Hymn lines that haven’t stood the test of time

Old books

God’s blessed the church with hundreds of memorable hymns of the faith. Christians and non-Christians alike recognise lines such as “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound…”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, and “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide…” (I’m sure you can think of many of your own examples).

For a bit of a laugh, here are a couple of examples of old hymn lyrics that, although theologically sound, have thankfully fallen out of use:

Stanza 6 in “How Firm A Foundation”:

Even down to old age all My people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.

(Hoary means ancient, aged.)

Stanza 9 of Charles Wesley’s “Come Thou O Traveller Unknown”:

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The term “bowels” used to mean the seat of one’s emotion (what we refer today as our heart).

The first line of Isaac Watt’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was originally:

Hark! How all the welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of Kings.”

(Welkin refers to the highest heavens.)

And from verse 3 of Joseph Hart’s hymn, “Salvation to the Lamb”:

When we incurred the wrath of God, Alas! what could we worse?
He came, and with his own heart’s blood Redeem’d us from the curse.
This paschal Lambour heav’nly meat, was roasted in the flame.
Repeat, ye ransomed souls, repeat, “Salvation to the Lamb!”

While I like Joseph Hart’s sincere attempt to link Jesus to the Passover lamb in Exodus, this particular imagery is um… hard to stomach (thankfully other people have tried rewriting it).

To fit the language

So why did these hymnwriters use those words? To fit the language of the people at that time, who would have understood the phrases and meanings without any hint of snickering.

Brian Wren in his book Praying Twice adds some helpful insight (p.297-8):

“… The need for change sometimes overrides the need for familiarity… In the Preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, [Isaac Watts] says that “what is provided for public worship should give to sincere consciences as little vexation and disturbance as possible” However, “where any unpleasing word is found, he that leads the worship may substitute a better; for (Blessed be God) we are not confined to the words of any Man in our public solemnities.”

“However much we value our past, our present interest in congregational song is not antiquarian, but immediate. We sing to God from today, in lyrics which — whether ancient or recent — express today’s faith. When a lyric from the past gets too archaic to be understood, or too out of sync with today’s hope, faith, and issues to speak for us, it will eventually cease to be sung, or amended to keep it singable.

I was reflecting awhile back on whether Christians had to hang on to obscure hymn lyrics. Ultimately, I think Brian Wren is right – if a line is worth understanding and remembering, it will stay in use. And if it makes you think about your bowels, it’s probably not worth keeping!

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Further reading:

Bobby Gilles – How to revise hymn lyrics without destroying the hymn

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