7 Reasons to Stop Changing Words to Beloved Hymns

7 Reasons to Stop Changing Words to Beloved Hymns December 3, 2020

Just like evangelical “pop” worship, which has sentenced itself to a cycle of reinvention as it tries to win people through pop entertainment, mainline Christianity is doing the same with its hymnody.

While the practice of altering hymns is not new, the wholesale restructuring of recent hymn texts for political or theological reasons only began a few decades ago. Some people think rewriting hymns to fit modern sensibilities of language and theology is an absolute necessity. I wish we wouldn’t be so quick to do so. Here are a few reasons:

It’s disrespectful to the original poets.

I’m not fanatical about this. The mortal husks of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts are rotting back into the earth, so they won’t be likely be objecting. But it seems in bad taste to ascribe words to a poet that they may well not have wanted to say. While I think the current trend of “Tomlinizing,” or adding refrains to existing hymn texts, then copyrighting them and making bank is annoying, completely “Bowdlerizing” them is even worse. You’ve changed their own words, instead of merely adding to them.

Bad form.

Then again, I’m cool with singing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” instead of “Hark How All the Welkin Rings” this Christmas Eve, so…

“Archaic” language is beautiful and thoroughly understandable.

“But won’t it make worship awkward for young people?!?”

This is one of the stupidest arguments imaginable. My parents don’t use “thee” and “thou” in conversation. Neither did my grandparents or great-grandparents, that I’m aware of. But singing text such as, “Thee will I honor,” wasn’t too difficult for them to understand. So, pray tell, why are young people too stupid to understand this today, while previous generations understood it intuitively?

In reality, at the time when many of these texts were authored, this so-called “archaic language” was not in common everyday usage. While undoubtedly being influenced by the King James Version, it also preserved a sense of distance and awe before Almighty God. Jesus isn’t your buddy, and God isn’t your “daddy” (no, Abba doesn’t mean “daddy”). While it is certainly not an absolute requirement to use deeper English in prayer and praise, the fact that some of the most beautiful and profound hymn texts use it should not be a hindrance. This isn’t a foreign language. It’s not even “old” English.

In trying to make church easier, we’ve made it both dumber and more complicated for ourselves.

“Men” and “man” and “mankind” are contextually understood as referring to all persons.

Gender inclusivity has been all the rage for several decades now. I was trained in the use of inclusive language by evangelical professors at Wheaton College in the mid-2000s, and I use it now in most of my writing. It makes sense – don’t say “men” unless you are talking specifically about male persons. But for better or for worse, that is not how English was uniformly spoken or written until fairly recently.

I don’t wish to use language that excludes anyone from the invitation of the gospel. But I’ve also never met a woman who lacked the intelligence to understand how the language should be interpreted in this context. I have, however, met many women of all different theological perspectives who rolled their eyes at this trend, considering it patronizing and silly. One female colleague of mine once said, “If you can’t handle male pronouns, write your own hymns, and see if anyone wants to sing them.” I’ve been reading the book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Christ by Fleming Rutledge. In her notes about inclusive language in the introduction, she says about her own preaching and writing, “I have generally avoided the use of ‘man’ and ‘him’ in my more recent work, but I am not fanatical about it. If I value the cadence of a sentence, or the time-honored use of a term (for instance, ‘the old Adam’), I will retain the old form.”

Perhaps such a middle road would be helpful in our approach to hymnody. Retain the time-honored language of beloved old texts, acknowledge the beauty in the poetry, and consider how to avoid so-called “exclusive language” in newly-composed texts.

Softening difficult or politically “offensive” theology is problematic.

Some hymnals have changed the penultimate line of stanza two in “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” from “deeply wailing” to something less “offensive” and “troubling.” Why? I suppose because the thought that those who have rejected Christ might have a reason to “deeply wail” is offensive to modern theological sensibilities. But some of the other solutions, like “scorned and grieving” or “shamed and grieving” or “deeply grieving” are certainly weaker. And it comparatively lessens the hymn’s proclamation of Christ as the victor over sin and death and hell. Some hymnals have chosen to omit stanza two completely, instead subbing in one of John Cennick’s more palatable stanzas to avoid the unpleasant confrontation.

Or maybe “deeply wailing” sounded too much like “deep sea whaling.” I don’t know.

It imposes an agenda on congregations.

Specifically, it imposes the theological agenda of the hymnal revision committee on all congregations. And why do committees have such a lack of faith in worshipers and churches to interact intelligently with the language in their own beloved hymns and need a “benevolent revisionist” to help their feeble minds? Do they believe all congregations, clergy, and congregants in their denominations support the theology of the new revisions? It is presumptuous, to say the least.

It can alter, weaken, or damage the theology of the text.

This is one of the strongest reasons, in my opinion. One person mentioned on Facebook that the last line of “Lo, he comes” should be “Everlasting God, come down!” instead of “thou shalt reign and thou alone.” The change is not necessary, and the former is certainly stronger in the context of a hymn that mentions God’s descending in its incipit. Or, we have a number of examples from 1989’s United Methodist Hymnal, which took a relatively conservative approach to textual changes, with a couple of notorious exceptions. One of the worst examples is “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.”

This is how the last stanza is traditionally set:

Angels, help us to adore him;
Ye behold Him face to face;
Saints triumphant, bow before him,
gathered in from every race.

(Sometimes the last two lines are given as “Sun and moon, bow down before him / dwellers all in time and space.” I can’t tell from cursory research which came first.)

The Methodists gave us this:

Angels in the heights, adoring,
you behold God face to face;
saints triumphant, now adoring,
gathered in from every race.

We have several layers of change in this one stanza. Masculine pronouns are removed (stanza 3 interestingly kept “Father-like,” but changed “in his hand” to “Mother-like” for equity’s sake, one would guess). “Archaic” pronouns are exchanged. Poetically, this feels like a cop out. In the original version, the rhyme is derived from the last two words of the first and third lines (adore him, before him). The new text simply repeats the word “adoring.” So…was this just laziness? Or did they ask Chris Tomlin for help with that rhyme?

Or the UM Hymnal‘s change of “whiter than snow” to “brighter than snow.” The former obviously isn’t referring to skin color, but is taken directly from Holy Scripture, most notably Psalm 51, “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” The adjusted simile is just…awkward. In singing it, everyone – even if they’ve never heard the text – everyone knows what word should be there. The sun is bright. Florescent lights are bright? But snow? If that old gospel hymn bothers you, just don’t sing it. More egregious is the recent change of the “white robed martyrs” in stanza 3 of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” one of the strongest hymn texts ever written and a setting of the ancient Latin Te Deum, “blessed.” This is directly taken from the Revelation of St. John, one of the texts that forms the basis for liturgical worship.

Other hymnals have gone much farther. The UCC New Century Hymnal changed “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” to “Dear Lord, embracing humankind.” That’s not an even close to being an even exchange of a theological idea, it’s theologically nebulous, and it’s poetically weaker. Jesus himself used the locution, “our Father.” Some things are better left alone.

It forces worshipers to relearn well-known hymns.

There was a time when the most well-known Christian hymns were mostly uniform. Not entirely, but much closer. Now that many denominations are into their second generation of texually-overhauled hymnals, the disparity is larger, and still growing.

Again, looking at the text of “Lo, he comes” this week, I noticed one particular denomination that had revamped it dramatically twice. A mid-century hymnal gave us stanzas 1, 2, and 3 of Charles Wesley’s original poetry, with only a couple small alterations that had become standard in most Protestant denominations.

Lo! He comes, with clouds descending,
Once for our salvation slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of His train:
Alleluia, alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Every eye shall now behold Him,
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at nought and sold Him,
Pierced, and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Saviour, take the power and glory;
Claim the Kingdom for Thine own:
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and Thou alone.

An early-90s revision changed the incipit to “Jesus comes with clouds descending / See the Lamb for sinner slain. They also changed all the male pronouns, those referring to Jesus, mind you, to “you” and “your.” “Those who set at nought and sold Him” became “Those who jeered and mocked and sold You.” “”Deeply wailing / shall the true Messiah see” became “scorned and grieving / shall THEIR true Messiah see.” In stanza 4, “Saviour, take the power and glory” becomes “Crowns and empires fall before you,” assumedly the only reason for this is to Tomlin-rhyme the new “you” in line 1 with the same word in line 3.

Another revision in the last decade replaces the original incipit and some of the male pronouns for Jesus, but it gets rid of what must have been considered a problematic stanza 2 and replaces it with one of the earlier John Cennick’s version. It’s…fine, but it lacks the strength and majesty of the standard Wesley text.

The audacity behind such heavy-handed editing is staggering. Why do they think they can improve on a text written by one of the greatest English hymnwriters, and why do they think their congregants need such mitigation? They don’t. The only thing this sort of meddling does is to prevent generations from holding such great hymns in their collective consciousness.  The fact that more people know and love Catholic boomer hymns like “Here I Am, Lord” or early pop worship songs like “Shine, Jesus, Shine” is tragic, and only hurts their spiritual formation.

Keep the great hymnody, and stop fiddle-farting around with it. If people need instruction about the language, be ready and willing to help, but don’t take it away from the people. Expect more engagement out of worshipers.

Furthermore, one of the chief problems (one of many!) of commercial pop worship is that nothing ever stays the same. Traditional worship should be a real alternative. Resist the pressures of theological hobby horses and cultural zeitgeist to reform and edit your liturgy. Let people learn these hymns in their “received” versions, hold onto them for a lifetime, and share them with subsequent generations.

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