This has turned out to be a second installment of concerns over evanglicalism’s limited understanding of and approach to hymns. My first installment was a critique about the limited creativity we evangelicals have exerted in “resetting” hymns. The chief concern of today’s post is this question: Why is it that all evangelicals seem to know of “old hymns” are the late 1800s and 1900s gospel-era songs?
Over a year ago, I was leading worship for a group in our church, and I led a discussion and reflection time on a hymn, probably by Watts or Wesley. We rabbit-trailed into your typical contemporary vs. traditional debate, during the middle of which a dear old woman stood up and made one of those speeches with the tone of voice where everyone listens because it sounds like sage wisdom is about to be poured out upon us. She said, “This is all fine and good, but I want to sing those old, old hymns…you know, like ‘In the Garden’ and ‘He Touched Me.’” Yes. This woman used the emphatic phrase “old, old” to refer to hymns which were written well after the time of Watts and Wesley. However, this typifies the best of what it seems that dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals can come up with for a discussion of “old hymns.” Now, I’ve been accused of throwing the label “ancient” on hymns which only date back to the 17th century, and I must concede that it’s a good point. In my book, ancient is usually something which predates the medieval period. So I’m going to try to be more careful about that. But, my goodness, it seems triply silly to throw “old, old” around for hymns that have barely been around 100 years.
Frankly, I’m downright discouraged to see hymn album upon hymn album with the same old song list of “old hymns” drug up again and again. The list usually goes something like:
How Great Thou Art
Day By Day
It is Well
Great is Thy Faithfulness
The Old Rugged Cross
THERE IS SO MUCH MORE OUT THERE! I have nothing against the above hymns (I do have grievances about “In the Garden” and “He Touched Me,” but thankfully those don’t often end up on the hymn compilations). In fact, the above are great hymns. But the fact that they are the same on every evangelical hymns compilation tells me that evangelicals haven’t really been exposed to hymnody.
In my historical estimation, evangelicalism is largely the inheritor of the church music tradition of the Second Great Awakening—namely, revivalist gospel hymns (note: these aren’t black gospel hymns, but the white gospel hymns of the last two centuries). I’ve got a permanent twitter search on “old hymns” (I can see when anyone tweets with the phrase “old hymns” and what they’re saying), and what keeps popping up, time and again, is that the typical evangelical understanding of “old hymns” is the above list. “The Old Rugged Cross” is a wonderful hymn with a meaningful message worth singing, but when it consistently appears in the top 10 evangelical “great hymns” lists, I have to question how well we’ve been exposed to the historic hymnody of the church. Again, THERE IS SO MUCH MORE OUT THERE!
As I set old hymns to music, I must admit that I’m partial to the Protestant English Calvinists of the 17th and 18th centuries—Isaac Watts, Joseph Hart, Charles Wesley (I believe he was a Calvinist), Augustus Toplady, and the like. Those Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans could write a hymn like none other. But far be it from me to act as though that’s all there is worth calling “old hymns.” What about Ambrose, the Greek tradition, Bernard of Clairvaux? What about the early Protestant German hymnody (graciously given to us through translators like Catherine Winkworth)? What about the biblical Psalms, for that matter, and all the Psalters which blossomed out of the Reformed branch of the Reformation? THERE IS SO MUCH MORE OUT THERE!!!!!!!!!!!
My hope and prayer is that evangelicals get their heads out of the sand and discover what’s beyond their nostalgic, partial hymnody (I sometimes wonder whether these recycled “old hymns” albums are more based on nostalgia than they are on a celebration of great, historic songs of the church). And now, more than ever, is the day and age where we’ve got seemingly limitless archival databases at our fingertips. The Net Hymnal is case in point. We simply do not have an excuse anymore if we’re producing the 137th “old hymns” album with “How Great Thou Art” on it!
Mine the depths, people. Mine them!