Does Your Church Change the Hymns? Does it Bother You?

Ms. Kitty brought up an important point in relation to today’s trivia question.  UU churches often change the lyrics to hymns, prayers, etc, including in some of the most commonly used ones, such as Go Now in Peace.  Your fearless blogger once attended a UU church and, turning to the page for “Go Now in Peace” in the hymnal in preparation to sing the children off to Sunday School, discovered the word “God” literally struck out with a line of ink, and “love” penciled in above it.

Does your church change hymn lyrics?  Does that bother you, or does it seem like a good idea in the pursuit of inclusion for all?  Is it just God that gets struck out?  Are there other terms you routinely see discarded?

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Does Your Church Change the Hymns? Does it Bother You?

  1. We don’t but I would be fine if we did… I am not a big hymn/god singer. I didn’t grow up with it in the Unitarian church and it makes me uncomfortable. I usually just don’t sing what I don’t feel comfortable with. To each their own I figure.

  2. Whenever I hear “Go Now in Peace” being sung in my congregation, it seems that some people are singing “May the spirit of Love surround you,” while others are singing “May the spirit of God surround you.” Sometimes I sing one or the other, depending on whichever pops into my head first. I think the words for it are listed as “Love” in the order of service.

  3. Elz

    Ah, one of my pet peeves. In my almost four decades in this denomination, I have usually found it is my theology and my father’s politics being eliminated by the pew-pencils.

    Kind of makes a lie to all that rhetoric about diversity. I agree that if someone wants to sing something else, that’s fine. We UU Christians have been singing the Christian words under our breaths for years, sometimes mouthing a spiritual communion to each other.

    For awhile you do that. Then you start to wonder if you’re in the right place.

  4. well the history of altered lyrics go back to the 1910s at least (I have a song book of “gospel favorites” with the words changed to remove hell and trinity), but at least the song book stated that it was altered).
    In the current hymnal I wonder why Christmas Carols were altered… if we sing a song because it’s famous – then people are suspecting the old words…

  5. Altered lyrics are a curious, but hardly unique, phenomenon in UU circles. Nineteenth-century Unitarians and Universalists frequently wrote new texts for well-known hymn tunes, but they also picked up hymns from other Protestant traditions — sometimes altering them.

    Unitarians liked Reginald Heber’s 1826 hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” for example, although the traditional hymn is manifestly Trinitarian and the tune is even named “Nicaea.” But are the Victorian Unitarians guilty of de-Christianizing the hymn because they combined lines from a two different verses, shortening the hymn by a verse to avoid singing “Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, / God in three persons, blessed Trinity!”? Or are modern UUs guilty because we’ve changed the first line from “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!” to “Holy, holy, holy, author of creation!”? (See SLT 26.) From my perspective, these are understandable adaptations to express a Unitarian interpretation of the gospel.

    Adapting lyrics in more radical ways really picked up in the early 20th century, especially with the introduction of humanist hymns in the 1930s. Vincent Silliman’s 1934 hymn “Morning, So Fair to See” (42 in SLT; 14 in HCL) always struck me as one of the very best of the humanist hymns — but it is a thorough-going revision of the Lutheran hymn whose music it’s set to, “Beautiful Jesus.” Instead of this verse—

    Fair are the meadows,
    Fair are the woodlands,
    Robed in flowers of blooming spring;
    Jesus is fairer,
    Jesus is purer;
    He makes our sorrowing spirit sing.

    —we have this one:

    Fair are the verdant trees;
    Fair are the flashing seas;
    Fair is each wonder the seasons bring.
    Fairer is faith’s surmise
    Shining in pilgrim eyes:
    Fairer the brotherhood we sing.

    Unlike, say, Kenneth Patton’s new words for Martin Luther’s “Ein’ Feste Burg” (“A Mighty Fortress)” — “Man is the earth upright and proud” — Silliman’s lyrics have stood the test of time, and they’re actually quite lovely lyrics. I suspect few UUs charge him with rewriting a Christian hymn. But he did.

  6. Jeff

    This thread at PeaceBang may relate to this discussion: Singing Bout Jesus in the UU Context

  7. Let me ask this:

    How many hymns in the SLT that have been changed from older Christian hymns have previous to that been adapted from religious and secular music of non-Christian traditions, including but not limited to Jewish and Islamic melodies and/or lyrics?

  8. I have always found the bowdlerization of hymns deeply offensive. Somebody wrote those hymns, and we are denying them their immortality when we deny the words they wrote. If you don’t like the hymn, don’t sing it! Write your own correct hymns instead!

  9. Shawn Koester

    Preach it, Elz! I too am a UU Christian. I hold membership in a congregation that came of age in the fellowship movement with a sizeable number of humanists. I don’t mind if people sing what feels most comfortable to them but I make it a point to sing the original lyrics. If one doesn’t like the original they can either not sing, skip the lyrics they uncomfortable with. Even worse is my congregation has adapted our covenant by Griswald Williams to such a point that kills the spirit of the original (as with the hymns I do say the original words). Its a crying shame that my congregation, and many like have ignored our theology, and have not been conscious in making sure people of all political backgrounds can join in. At this point in my life I feel a strong call to the ordained ministry. Not only am heeding God’s call but also to show that yes, there still are Christians in the UUA, and to ensure a Christian presence is still present, and to bear witness that Unitarianism and Universalism are still options.

  10. I remember as a Catholic being up on the altar prior to giving out communion as we were all to say “Lord, I am not worthy to recieve you, but say the word and I will be healed” and I would change it to “Lord I AM worthy to recieve you, say the words to continue my healing”. I know that may sound silling to some, but I had a problem reciting (or singing) words that were not true for me and I’d recite it with the other Eucaristic Ministers and no one could tell that I altered it. I had the same problem with the Lord’s Prayer where we recited “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. I always skipped that line because I didn’t want God forgiving me as I would do. For me my “so very human” way of forgiving wasn’t so great all the time. I have no problem singing altered words at my UU church, but my husband thinks its a bit comical. He thinks we should have more UU songwrighters for UU hymns, like Carolyn McDade, instead of changing words of Christian hymns to chop God out. He wonders, if its such a problem, why use them at all.

  11. Greg Franseth

    I used to have a problem with this until I was looking at a Christian hymnal and found a hymn I knew was written by a UU and knew the original lyrics and saw that the lyrics had been christianized. A little research showed this to be a fairly common practice.

    Something shared by diverse people wll either be a collection of each or an amalgam of each. We’ve gone with amalgam. I’m reluctant to say I knowwhich is right, though I’m sure there are plenty of people who do know.

  12. The glaring problem with this case is that when the composer of “Go Now in Peace” (Natalie Sleeth) was asked about changing the words, she specifically said no. If you want to sing about the spirit of love, write a song about it. Changing the words to a 19th century hymn is one thing, but changing words to a contemporary song is both unethical and a violation of applicable copyright laws.

  13. Laurence

    My church does this all the time – usually to prevent the use of pronouns (“He” will be replaced by “You”, for example, or simply use “God” in every instance – with the result bordering on gibberish), though sometimes more extensive changes are made, despite the requirements of the song in terms of rhyming or even number of syllables. Tomorrow we will have the wonderful “Tell Out my Soul” which has been completely butchered – I shall be singing the prover version, loudly!

    I see the author, Timothy Dudley-Smith, is still living and has published his address. I shall write to him and ask his opinion.

  14. Mandy

    God is love, right? I appreciate and prefer the UU lyrics because I sing them with more conviction than I would otherwise.

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