Is Nothing Sacred? Changing the Language of Our Hymns

Changing the Language of Our Hymns

May we change "Deck Thyself, My Soul with Gladness" to "Clothe Yourself…" or "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" to "Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer" or "Faith of Our Fathers" to "Faith of Our Parents"? May we revise old hymns because they offend us theologically? May we alter them because they include exclusive language or concepts children cannot understand ("What does 'Here I raise my Ebenezer' mean?") And if we do start altering and revising, how far may we go? What are the poetic rights of the original author? In time, will each hymnbook or denomination have its own version of old hymns?

These were some of the questions discussed by a panel invited to the Music and Liturgy Office of CRC Publications. The participants were Dawn Boelkins, a recent Master of Divinity graduate of Western Theological Seminary; Emily Brink, editor of the new Psalter Hymnal; Michael Smith, editor at Zondervan Publishing Company; Howard Slenk, music professor at Calvin College; James Vanden Bosch, English professor at Calvin College; and Mervin Van Doornik, pastor and a member of the editorial committee of Rejoice in the Lord. Vanden Bosch chaired the discussion.

Vanden Bosch: Several of you would be able to make a case for leaving traditional hymns alone, for revising them only under extraordinary circumstances. Others of you would be willing to argue for revision, maintaining that "extraordinary circumstances" happen quite often. Let's talk for awhile about the thinking behind those two points on the continuum.

Why Modernize?

Van Doornik: Why modernize? Because it's been done for centuries. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" was originally written as "Hark How All the Welkin Rings."

Smith: I would make a case for revising on the basis of educational concerns. When working with children in the church, I often find that our hymns trip them up. The hymns might have a tremendous amount of meaning, but it is not meaning that children (or, in many cases, new Christians) comprehend.

Van Doornik: There's the problem of misinterpretation too. A child will interpret words like "If thou but suffer God to guide thee" altogether differently than adults do.

Brink: A case for revising can also be made on the basis of matching the language of the songs with the other language in worship. It used to be that the language of the songs matched the language in prayers, preaching, and Bible versions. One by one these have undergone change. We don't use "thee" and "thou" in prayers much any more, and the language used in modern Bible versions like the NIV is significantly different from that used in the King James Version. People are no longer hearing a consistent language in worship.

Slenk: Theological correction may also play a role in the need for revision. Possibly the line "And gaze and gaze on Thee" ("My God, How Wonderful") was changed in the Psalter Hymnal [henceforth PH] for theological reasons.

Van Doornik: In Rejoice in the Lord [henceforth RIL] we eliminated "Rise Up, O Men of God" on theological grounds. "The church for you doth wait. / Her strength unequal to the task" made us uneasy, since it suggests that God is sitting in heaven, wondering if anyone is going to do anything.

We were also concerned with language that offends large groups within the church. The RIL team spent more energy on revising sexist language than on any other issue. We altered innumerable texts that included references to "man" or "brotherhood." We also dealt with the questions of racism and nationalism.We included some prayers for the nations, but no national hymns (or, as Routley would call them, "tribal songs").

Brink: Certain words may also offend people with handicaps. "O For a Thousand Tongues" speaks of those who are "dumb," a word with an unfortunate double meaning. We have changed it to "voiceless ones," following the example of the new Episcopal Hymnal 1982.

Van Doornik: There are also hymns with imperialistic overtones, mission hymns especially.

Vanden Bosch: As well as hymns that talk about our "great, free land" where everyone came over gladly and freely. Words like these don't speak for many inner-city congregations. Many hymns have a kind of ethnocentrism, which assumes a white, middle-class church. In some we even Find a mean-spirited, non-ecumenical sectarianism.

Brink: Yes. A hymn ought to be able to be sung by any Christian, rather than pitting one Christian tradition against another.

Van Doornik: We might add that many hymns project a subtle prejudice that rural life (just think of all the pastoral images) is preferable to urban life. We must remember that the Bible begins with a garden but ends with a city.

Smith: This is where we start wandering into a mine field. We can come up with a long list of values which are out of vogue for the moment or which are in potential conflict with Christianity, but which have influenced or which have worked their way into our hymns. So it's not surprising that hymns of the 1940s include more military imagery than hymns of the 1970s do. And if we remove that imagery, we go in the direction of dehistoricizing, of putting all things in line with the values of the community which is revising the hymnal. Where are we going to allow the historicity of the hymn to have its own message and to have its own flavor?

Boelkins: Traditional hymns, both in words and tunes, can remind us of our own beginnings in the faith, or of our happy memories in Sunday morning church. That's good—because if we understand ourselves as a covenant people, we will know the importance of being part of a larger Christian community. The sounds of old hymns in our minds and hearts will remind us of our personal heritage and of the heritage of the Christian church at large.

On the other hand, I don't think that hymnody needs to be concerned about the history of a hymn. If we're writing a historical volume, yes, but if we're using hymns of faith in our contemporary setting, then I'm willing to create my own provincialism because it expresses our faith now.

Why Preserve Old Hymns?

Vanden Bosch: This may be a natural place to move to the other side of the question. We've already begun to make a case for not revising hymns to any great degree. We've mentioned that we rob the hymns of their past by bringing them out of their historical rootedness and that we may also be robbing the people of their past in their relationship to hymns they may have sung thirty or forty years ago. What other reasons are there for not fooling with hymns?

Smith: There might always be a still, small voice inside of us which is like the her-meneutical principle we apply to Scripture—that is, Scripture must speak on its own terms. That principle for not tampering with Scripture may cause us to be rather conservative when dealing with hymns.

Slenk: Here an important question is "Where do we draw the line?" I notice in the new PH, for example, that in William Cowper's poetry not a word is changed, but we play fast and loose with Frances Havergal (who doesn't happen to be in our literature books). That doesn't seem fair.

It's up to us to be sensitive. We musn't just toss an image out because we have trouble getting rid of a "thee"or a "thou" rhyme. We have to be sensitive to the imagery of the poet. It might be better to reject the whole poem than to tamper with the imagery in the original.

Vanden Bosch: The text has its own integrity and deserves to maintain that integrity. That's a key issue. It must be read on its own terms and should not be tampered with except for compelling reasons. That principle has been well enunciated by Routley in the "Editor's Introduction" to RIL: "We have done our best to stay close to each author's original text, and the occasional archaism has not deterred us from doing that." But then he also indicates times when the principle is violated or compromised, like when an author "uses a word in a sense it does not now carry," or "in-sensitivity to 'inclusive language.' "

Brink: There are also different categories of texts. Some hymns are versifications of Scripture. They are not independent works, but attempts to reflect something that was written earlier in another poetic form. The versification of Scripture has a different character from an independent work of poetry. In between those two come translations of hymns.

I would make a distinction between tampering with an original work and tampering with a derivative work— although it's true that even a translated work should stand on its own feet as an independent poetic work. Here we deal with a gray area.

Van Doornik: We must also remember that Routley was not consistent. When it came to sexist language, phtt. He was much more of a purist when it came to "thee" and "thou." We also know that any time you change something that's familiar, people get very churned up. Initially we pay a price for changing hymns.

Brink: We got overwhelming support from our synod for changing some texts. Delegates told us, "They're more meaningful, more clear." But we also discovered that some changes don't work. We had changed "Come Thou, Almighty King" to "Come, O Almighty King," but because of the awkward sound, we went back to the original.

Because of some of the complexities of revision, textual changes in the new PH are not consistent. We worked on a case-by-case basis. We became very aware that a hymnal is an anthology.

Boelkins: A certain amount of inconsistency shouldn't bother us. Language is not consistent. Just look at successive editions of language dictionaries and see how much our language is in flux.

Vanden Bosch: I'm also concerned that in the process of revision, texts sometimes lose their flavor. Instead of having its own voice, the text reflects a bland committee voice, which is death to most songs.

Criteria for a New Hymnal

Vanden Bosch: Let's move to another question, an issue of larger concern: What are the most important concerns in the compilation of a new hymnal? Our answers here may help us to make decisions about altering specific texts.

Van Doornik: Even though RIL is biblical and ecumenical, it is also a Reformed book. It reflects the Reformed understanding of the sovereignty of God. Any hymnbook produced by a denomination has to have integrity in regard to the theology of that denomination. Routley noted that RIL includes more of Wesley's hymns than the Methodist hymnal does, but they are the Wesley hymns with a Calvinistic thrust.

Brink: A hymnal also ought to be ecumenical. The whole church should be able to sing the songs. We are one body throughout the whole world and throughout all time.

Boelkins: A hymnal ought to take into consideration the wide variety of singing ability in the church. I attended a hymnal dedication in a church with a wonderful organ, a large choir, and trumpets—and it was a marvelous, moving experience. But we must not neglect the smaller churches, where maybe only one person can "kind of play" the organ. It's important that the hymns in a hymnal are not too much for these congregations to handle.

Brink: A hymnal should also reflect the comprehensive scope of Scripture. We should capture the fullness of revelation.

Van Doornik: We must remember too that a hymnal is a book of response. The teaching element is there, but the dominant note is one of responding to God.

Smith: Yes. What's most essential is the authenticity of the praise and prayers of the people of God.

Vanden Bosch: The question of the authenticity of the praise ties in also with the notion of the corporate nature of worship. And both are related to the principle that worship is a dialogue. The hymnal provides appropriate corporate responses to God's gracious acts in the worship service and on other occasions. I'd also want to add that we want a hymnal to be the very best texts with the very best music.

Smith: A revised hymnal should therefore promote the clear expression of language, both spoken and sung.

Brink: The notion of clarity of expression can also be seen as accessibility. Is the hymnal accessible to the whole congregation?

Principles for Revision

Vanden Bosch: Let's move on to the fourth question: How do these principles affect our position on the revision of traditional hymns? For example, clarity of expression. If that's a high priority, it will push us toward revision. In fact, most of the items in the list—except, perhaps, the ecumenical, catholic dimension—will push us toward revision.

Smith: But even the issue of catholicity cuts two ways. By maintaining a hymn in its original integrity, you may cut it off from a broader Christian tradition. By making some changes, you may extend the catholicity.

Slenk: Accessibility cuts two ways too. Extreme change will disturb some people and make the song emotionally less accessible to them. I agree that changes because of obsolete or sexist language sometimes improve the hymn. But I have great difficulty with those changes if they alter the image of the poem. In changing the image in "Take My Life" from "Swift and beautiful for thee" (that's even a biblical image) to "Never let them go astray"), we lose an emotional thrust and, thus, are left with a poorer poem. (Here I'm back to Frances Havergal; in defending Havergal, I'm starting to develop an appreciation for her!)

Vanden Bosch: Just let it rest and it'll go away.

Slenk: I've tried, but it keeps bothering me. If the poet has used an image, don't tamper with it—even if it means maintaining the "thee's." I think the only good reasons for changing an image are theological.

Brink: In "Fill Thou My Life" we've tried various alternatives: "Fill all my life," "Fill you my life." The closing line "Be fellowship with thee" is even more problematic. If you change "thee," you have to change the previous rhyming words, and you go through all kinds of contortions. It seemed better to leave the original. And, I should add, that even though I favor many changes, there is something sad about Christians now singing different versions of the same hymn.

Smith: It may be helpful to go back to the principle that hymns are prayers of the people of God. And to the extent that the poets offered these hymns as prayers for the people, the rights have been relinquished to the church. That helps to legitimatize the revisions. At the same time, something conservative within keeps me from making radical changes.

Brink: It's been very instructive on this point to work with living poets. Some will say, "I've written what I've written; you can take it or leave it"—complete with awkward language and misplaced accents. Then there's Brian Wren in England. He also says, "I've written what I've written." Then he adds, "But I'll certainly discuss anything with you," and he's very open to changing a word or a phrase. That kind of dialogue is very healthy.

Smith: Even though I believe there is a principle of people-of-God ownership, I also want us to be very respectful of what we have received.

Vanden Bosch: I still have basic difficulty with the assumption of people-of-God ownership. It doesn't hold up to copyright law—and maybe not even to ethical standards. Are you allowed to change what I have written without consulting me?

Smith: If we accept the hymns as prayers of the people of God, then we have left the realm of human culture and entered into the kingdom of God. There's going to be a tension between the rules governing human culture and the assumptions of the kingdom.

Vanden Bosch: Another revision principle is this: Don't try to change part of a ninteenth-century text into a twentieth-century text. Respect historical idiom. If you can, maintain the idiom, the flavor of the text, and a uniform tone.

Brink: The catholicity of a hymnal that we mentioned earlier also involves the needs of children. That's one aspect that was often missing in traditional hymnals. We, as a covenant community, should have songs that are within the musical and intellectual range of children.

Vanden Bosch: Thus one reason for a revision is to meet the spiritual needs of our generation. This includes the needs for children as well as the inclusion of ethnic groups.

Brink: The church has always been diverse, but the differences usually existed among different denominations or in different countries. Today the diversity is increasingly evident within denominations and within local congregations. We must recognize this diversity, and our hymnals must try to minister to the diverse traditions and needs within our worshiping communities.


Since I was the only woman (and the youngest member) on the seven-person committee, my role was a special one. Very early in our discussions, the question of sexist language became a hot issue. At first it seemed I was the only member of the committee who thought inclusive language should be a characteristic of our hymnal. I firmly believed that if the committee did not make a sincere effort to eliminate sexist language, our hymnal would be obsolete before it was released. In time most of the members came around to this point of view, and the difficult process of editing the texts was begun. Howard Hageman, Norm Kansfield, and, of course, Dr. Routley, had much skill in reworking texts so that changes were graceful and always true to the intent of the original version. I, however, remained the watchdog, always searching out offensive terminology ("There's a man in stanza two!")
—Gloria Norton (RIL)

During the course of our work on the hymnal, one of our members, Calvin Seerveld, was on sabbatical in Europe. We'd send him copies of our work and he'd send us his detailed and unforgettable comments. These are a few of my favorites:

"I love you all, to be sure, but O you perfumers of words and phrases, you murderers of images, may you all be sunk six-feet deep in a bland Victorian cloud of colorless prose!"

"I'd almost bet you a hamburger that Cowper did not put in those exclamation marks!"

"I'll swallow hard, I guess, and take it, if this is communal wisdom, but I think its bowdlerizing scriptural text."

The cast of the diction is a cross between "Home on the Range" and "Behind Every Cloud There's a Silver Lining!" Can we not let this one alone for other hymnbooks, please?"
—Emily Brink (PH)

Reformed Worship 4 © June 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.