Hymning and Hawing

I grew up listening to spirituals as lullabies and ended up sort of saturated by classical and 1950s-60s folk music (Ian and Sylvia, Odetta, Judy Collins, the Limelighters, Kingston Trio). My musical interests continued as I grew older. When you are a semi-professional musician, especially one with an interest in pipe organ, you get exposed to a great deal of sacred music. Many of the great works of the western canon were written for use in worship services, or for a particular religious celebration or commemoration, or to retell a story (Hayden’s Creation, for example). You also learn the basics of music history, from Medieval through the Romantic in most cases, either in a formal class or through osmosis. And you understand why certain lyrics and musical patters go together. Or at least, did until now.

At some point, I suspect in the 1960s in the United States, certain denominations and subgroups of mostly Protestant churches began altering the lyrics of traditional hymns, and in some cases dropping them from the new hymnals altogether. My understanding is that the Catholic church did something similar after Vatican II, and I’ve heard (musical) horror stories about the Folk Mass of the ’60s and ’70s, but I don’t have first-hand knowledge of that. The reasons given by Protestants for changing lyrics ranged from “inclusivity” to “modernizing the language” to “theological appropriateness.” That sets my suspicion meter twitching.

I should say, as an aside, that I’m familiar with the different musical and theological approaches of various Christian denominations, and that they go back a very long way. In the delightful book O Ye Jigs and Juleps, written in 1904, the young author describes going to her Episcopal Church, next door to the Baptists, and being disturbed because the Episcopalians are singing about “Crown Him with Many Crowns” and the Baptists are “plunging around in a bloody fountain.” (“There is a Fountain filled with blood/ Drawn from Emanuel’s veins./ And sinners plunged beneath that flood/ Lose all their guilty stains.”)

I grew up with the 1960s Broadman Hymnal (Southern Baptist), Sacred Harp, and the 1970s United Methodist Hymnal, and the older Oxford Christmas Carols book. Thumbing through them today, one of the first things you notice in the Broadman and Sacred Harp is how much more the music talks about death and struggle, about getting through hard times, and what waits on Jordan’s stormy banks. It’s blunt but often comforting – death and pain are here, in this world, but not in the next. Things will be better, much better than we can possibly imagine. But there are also hymns that remind the singer that you have to decide which way you are going to go. Which leads me to the first major “What the huh?” moment I had with hymnal . . . change.

In the early 1990s the Presbyterian USA church issued a new hymnal. As an organ student I borrowed a copy and paged through to see what lurked in the dark corners. You see, I’d already gone through a Methodist hymnal change, including slicing and dicing one of my favorite hymns, removing Him and His in favor of G-d and G-d’s, making “G-d of our Fathers” into “G-d of the Ages” and so on. And adding several hymns from Latin America and Asia, some of which are very, very difficult for the Western ear to get used to.

Well, this time the Presbyterian hymnal committee had omitted “Once to Every Man and Nation.” (The tune is “Ebenezer,” for those unfamiliar with it.) The hymn dates to just before the American Civil War. “Once to every man and nation/ Comes the moment to decide/ In the strife of truth with falsehood/ For the good or evil side./ Some great cause, G-d’s new messiah [or “some great cause/ some great decision]/Offering each the bloom or blight./  And the choice goes by forever/ Twixt the darkness and the light.” Most hymnals (aside from the oldest) omit the third verse about “by the light of burning martyrs.” It’s about both the decision for good or evil, but also about abolition vs. slavery. But the hymn vanished from the PCUSA hymnal in the 1990s. Why?
“Because it is theologically incorrect” came the answer. “It’s not a single choice.” OK, then why not tweak the words (as they were doing to so many other hymns) to say, “and the choice goes on forever” or something. I didn’t get a good answer. Personally, I think the text is too stark and the tune too creepy. The Methodists at least kept the tune with new words.

Another favorite target for “trimming” is Eleanor Hull’s translation of “Be Thou My Vision,” to the tune “Slane.” Something about “thou my great father/ I thy true son” and “High King of heaven my treasure thou art./ High King of Heaven my victory won . . .” So verses two and three get mashed together and High King (“Ard rih,” king over the lesser kings) became “Great God”. And the original third verse vanished into thin air. The original third verse, straight from the Psalms (and Irish experience) is

Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight;
Be thou my whole armour, be thou my true might;
Be thou my soul’s shelter, be thou my strong tower:
O raise thou me heavenward, great Power of my power.

Whoops! Can’t have that, although (for the moment) “A Mighty Fortress” is still in the books.

At times the changes (mostly those made in the name of greater inclusivety, lest people who had poor relationships with their fathers be offended) make the hymn un-singable. It throws off the rhythm, leaving notes hanging, or trying to jam things into a rhythm that doesn’t fit the meter. I understand some of the arguments for backing away from the Father aspect of the Christian trinity, but it makes the music go thud. Much like the argument that since some women can’t be, or don’t chose to be, mothers, no church should recognize Mothers’ Day.

I wonder how many people the softened, fluffed, Bowdlerized, and inclusive songs actually reach? In some cases the changes are so blatant that I’d probably be offended at the ham-handedness, were I someone who shies away from the idea of a deity with a male aspect. And what about the people who are looking for strength in times of true trial, only to find fluff? I bet the Christians in Nigeria and Sudan know first hand about that single choice that goes by forever.

One week, the organist at my current place of worship rebelled. After several years of singing an “inclusive” version of the Doxology, set to “All Creatures of our G-d and King,” he did a prelude, offertory, and postlude all based on “Old 100,” the traditional Doxology. “Praise G-d from whom all blessings flow/ Praise Him all creatures here below/ Praise Him above ye heavenly host/ Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”