19th Century Hymn Tinkering

It is often noted how eagerly and often contemporary Unitarian-Universalists alter hymns.  Usually this is done to remove some aspect of the received hymn that is deemed objectionable; sometimes a more acceptable replacement is inserted, while at other times the offending words, phrases, or concepts are simply excised.  Common targets include male-gendered language, God, and the supremacy of the Christian religion.  At other times, the alteration is made for aesthetic, rather than ideological reasons.

Garrison Keillor of NPR’s “Prairie Home Companion” created a controversy when he–somewhat sourly–observed in  December 2009:

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough.

Keillor attributed this religious buccaneering to the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who served as a Unitarian minister for a few years, retiring in 1832) and to cultural elites in general.  Emerson is not remembered as a particularly flagrant hymn-tinkerer; indeed, he was himself a hymnist, whose hymns have imparted phrases preserved today in the common culture, such as “the shot heard round the world.”  That one is from his 1836 “Concord Hymn,” which was set to an older tune, a common practice in Emerson’s day and one that continues among Unitarian-Universalists and many others today.

Emerson was by no means the originator of liberal religious hymn-altering.  Nor was it simply a practice of cultural elites.  Consider for example the Universalist Hymn-Book published by Hosea Ballou and Edward Turner in 1821, when the 18-year-old Emerson was still years away from enrolling at Harvard Divinity School.  Ballou and Turner were the greatest Universalist ministers of their generation, but they could hardly be ranked among the true elites of New England.  Neither had attended college, and the largely self-educated Ballou was the son of desperately poor farmers, a not uncommon demographic for Universalists.  Unitarians typically looked down on Univeralists as poor, uneducated bumpkins–Ballou not excepted–and these class divisions were a major factor in keeping the liberal Unitarians and Universalists from cooperating more closely.

Non-elites from the pre-Emersonian era, Ballou and Turner were nonetheless staunch liberal Christians.  Whenever it suited them, they altered received hymns, often for the purpose of making them match the doctrines preached in Universalist churches.  Critiquing earlier Universalist use of partialist hymns, they noted:

The sentiments, that the Deity required an expiring victim, by way of satisfaction to his judgment; that the death of Christ operated to cancel the debt which the sinner owed; and that God died upon the cross and rose from the dead; these, though undoubtedly believed with sincerity by those who composed the hymns in which they are found, are considered as unsupported by revelation, and unapproved by reason; and they are not GENERALLY believed in our societies.

Hymns with such sentiments were excluded altogether, or modified to suit the whims of the editors.  Such liberties should hardly be shocking: the English hymnody tradition as we are familiar with it (starting with Isaac Watts) was little over a hundred years old, and thus had yet to go through the fossilization process of nostalgia and conservative traditionalism.  Watts was a target of Ballou and Turner’s reform, for instance.  His hymn “Let us adore the eternal word,” ended thusly:

Daily our mortal flesh decays,
But Christ our life shall come;
His unresisted power shall raise
Our bodies from the tomb.

But as altered by Ballou and Turner, it ends:

Daily our mortal flesh decays,
But Christ our life shall come;
And by his mighty power shall raise
And take his children home.

The line about the dead bodily coming forth from their tombs has been removed, replaced with a less supernaturalist line that relies on the characteristic Universalist familial imagery. Likewise, another Watts hymn declares:

‘Tis love that makes our cheerful feet
In swift obedience move;
The devils know and tremble too,
But Satan cannot love.

But this is far too supernaturalist for Ballou and Turner, who did not believe in literal devils.  Their version of this hymn reads:

‘Tis love that makes our cheerful feet
In swift obedience move;
Affliction’s bitter cup is sweet,
When mixed with heavenly love.

This is a truly Universalist sentiment, as Ballou so often emphasized in his preaching that God allowed misfortune to occur during life yet the experience of such was transformed by the constant knowledge of God’s ever-present love.

The takeaway from this is that religious liberals have been altering hymns for a very long time–indeed, one could claim that alteration is itself a form of traditional practice–and that it derives in no way from the proclivities of the top of society.  It is the liberal spirit itself, not class prerogatives, that drives such practices, and it has not been confined to the Unitarians or their descendants.


1 Comment

Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism, Universalism

One response to “19th Century Hymn Tinkering

  1. Thanks for this. I wrote the following paper on this subject for my UU History class in Div School:


    Having had more time to reflect on it, I would write a completely different ending. I think it’s fine to acknowledge the practice of the 19th century for what it was, but that we in the 21st century have a responsibility to name the cultural/theological arrogance behind the practice of changing the words to a hymn/poem.

    I see hymns as a personal expression of an artists’ theological understanding. To update a text in favor of more modern sensibilities is one thing (i.e. inclusive language – as long as the theology remains intact). But to strip a text of its theological foundation is a theft which troubles me deeply. I suppose I get this now (as opposed to when I wrote the paper in the first place) because I have had the experience of having people change the words (or request to do so) to my own hymn texts. Often the proposed changes betray a lack of understanding of the text in the first place, and a knee-jerk replacement of “offending” words or concepts just makes our experience of worship smaller.

    While I find much to argue with in Keillor’s “Silent Night” rant – especially since what he considers the “real” text bears almost no resemblance to the original German – I think he’s on to something when he says “write your own.” If you don’t like the theology of a hymn, use something else, or write something new (even to the same tune – a practice which has largely been lost in our churches, but was completely common until the mid-20th century).

    We who write hymns for worship have no control over what will take hold and be sung for years to come. But I, for one, hope that my own work will simply fade into obscurity and be forgotten rather than have it “updated” over and over again until I wouldn’t even recognize it as my own work.

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