Reforming Hymns

Coming from Wales, I love sung praise, and have served churches in which hymn-singing is essential to their DNA. Since our theology is Reformed, we include in worship the singing of Psalms, few though there are in the Trinity Hymnal. Older people have grown up loving Victorian hymns. Certainly, they are gospel-centered, even if focused on Christ on times to the exclusion of the Father and the Spirit.Moreover, a generation are being nurtured to sing anything that has proven substance of a biblical character, regardless of whether the hymn in view originated with Martin Luther or Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley or Stuart Townend and the Gettys.

This melding provides a wonderful opportunity to look at sung praise in the light of Scripture. While the review is largely subconscious, it takes in older as well as newer hymns. This review is neither ungrateful for the heritage we have, nor censorious in outlook, yet it picks up on words or lines which jar somewhat with biblical teaching or the context of hymn singing. As a regular liturgist, I am not looking to abandon otherwise beloved and faithful hymns because of the odd word or line which grates, and allow for a certain degree of poetic license. Yet, I find myself on times looking for better wording which both fits the tune and takes away the jarring. Instances of poetic license are bearable for they allow for flexibility of interpretation, but statements that gainsay, in perception or actuality, the specific teaching of Scripture are worth reconsidering.

This interest in holding our hymns biblically accountable began in 2007 when I first arrived at Seventh Reformed Church. I had chosen Hattie Buell’s hymn “The Child of a King” for the evening worship service, but was told prior to the service by the Elder escorting me that night that the congregation sung the chorus of the hymn differently than was found in the hymnal (see below). After that, we revised, periodically, the wording of hymns sung. Not wanting, however, to overdo the editorial amendment of our hymns in the process of worship, I have opted instead to begin a list below of alternative renderings to questionable words or lines encountered. I am not anticipating the adoption of the suggestions, nor am I wishing to engage in issues of copyright. All the same, the following examples of biblical adjustment may be of interest.

In alphabetical order, they include:

Come, thou Fount of ev-‘ry blessing (Robert Robinson, 1758)

Verse 3: “O to grace how great a debt-or Dai-ly I’m constrained to be; Let that grace now, like a fet-ter, Bind my wan-d’ring heart to thee. Prone to wan-der, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for thy courts a-bove.”

Suggested change: “O to grace how great a debt-or Dai-ly I’m constrained to be; Let that grace now, like a fet-ter, Bind my wan-d’ring heart to thee. Prone to wan-der, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, You’ve taken and sealed it, Sealed it for thy courts a-bove.”

Reason for the change: The apostle Paul consistently understands the Lord’s people as already sealed (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:22).

I lay my sins on Jesus, The spotless Lamb of God (Horatius Bonar)

Verse 1: “I lay my sins on Jesus, The spotless Lamb of God; He bears them all, and frees us From the accursed load: I bring my guilt to Jesus, To wash my crimson stains White in his blood and most precious, Till not a spot remains.”

Suggested change: “I see my sins on Jesus, The spotless Lamb of God; He bears them all, and frees us From the accursed load: I bring my guilt to Jesus, To wash my crimson stains White in his blood and most precious, Till not a spot remains.”

Reason for the change: If we are the ones responsible for laying our sins on Jesus, then undoubtedly we are still condemned; for no one knows the half of the sins he has committed in mind, speech, or action. The glory of the gospel is that it is God the Father who has laid every sin of the believer on his Son Jesus. None remain unatoned! Since, in the Trinity Hymnal (1961), Bonar’s hymn is included in the section “Faith in Christ” the words “I see my sins on Jesus” are an appropriate replacement.

Lord, for the Years Your Love Has Kept and Guided (Timothy Dudley-Smith)

Verse 3: “Lord, four our land in this our gen-er-a-tion, spirits op-pres-sed by plea-sure, wealth and care; for young and old, for com-mon-wealth and na-tion, Lord for our land, be pleased to hear our prayer.”

Suggested change:  “Lord, four our land in this our gen-er-a-tion, spirits op-pres-sed by plea-sure, wealth and care; for young and old, for con-tin-ent and na-tion, Lord for our land, be pleased to hear our prayer.”

Reason for the change: To enable Christians in non-Commonwealth lands to sing the hymn without geo-political distraction.

Mighty Christ from time eternal (Titus Lewis, translated from Welsh by Graham Harrison)

Verse 3: “Great my Jesus in His Person, great as God and man is He, great His comeliness and beauty, white and ruddy, fair to see. Great that sight, sovereign Might, throned secure on heaven’s height!”

Suggested change: “Great my Jesus in His Person, great as God and man is He, great His comeliness and beauty, power and glory, glad to see. Great that sight, sovereign Might, throned secure on heaven’s height!”

Reason for the change: If we leave “comeliness and beauty” as descriptive of Christ’s humanity (note the earlier clause “great as God and man is he”), we may insert “power and glory” instead of “white and ruddy” to reference his divinity. On the one hand, “power and glory” circumvents the possibility of a literal reading at odds with the Middle Eastern humanity Christ has taken with him back to heaven. On the other hand, the words “power and glory” reflect Christ’s divinity and balance out what is said of his “comeliness and beauty.” “Glad to see” offers us, then, what may be perceived as a less effeminate picture of Christ than “fair to see,” and speaks of the believer’s response to the fullness of Christ’s person as both human and divine.

Revive thy work, O Lord (Albert Midlane, 1858)

Verse 5: “Revive thy work, O Lord, Give pen-te-costal show’rs: The glo-ry shall be all thine own, The blessing, Lord, be ours.”

Suggested change: “Revive thy work, O Lord, Give o-ver-whelming show’rs: The glo-ry shall be all thine own, The blessing, Lord, be ours.”

Reason for change: To protect the once-for-allness of Pentecost as a unique event within redemptive history.

The Child of a King (Hattie Buell)

The refrain: “I’m the child of a King, The child of a King! With Jesus, my Saviour, I’m the child of a King.”

Suggested change: “I’m a child of the King, a child of the King! With Jesus, my Saviour, I’m a child of the King.”

Reason for change: To emphasize the uniqueness of the King.

Doubtless, there are other examples worth discussing. We shall add to the ones above over time. I am not claiming, meanwhile, that the suggested changes are anything other than that; but it is interesting how, with sensitivity to Scripture and to the hymns in question, we can find alternatives to words or lines which sit awkwardly and potentially mislead.