited Sacred Selections in 1956, changing many words that did not suit his theological taste. This kind of thing has been going on a long, long time.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, it has. I remember as a boy–our church’s hymnal had entirely different words to “Silent Night.” When I first heard the real words (original English translation) I asked why our hymnal’s version was totally different. The pastor said “Silent Night is a Catholic hymn.” He meant our hymnal “Protestantized” it. This was in the 1950s.

      • Jakeithus

        Interesting explanation of Silent Night. Being of German heritage, my family sings both the original German and English versions each year. It’s my favourite Christmas carol in either language.

        I recently had the opportunity to hear a Hutterite choir sing the song in German, which I was quite excited about. Despite not knowing what they were saying, I could clearly tell it was not the German lyrics I was familiar with. I always wondered why the lyrics were changed, so perhaps the Hutterites have the same aversion to a “Catholic” hymn.

        • Roger Olson

          My wife and I attended an “Adventsingen” at a Protestant German family’s home outside Munich. The folks there (all Germans except us) asked us to suggest a Christmas carol. We suggested “Silent Night.” They all looked at each other very strangely and then someone told us “That’s a Catholic Christmas carol; we Protestants don’t sing it.” But then they sang it–just for us.

  • Jeff Hayes

    Roger, thanks for such an interesting topic!!!
    Lauri Krentz sums it up well for me when she wrote about the great hymn “At The Cross” By Isaac Watts…”When Isaac Watts penned those words in1885, he wrote, “Would He devote that sacred head, For such a worm as I?” Newer hymnals say, “For such a sinner as I?” (Some even say, “such a one as I.”) Sinner isn’t great, but it does sound a little less demeaning than worm. Isaac Watts wrote the word “worm” because He understood his place before a Holy God.” Roger, I am a little miffed when I hear “sinner” rather than “‘Worm” in this great hymn! Then again Roger, I am a little ticked off that Ace Hardware changed their jingle from…”Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man to “Ace is the place with the helpful hardware folks.”

    • Roger Olson

      Me, too. The Ace revised Ace jingle just doesn’t have the same ring as the old one and it is so obviously changed for political correctness. I would rather they just came up with a whole new jingle than Bowdlerize the original one.

    • labreuer

      I’m not sure that “worm” is quite right. I’m reminded of Abraham who calls himself “but dust and ashes” in Genesis 18, but this is accurate, according to Genesis 1-2. At least if you forget the “in the image of God” bit—but Abraham didn’t need to spell out exactly how he was acknowledging his creatureliness to Yahweh. This reminds me of the alleged statement of Luther’s “[Christians are] snow-covered dunghills”. This statement is disputed, and I think theologically fallacious:

      “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

      Recently a pastor tried to preach that this means we give up everything we have to get into [the kingdom of] heaven, but that’s both wrong (“What can a man give for his life?”) and slaughters the grammar, where the agent doing the buying is compared to the kingdom of heaven itself. But if the elect are actually seen as pearls before regeneration, oh my goodness! It obliterates the “worm” connotation!

  • Rory Tyer

    Roger – I’ve put a link in here, but it’s to a recording I made and to which I own the copyright, just in case you want to hear it. It’s my version of “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” on an album of hymns I recorded in 2011, and you can hear it here:

    I changed the second verse of “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” for what I believe are biblically faithful reasons. The original lines in question read thus:

    Oh, how sweet to trust in Jesus,
    Just to trust His cleansing blood;
    And in simple faith to plunge me
    ’Neath the healing, cleansing flood!

    I rewrote the latter half as follows:

    Oh, how sweet to trust in Jesus,
    Just to trust His cleansing blood;
    Just in simple faith to follow-
    Grace unearned, unending love

    I did this because I think the image of being plunged into a flood of Jesus’ blood is simply not biblical. The closest image would be being submerged into the waters of baptism, which, yes, Paul does link to being baptized into Christ’s death, which, I SUPPOSE, could produce an image of being submerged into a flood of blood. But that is a ghastly image, not something healing or cleansing, and no NT writer (to my knowledge right now without doing exhaustive checking) uses that image in that way. Being baptized into Christ’s death is not, I don’t think, meant to be imaged so literally. I just think it is more off-putting than biblically faithful, so I wrote lines that I thought helped communicate the point of those lines in a bit more biblical language. I’d be interested to hear your opinion.

    (Granted, this change isn’t as drastic as many changes you’ve got in mind, but it’s a change.)

    • Roger Olson

      Again, I prefer the original words to maintain the author’s poetic integrity. But I also prefer that pastors explain what hymns’ words mean and don’t mean. Somehow I grew up simply knowing that the “cleansing flood” was not Jesus’ literal blood but his love and mercy. Our pastor probably explained that every time we sang it; I just don’t remember.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Tony Esolen is magnificent on this. All the examples he cites in this article are great (or terrible depending on how you look at it):

  • Ed Cook, D.Min.

    Both evangelism and edification require analysis of the target audience to facilitate communication. I planted and pastored for 25 years 2 blocks from a major university. The average age of our congregation always hovered around 27 years of age. It was often difficult to preach both to the seeking agnostics in their 20s and the seasoned saints in their 80s. But, as Charles Kraft posited, it’s the responsibility of the communicator to make sure the communication is accessible to the hearer. The “stumbling block” to both evangelism and edification should be the cross of Christ, as Paul said, not archaic language or theological concepts that complicate at this point in time rather than elucidate.

    So, I think a valid question is whether the change is made for political correctness or appropriate communication. I, too, would often take the “pulpit” (usually at the end of a hymn/gospel song/chorus rather than in the midst of it) to explain the change or the conflict with current culture that generated the change. The the question had to be asked, “Does this change generated by a conflict with culture cause an unacceptable conflict with ‘the faith once delivered’?” In essence, changes (either made or proposed) provided a starting point for theological exploration and dialogue.

    The problem was forestalled by my practice of asking the worship leader(s) to discuss new additions to their inventory of songs with me before they put them on the rehearsal schedule. We talked about the theology behind the addition and any proposed changes of lyrics before they came into the service. Sometimes we decided to go ahead with something that would generate questions or “teaching moments” and then use the pulpit to explore those questions.

    I think the issue is too complex to just write an arbitrary list of rules to govern all occasions. Just a thought…

  • Jon Altman

    The “Celebration Hymnal” “solves” the issue of the “Here I Raise Mine Ebeneezer” issue by completely rewriting the verse. “Hitherto Thy love has blest me; Thou has bro’t me to this place. And I know Thy hand will bring me Safely home by Thy good grace. Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wandering from the fold of God; He to rescue me from danger, Bo’t me with his precious blood.” This DOES help avert the “mischief” SOME junior high boys have made with the “Ebeneezer” verse.:)

    • Roger Olson

      Junior high boys will always make mischief with hymn lyrics. I know; I was one of the best at it. 🙂 My point remains; leaving Ebenezer in the hymn (really a poem so a work of art) can and should be a teachable moment for pastors, parents and others whose job it is to civilize junior high boys (and others).

      • Justin Mitchell

        The last church I attended would always put the definition of the word “Ebenezer” on the big screen during the first musical interlude whenever we would sing this song. They did the same thing with the word “fetter” later on in the song. I always appreciated that (although I like the mid-song “mini-sermon” idea even better). It definitely gave more meaning to the lyrics as well as an impetus for more reflection on them.

        I really love that song. It’s such beautiful poetry.

        • Roger Olson

          I often wonder why certain hymns like Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing come back and then get sung over and over again. Another one is Be Thou My Vision. A select few old hymns get rediscovered and recycled and most get ignored. I bet I’ve sung Great Is Thy Faithfulness a hundred times in the past few years (in churches, in chapel services, etc.). I call it “the Baptist anthem.” But I don’t know why THAT particular hymn gets sung so much. Our hymnals are crammed with great hymns that never are sung. Now I’m on my soap box!

  • Andy

    An interesting contemporary song that has had its words changed is ‘He love us’ by John Mark McMillan. The original says, ‘heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss’ but in many cover versions the words sloppy and wet have been replaced by ‘unforseen’ as this is less explicit and not offensive to listeners. Regardless of what people think of the song, I think sloppy wet kiss is a really interesting way of describing the messiness of God’s incarnate love…

  • Jon H.

    Changing hymn lyrics has a long history, but the most prevalent examples started around 1986-1989 when mainline denominations published new hymnals that required more “politically correct” lyrics or complete removal from hymnody. And, so as to be fair, conservative denominations produced hymnals with lyrics more agreeable to their theological peculiarities. I’m a little surprised to see this as a current topic given the extensiveness of the changes in the past 25 years.

    A couple of examples:

    The PC(USA) hymnal completely removes “Onward Christian Soldiers” for being too supportive of war imagery. It seems they missed the fact that the hymn was written for Sunday Schoolers as a march into the sanctuary hymn. They were “marching” as if “to war” in an Anglican church likely behind the choir procession lead by an acolyte with the “Cross of Jesus”. So apparently some misplaced ire over “Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to war. With the cross of Jesus, going on before.” Martial language is standard fair for much of English hymnody, so this was/is a slap in the face for any in that tradition. There are also numerous places where Lord is substituted with God. Or a great verse is deleted. E.g. in “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” the line “Hear him ye deaf, his praise ye dumb, your loosened tongues employ. Ye blind behold your Savior come, and leap, ye lame for joy” is completely absent. Again, the editor missed that the author did not necessarily refer to literally deaf, dumb (mute), blind, lame individuals, but all of us who were these things (and more) without Christ.

    The Trinity Hymnal (1991) PCA does a great job of messing around with theology in the hymns, even when written by a venerable Calvinist of impeccable quality. A great example of this is “Immortal Invisible God Only Wise” where the “traditional” verse 3 is omitted.

    To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small;
    In all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
    We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
    And wither and perish—but naught changeth Thee.

    This verse is viewed as animistic (God inhabits all reality, inanimate objects e.g.). It’s highly improbably that this is what Walter C. Smith of the Free Church of Scotland (Presbyterian and Calvinist) had in mind. To make matters worse, all the hymnals I have omit the last 2 (of 5 total) that Smith intended.

    Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
    Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
    But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
    Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.

    All laud we would render; O help us to see
    ’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee,
    And so let Thy glory, Almighty, impart,
    Through Christ in His story, Thy Christ to the heart.
    As a big fan of Wesley’s hymns (he was adamant about singing them “as written”) I am more upset that in “And Can it Be” the Trinity Hymnal changes
    “Emptied himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race”
    to “Emptied himself (so great his love) and bled for all his chosen race”
    Altering “Adam’s helpless race” appears to be to support a more hyper-Calvinistic view of predestination or a general argument against an unlimited atonement. In either regard, Wesley’s words are more in keeping with scripture–1) the promise was to Adam and his descendants (his “race”) and 2) John 3:16. Altering “of all but love” suggests that the editors believe that Christ retained other elements of his attributes as God even though “emptied”. The bible clearly says that Jesus, being found in the form of humanity, humbled himself. What other motivation is there for a sacrificial, atoning death on our behalf than love incarnate. This change is very odd. Along the same lines, “To God Be the Glory” is altered to no longer “Open the lifegate that all may go in” but instead to “open the lifegate that we may go in”.
    The examples are too numerous to count. Having used both hymnals, the Trinity Hymnal has more damaged theology and is much harder to stomach than the thinly veiled attempts at “correctness” in the PC(USA) “Prebyterian Hymnal”
    I’ve yet to see the PC(USA)’s latest 2012 effort. I can’t imagine that it will be an improvement. If someone doesn’t like the text of a hymn, not including the entire hymn would be better than changing the poet’s words.

  • Kristen

    I’ve seen hymnals where “Faith of our Fathers” becomes “Faith of the Martyrs.”

    That works.

  • J.J.

    George Whitefield rewrote the opening 2 lines of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” by Charles Wesley.

    • Roger Olson

      I did not know that, but I do know that John Wesley rewrote many of his brother’s hymns and often criticized his brother rather harshly for his lyrics.

      • @wchong

        the original first line by Wesley was “Hark! The royal welkins ring”.

  • Jim

    I think sometimes, it’s good that a great hymn with only one questionable line is rewritten. I really like, “In Christ Alone,” but I think the line, “the wrath of God was satisfied” is unfortunate wording and very misleading theologically & historically.

    Without getting into the whole debate about Penal Substitution and theories of the atonement, it is a matter of fact that no where in the NT or even in the early church fathers do we ever find anyone referring to God’s “wrath” being poured out on Christ in the cross. Whenever the wrath of God is mentioned regarding the cross, early church fathers (see Eusebius, HE 3.5.7, for example) speak of God’s wrath being poured out on the Jews for treating Jesus the way they did. They speak of God’s vengeance to vindicate Jesus’ death, not God punishing Jesus on the cross. Now, that itself has its own set of issues regarding anti-Judaism & anti-Semitism that plagued much early Christian thinking, but it is very noteworthy that there is never mention of God’s wrath or anger being inflicted on Jesus on the cross, which is what that one line in “In Christ Alone” seems to imply.

    • Anna

      How about “light of the world by darkness slain”? Jesus was not killed by anyone… there is no darkness that can kill God! Jesus laid down his life willingly.

  • Jeff Arnold

    This certainly is an interesting topic. Roger, I agree that we ought
    not remove what may have become unfamiliar biblical references (Ebeneezer).
    However, this is not to say that all changes are bad. And what you also must be
    mindful of is that the text that you fondly recall singing as a child was not necessarily the original. The editors of the hymnals of yesteryear made editorial decisions for that day in age, just as hymnal editors do today. Let’s take a closer look at your example of “This is My Father’s World.” This poem was originally
    published in 1909 with sixteen stanzas. (Here is a link to that original publication: Past hymnal editor made selections from this long poem, just as today’s hymnal editors have. Rather than asking why people have changed the text you grew up singing, perhaps you should ask why you grew up singing the text that you did.

    It is also important to remember the purpose of congregational singing.
    It is not to raise up poets of the past and present and preserve their chosen
    art. The purpose is worship. Worship in the church should never take a back
    seat to artistic integrity. Moreover, in contemporary worship, it does not
    matter what the original author intended. This has particularly come up in
    comments on this post. Taking one commenter’s example of “Onward Christian
    Soldiers.” Does it matter that the original author (and singers) would have understood this to mean marching into the Sanctuary? (Not to mention, is it appropriate to march into the Sanctuary “as to war”?) What matters is how contemporary congregants may understand this hymn as they sing. Is the image of the church marching as to war helpful when considering evangelism? After all, this hymn is not about spiritual battles. It is about the church taking no prisoners,
    marching through the world, conquering unsuspecting foreigners. Is this the
    image of the mission of God that we want our church to model?

    Many contemporary changes to hymns are because of “political
    correctness.” For some reason, this term is often used pejoratively. All that
    this means, is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and trying to see
    things from their perspective. In contemporary culture, humanity is no longer referred to as “mankind.” Anyone with any sensitive toward women understand that our culture is no longer male dominated. Why, then would the church not strive to model this belief through the songs we sing? In some instances, “man” to refer to both men and women in hymnody is so deeply engrained in the collective memory that it ought not be changed. But when possible, the church should strive to have the langue we use reflect our theology. Why would we exclude women by our language?

    Also, in the name of “political correctness” we should strive to include those with disabilities. Imagine, for a moment yourself to be blind. How would you feel if every time blind people were mentioned in church it was a poetic metaphor for those without Christ? You fully understand that it is purely metaphor. The church does not make the assumption that if you are literally bind, then you are also literally lost. But it is no less polarizing. We ought to strive to include everyone in worship, not only those like ourselves.

    We must always be careful that our worship not fall into simple
    sentimentality. Often, when we oppose changes to hymns, it is no more than
    wanting to bring back the memories of childhood. We may mask our sentimentality with theological concerns, but it is rooted in a desire to draw us back to a simpler time. This is not the worship of God, but the worship of an idol.

    • Roger Olson

      I agree with much of what you say, but you didn’t address my case study (viz., This Is My Father’s World)–in which case the editors of some hymnal changed the words (substituted words from one verse for another) for theological reasons. That’s my main complaint. You seem to think I’m just stuck in sentimentality. Well, that’s your opinion. But I thought I gave better reasons than that for opposing changes to lyrics in most cases. For the most part, in my opinion, the changes are made without serious theological reflection and consideration and in order not to offend someone or to avoid teaching a theology the hymnal editors happen to disagree with. I disagree with the theology of We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations. Shall I rewrite it to fit my preferred theology? I think not. Rather, if I were a worship leader choosing songs for the church to sing, I would either avoid it or, in the case of a church where that theology (postmillennialism) was present choose it in spite of my disagreement with it and find some way to express my disagreement with it (e.g., in a Sunday School class discussion of the theologies of hymns).

  • John

    The version of “This Is My Father’s World” you mention is in The Book of Hymns (the Methodist hymnal first published in 1964). It’s the version I grew up on. I didn’t hear the verse you cite until I was in college. The current United Methodist Hymnal (1989) also omits “the battle is not done” line and includes “the Lord is King….”
    A revision I still stumble over is in Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” The older, I assume original, version says in verse 3: “Mild he lays his glory by, Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.” The newer version has these changes: “born that we no more may die” and “born to raise us from the earth.” I’m for inclusive language, but “raise us from the earth” sounds kind of Gnostic and probably wasn’t what Wesley intended.

    • Roger Olson

      What WERE they thinking?

  • Dan

    Most bothersome to me is singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”. Ecchhh!

    • Roger Olson

      I haven’t experienced that. I think I would have to leave that place (while that was being sung).

  • Jon Van Dop

    I’m beginning to learn the art of song writing. Even though my work to date is probably never going to be published, the idea of someone else changing my work is repulsive. If I want a song to say something, I should write that song. You mentioned Shakespeare as an example so I’ll use him as well. If I don’t like the fact that Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play, I should write my own play and have the protagonists live at the end. I should not re-write the bard’s work so that it ends the way I would like it to. The editing process seems disrespectful to the the original artist.

    As for your request to name the examples of songs that have been “done wrong” in publishing, I’ll offer up the perineal favorite by Rich Mullins, “Awesome God.” The chorus is frequently published, the verses are frequently left unpublished. It probably has something to do with “judgement and wrath He poured out on Sodom,” but it could be that the verses are simply wordy.

    • Ally

      really really really late to this (I put it aside to come back to and never did til now) but as someone who has sung a “choral version” of Awesome God – the verses are next to impossible when sung by more than one person – “I hope that we have not too quickly forgotten” stumbled up more than one person more than once… (but that may not entirely be the reasoning either)