Meredith Henne on Old Musical Wine & the New Wineskins
When perusing the bulletin from a pew one Sunday a few years ago, I happily noted a hymn—a hymn!—in the weekly song lineup of the church I then attended. It was some old classic, like “Rock of Ages” or “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” and a welcome reprieve from newer songs with endless rain references and a kindergarten vocabulary. Unfortunately, when the music began, I belted out a tune very different from the song leader’s and quickly petered out in embarrassment. The new melody was lovely, just unknown—confusion being the price of having a hymn in an Evangelical service these days, I suppose.
That morning was an awkward first taste of what is actually an overall encouraging trend, at least to this traditionalist and long-time church pianist. Churches that have for years relied on modern choruses are taking another look at hymns, and their musicians are returning to the content and style of time-honored religious anthems for inspiration. Over the past ten years, groups of young musicians disenchanted with shallow praise songs have increasingly formed themselves into sacred music rescue squads, dusting off poetry and tunes long forgotten in their local congregations. These musicians tend to be Evangelicals with liturgical or traditional leanings.
The hymns they have introduced (or re-introduced) come in three varieties: (1) old hymns retaining their traditional melodies and wording; (2) old hymn lyrics with rewritten tunes, some with a very contemporary feel; and (3) completely original songs that make an honest attempt at timeless musical settings and theologically informed lyrics. The fruits of their labors can now be found in hymn albums such as those by Indelible Grace Music in Nashville (with spin-off artists Matthew Smith and Sandra McCracken); High Street Hymns in Charlottesville, Virginia; Red Mountain Church in Birmingham, Alabama; and Keith Getty and Stuart Townend in Great Britain, among others.
New Music Ministries
Indelible Grace, a ministry connected to Reformed University Fellowship and the Presbyterian Church, is recovering the tradition of putting old hymns to new music, and they’ve taken their place at the forefront of the movement in America. They have not only recorded arrangements of hymnody’s classics, such as “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and “More Love to Thee, O Christ,” but they have also raided the archives and the Psalter to uncover lesser-known but first-rate sets of Christian lyrics.
Their most recent collection of hymns, Beams of Heaven: Indelible Grace IV (2005), launches with “Come and Welcome,” a poem from the First Great Awakening paired with a buoyant modern tune. Another highlight is John Newton’s “Begone Unbelief,” an honest grappling with doubt in a tune tinged with melancholy.
There are some unfortunate misses. “Lead On, O King Eternal” was morphed from stately march tune to angst-ridden U2 b-side, for example. Some congregations will love it, no doubt, but the reworked arrangement is a poor match for the lyrics.
Another group actively rescuing hymnody’s treasures, High Street Hymns, is based in Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. All of their songs were first crafted for local church services and their Anglican College Ministry. Alex Mejias, the singer/songwriter behind High Street, keeps a few things in mind when he chooses which hymns to resurrect, including the author (Charles Wesley is his favorite) and how the hymns fit into a liturgical service and the Christian calendar.
The self-titled High Street Hymns, the group’s first full-length album, was released in April 2007. “By Thy Mercy” is one of several rescued Lenten hymns on this album: “When the world around is smiling/ In the time of wealth and ease/ Earthly joys our hearts beguiling/ In the day of health and peace/ By thy mercy, O deliver us/ Good Lord.” Greg Thompson has paired the poem with a solemn, plaintive melody and a perfect pause that emphasizes the “Good Lord” behind life’s dispensations.
The impetus to revisit these classic songs frequently comes from churches and para-church groups with high percentages of the under-30 set. Mejias says his church has about 200 college students in attendance each week, “and we only sing hymns.” Indelible Grace music consists largely of pieces penned by young Reformed University Fellowship members.
The archaic language is not chasing youth away, either. In a Christian culture on a mad scramble for “relevancy,” it is an amazing thing to hear a church full of twenty-somethings enthusiastically singing phrases straight out of the American Colonial era: “Spread for thee the festal board/ See with richest dainties stored/ To thy Father’s bosom pressed/ Yet again a child confessed.”
In a nod to modernity, though, Indelible Grace and High Street Hymns sometimes reference rock, pop, and folk styles in order to create melodies translatable to congregations raised on contemporary worship music. It’s the “hook” idea: Their hope is that the “new hymns” will appeal to the formerly chorus-dependent and pull those worshipers toward classics from the Christian canon.
To some traditionalists, manipulating classic hymns gilds the lily, or seems as unnecessary as changing the tune to the national anthem. But the volatility of tune/lyric marriages is a historical fact, not an evil. Many hymn tunes were written in a separate era from their lyrics—the Psalter certainly was—and variations aren’t unusual (think of the many tunes for “Away in a Manger” or “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”). The difference between the familiar and the unfamiliar is merely exposure and time.
It will take some years for the latest melodies and modern hymns to take their place as standards, and some of them deserve that status. One five-year-old hymn is already well on its way: In a BBC survey of the top ten British hymns, Getty and Townend’s “In Christ Alone” joined the ranks of the classics “How Great Thou Art” and “Be Thou My Vision.”
Congregations may find themselves moved by the new generation of hymns, but on the downside, they may also find themselves silenced, as I was that summer Sunday. Such an incident occurs in Harold Frederic’s 1896 novel, The Damnation of Theron Ware. Sister Soulsby and her husband, commissioned to boost financial pledges at Reverend Ware’s Methodist church, mesmerize his congregation with unusual hymn adaptations. When they begin “Rock of Ages” to a tune by Chopin—an unfamiliar composer in Ware’s provincial town—the parishioners are transformed into thrilled, but mute, spectators. Later, at a climactic moment in the service, the Soulsbys commence an “old, familiar tune.” The assembly (as designed) instantly leaps to its feet, thundering out the noble song of praise. For emotional power, nothing beats participation.
It is fascinating that the return to hymns has not necessarily meant a return to hymnals, that is, a return to the use of musical notation. The thing that would make these new hymns easier to learn—couching the new music in the old written “notes on a staff” format—is the very thing that most churches do not do. An enormous number of American worship services exclusively use an overhead projector during singing, and projected slides rarely indicate anything besides words and the copyright licensing number. As a result, the overhead-dependent church has become largely musically illiterate.
Even church musicians, many of them talented amateurs, are themselves often unfamiliar with notation. Perhaps musical illiteracy has been the church’s historical norm for generations, but given our modern advantages, it is regrettable that many parishioners have never actually seen musical notation in their sanctuaries, just disembodied words on an overhead screen.
It would be worthwhile to obtain copies of songs that include musical notation—staffs, clefs, and notes—and project them on the screen so our congregations, particularly the children, could become familiar with this language and develop a curiosity about it rather than a fear. Some of the free online resources provided by Indelible Grace and others (in the form of their lead sheets) make this very feasible, and their use would encourage more congregational participation.
Theology in Music
So where do we go from here? We continue to sing old hymns, but aren’t hidebound about it. We also write new lyrics with theological depth. And we compose new melodies, with structure and form, that suit and respect the old lyrics. We introduce (or re-introduce) the use of musical notation in our congregations. And we encourage Christians who are creating meaningful, rich new songs by giving their works a chance in our services, especially those services that are typically heavy on modern choruses.
The growing hymn revival and the return to more traditional lyrical and musical expressions have serious didactic potential. Not only can the new take on hymns aid in teaching theological truths more rigorously and with a richer theological vocabulary, but it also has the potential to resuscitate a finer sense of musicianship and broader musical education among Christians.
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“Hymns Resurrected” first appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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