Don’t Touch My Hymns!
Every innovative endeavor is bound to receive some backlash. And I’ve certainly had my share of less than enthusiastic comments about my re-setting of old hymn texts to new music. Tonight is an evening where I feel like proffering a response.
Sometimes I encounter old hymn lovers who give off the air that they don’t appreciate old hymns being tinkered with, tampered with, even desecrated. Perhaps some are aware (but I find that many are not) that such a practice of setting old texts to new melodies has seen many iterations over church history. Even more ironic is that some of the beloved hymns that I and my hymns movement cohorts are accused of desecrating are already once-over desecrated texts. Let’s therefore crack open history’s door of the practice of re-hymning with a brief sketch of one man, Lowell Mason (1792-1872).
Lowell Mason: Hymn-Tamperer
Mason was a Massachusettes-born Georgia boy, banker turned church musician. After the explosive heyday of Watts and Wesley (when they shifted in the eyes of the church from being the contemporary movers and shakers to being the more staid, “traditional” hymns…funny how that works), notwithstanding some notable hymns and hymnwriters in between, church song was growing stale. The old hymns felt tired, and worshipers wanted more fresh hymns for a new era in evangelicalism. The flurry of the first Great Awakening had come and gone, and the revival dust was settling. Mason observed American congregations, saddened by the lifelessness in the singing. He commented:
Go where we may into the place of worship…when the singing commences…the congregation are either on the one hand gazing at the select performers to admire the music, or on the other expressing their dissatisfaction by general symptoms of restlessness.*
Mason was dissatisfied with lifelessness and decided to do something about it. He did so, not by shirking the traditions but by re-expressing them in modern ways. He began affixing new tunes, melodies, and chord structures to glorious old hymn texts…a musical garb he believed modern listeners in his day would appreciate and resonate with. Check out the impressive list that the nethymnal offers of over 80 new tunes Mason composed here. Let me point out a few hymns that Mason re-hymned:
Joy to the World! A Watts hymn written in 1719…the original tune of which was certainly not what we sing today! Mason took the music of G. F. Handel and arranged it for congregational singing…a tune that is now immortally tied to this text.
There is a Fountain Filled with Blood. William Cowper’s 1772 hymn saw new light when Mason re-energized it and hymns of the same meter for modern ears. Interestingly, the tune that we often sing with it today (not Mason’s tune) is a 19th century camp song (ah, those silly youth and their wild music!).
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. This beloved 1707 Watts hymn was not sung to the tune we know and love, until Mason came along and wrote “Hamburg” in 1824, blessing the church in perpetuity.
The list could go on.
Give the Church Her Hymns!
In the light of this, it’s quite ironic when hard and fast hymn-lovers criticize folks like myself who attempt to clothe old hymns in new music. Were it not for the members of the “hymns movement” of old, like Lowell Mason, they would not have some of their most beloved hymns! Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, Sojourn Community Church, Sovereign Grace…they’re not doing anything new. They’re recycling a repeated practice in church music history–giving back historic hymns to the modern church by re-setting them with new tunes and instrumentation.
Though some traditional hymn lovers criticize this practice, at the end of the day we join hands with the same burden. It’s a burden to see to it that great hymns don’t lose their place in the changing church. Some hymn lovers believe that the only way to relieve this burden is to dig one’s heels in and keep singing them the way they’ve always been sung. Re-tuning them is a transgression too far across the line. I humbly disagree, because, though I share their burden not only for the texts but the music, I find that the loss of music is by far and away the lesser of two evils (and sometimes the loss of music is not an evil at all, but a great good…as some of those horrid tunes need to be put in the grave! :)). I’ve waded long enough in the stream of modern worship to know that “sing em our way or the highway” will only polarize, divide, and push away. For now, modern worship, for better or worse, is tied to a certain set of musical priorities and parameters, and the music is not ancillary to the worship expression but part of the DNA of what draws worshipers to that style (which, as history tells, will change, too).
So all we’re doing in the hymns movement is attempting to be 21st century Masons. We believe in the power of these old texts. Therefore, with our musical ability, we’ll attempt to smuggle them in modern music, so that perhaps some might give them a hearing and be pleasantly surprised when a poetic profundity socks them in the gut, drawing them deeper into knowledge, insight, wisdom, and the worship of God.
And if this little post can’t convince some of my criticizers that what I’m doing is worthwhile, at least perhaps it can take some of the blinders off, curing historical myopia.