Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Razing Ebenezer, and other hymn-crimes

I stumbled upon and appreciated an article by Gary Parrett in CT about how hymns have sometimes been changed, dumbed-down, or partly pirated.

For instance, aced by "Here I raise mine Ebenezer," in Come Thou Fount, many have changed the lyrics, to accommodate our Biblical illiteracy.

That's a choice we have to confront in such things. Sadly, it probably is true that most church attenders think Ebenezer's last name is Scrooge, and don't know why we're singing about raising him. So we face a choice, don't we?
  1. Dumb-down the lyrics; or
  2. Smart-up the worshipers
You can guess which my preference is. How hard is it to explain the context before singing the hymn?

UPDATE: Wesley didn't care for anyone "improving" his hymns.


Mike Jones said...

Hehe... we recently sang that very line.

I suppose I have some reservations regarding the language of some hymns in that the actual old English itself can be trouble for a lot of people. The word order, etc. can be cumbersome. It just isn't the language of the day.

But as for Biblical terminology (like Ebenezer) we should absolutely educate rather than dumb things down.

If Christians can sit through a 3 hour movie then they should be able to take in a 5 minute explanation of a hymn...

Trinian said...

Interesting. In their article focusing entirely on preserving the precise wording of hymns, they link their Scriptural evidence to the New Living Translation.

DJP said...


Irony Alert!

Tom Chantry said...

RE Smarting Up the Singers:

We have instituted a practice at our midweek service in the hopes that at least the core of the church (and their kids) will become informed hymn-singers. We cut down the number of hymns sung to just one at the opening of the service, but take about ten minutes in introducing it.

Introductions vary from week to week, but may cover the history behind a hymn, an examination of some intricate theological development within a part of it, examination of difficult language, or discovery of how various scripture texts are woven together within a hymn. All of those cannot be done in any week; ten minutes isn't really all that long a time. However, what is said in those times can stick with people every subsequent singing of the hymn.

chrish said...

I didn't know what an Ebenezer was. I used a dictionary. I guess I was just brought up that way; one of the most common phrases in my house growing up was, "Go look it up."

DJP said...

My house too. I appreciate my late mother having me do that, leaning on me for spelling and grammar. DON'T UNDERSTAND kids who resent their parents for that. Good grammar and spelling is nothing but a plus.

threegirldad said...

Not to mention the changes that have nothing at all to do with "dumbing-down," but something much worse. Take, for example, the Isaac Watts hymn "Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed?" Until recently, I had no idea that the last line of the first stanza originally read, "For such a worm as I?" rather than "For such a one as I?"

Kyle said...

I'm very fond of Gary Parrett. He was the one who pointed out to me that the EPC was officially on the egalitarian side of the fence. Of course, he said it was like a good thing and it set me to thinking that maybe I couldn't be a presbyterian after all.

Of course, the real question is if you know why the pronoun is mine instead of my...

rebecca said...

Oh, this is one of my pet peeves. My church uses a Mennonite hymnal and it's terrible for changing the words to remove the Thous and Thys and to make everything nice and "gender inclusive" ) or to remove any mention of the worms and wretches that we are. If I'm confident enough that I know the old words, I sing them anyway. Loudly.

But then, at least we sing hymns...

Trinian said...


While I appreciate your sentiment, you make it sound a bit impertinent. Since it is so important to you, is there an elder at your church in charge of leading worship who you could talk to about your concerns?

Jim Jordan said...

In our Bible study's children's program we start the class singing two hymns. Our manual tells us to take a few minutes to introduce the song. Most of the time we relate a stanza that reflects the week's lesson. I expanded it to include the background of why and how the song was written.

I've never seen anyone leave out the "Ebenezer" (stone of help) though my church occassionally eliminates an entire line [Ex:Hymn 379, Lines 1,3,4,5]. The line about "freedom marching across the wilderness" was deleted in America the Beautiful and, in another, a line about "when heresies shall cease". Both must have been odes to Politically Correctness handed down by PCUSA. They don't want anyone talking about heresies, I guess. :-)

Connie said...

Yes, yes, a thousand times "yes"--take a little time to educate our people and their MINDS!

There is a movement/sentiment today encouraging worship leaders/congregations to sprinkle in more simple choruses among hymns so people will sort of get 'a break' from the weightier terms and theology found in many traditional hymns. Excuse me???

I love "Alas..." and almost cringe when I hear the 'revised' version that replaces 'worm' with 'one'. However, I prefer the 'revised' version (Trinity Hymnal) of Wesley's "And Can It Be" that offers in the third verse 'Humbled Himself because of love, And bled for all His chosen race', rather than, 'Emptied Himself of all but love, And bled for Adam's helpless race'.

s.driesner said...

Amen, brother.

I really wish more parishioners had the patience (and more worship leaders had the bibilical background) to submit to a bit of explanation of what we're singing before we sing it.

In fact, I would be all over a sermon series consisting of nothing but going through some of the more solidy biblical hymns (A mighty fortress, It is well with my soul, etc.) and digging down to find the biblical basis for the lyrics. I think it would do wonders for the depth of worship.

DJP said...

Yes, even if it meant fewer hymns sung per service. Or just explain one per service.

Certainly, all "worship leaders" should be made to sign an agreement acknowledging something like:


or something like that. Leave more time for hymns.

Kaffinator said...


HAHA! ...but what about if we repeat the chorus once or twice without the drum/bass line? You know, to give it that "home church" feel. As long as we follow with one of those numbers that start with the drummer hitting his sticks together over his head twice, or people will start nodding off. (/sarcasm)

As for "Thous" and "Thys" I'd say if you can pull them out--without also destroying the meter and rhyme--ditch 'em. Having "thee" in a song doesn't make it any holier.

OK, "Ebenezer". If you are in a congregation that doesn't know what that is or even how to figure out what that is, then may I suggest the problem is your congregation's approach to teaching and learning? And you are not going to fix that problem by singing (or reading program notes for that matter). So, Mr Worship Pastor, don't worry over whether you are singing the "correct" version of the song. You don't fix a broken wagon wheel by painting it just-the-right-shade-of-white.

Last dig: Aren't worship wars grand?

Kaffinator said...

And let me hasten to add that Tom's church's practice sounds brilliant. Program notes are great if--if!--they are given to a spiritually and intellectually hungry people (the kind who would have looked up Ebenezer on their own).

ThirstyDavid said...

"most church attenders think Ebenezer's last name is Scrooge"

. . . and that Ichabod's last name is Crane. I leave it to you to make the correlation.

Mike Riccardi said...

It's interesting that the Ebenezer line in Come Thou Fount serves as the example here.

In our church, we have some guys (even leaders) who got really enthralled by the seeker model in the late 90s, and we've been trying to get that taste out of our mouths for the last 7 or 8 years (I guess that's a hint at how it's going).

But there is a group of younger guys (20-somethings) at our church who are pretty solid and can't stand the Willow approach to ministry. One of them happens to be my new brother-in-law, who has long since been involved with worship on Sunday mornings. Over the last few years, they've given him the position to lead worship on a rotation, and he does a phenomenal job.

One of the first services that I remember that he led, we sang Come Thou Fount, and he explained exactly this about this line. He read from 1 Samuel and taught the congregation what we were about to sing. For many of us, we had no idea that this line was ever changed. Thanks to Dave, we appreciated the heart of the author in his original words and all the more glorified Christ because of them.

More worship leaders/pastors ought to do this.

rebecca said...

Since it is so important to you, is there an elder at your church in charge of leading worship who you could talk to about your concerns?

The complaint I've made is shared by others and well-known to my elders. We are stuck with the hymnals we have.

My comment was indeed a little impertinent, but impertinent in good humour (I hope). I do understand that we can't change our hymals and I live with it.

threegirldad said...

I love "Alas..." and almost cringe when I hear the 'revised' version that replaces 'worm' with 'one'.

And that's what makes it so insidious. People who would cringe don't...because they don't realize that they should.

DJP said...

I don't much care for Reformed "corrections" either, though. I'm forgetting one (I think it may be "To God Be the Glory," where they feel forced to "correct" the line "...that all may come in"). But i really don't like the dropping of this stanza of "Sweet Hour of Prayer":

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight:
This robe of flesh I’ll drop and rise
To seize the everlasting prize;
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”

My fear is it was dropped because they were afraid it sounded too much like the Rapture. Which is particularly pathetic, since ALL CHRISTIANS believe in the Rapture. We only differ as to timing.

Kyle said...

I would have assumed it was because it was too difficult to bowdlerize: dropping my robe, no matter how spiritual, is kind of racy...

chrish said...

Weighing in on "Alas..." I actually like the change from "worm," to, "one," even if my hymnal does not have the change in it.

While I will never argue for anything except the utter depravity of people without Christ, I think the use of "worm" has become much more of an insult than an honest statement of being. The rest of the song, I think, sufficiently reports on our state of being without the strength of insult.

Mesa Mike said...

> I really wish more parishioners had
> the patience ... to submit to a
> bit of explanation of what we're
> singing before we sing it.

But, but.. stopping to explain things would disrupt the move of the Spirit and break up the flow of worship!

Wait. We don't sing the kind of songs that need to be explained, anyway. We just love Jesus and will never let go of Him.

threegirldad said...


I don't see how the phrase in question is any more insulting than Job 25:6 or Psalm 22:6. Nor do I see why this particular example of insult is a bad thing.

chrish said...


I suppose it's not such a bad thing if you're already used to such language from the Bible. Were I not saved, being called a "worm," (no matter how accurate a description of my state) would likely put me right off whatever you're talking about.

This is, of course, not to suggest we water anything down; my point is that the gospel itself will offend, and probably does not need our help with the language we use.

Trinian said...

I don't much care for Reformed "corrections" either, though. I'm forgetting one (I think it may be "To God Be the Glory," where they feel forced to "correct" the line "...that all may come in").

You bring up an interesting question there, Dan. If a worship pastor is doing his job well and paying close attention to the clarity and scriptural accuracy of the message preached by the songs he uses, and finds (where the song does not directly quote scripture) one or two words in a 95% really great hymn that are slightly off from good doctrine... does he have more of a mandate to modify the song before presenting it to his flock, or to leave it "pure" so as not to offend those who know the "real" words, or to drop the hymn entirely from his repertoire?

Also... I'm just not getting it - that stanza you quoted makes no sense. So, when we die... we're going to be like... Moses, looking into the promised land... but not able to enter? I can usually appreciate the small dose of replacement theology of Christians "crossing the Jordan" when they die, but this one just doesn't work. I also really hope it's not inferring Rapture, because line 5 would give issues.

DJP said...

As I've said (somewhere), I don't go for the Canaan = Heaven analogy, but that's where the song's coming from. The imagery is either death or Rapture, I take it: get a glimpse of Heaven, then go there to be with the Lord.

Trinian said...

Quick Pyro search... http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2006/05/truth-is-old-but-reverse-may-not-hold.html

Now, I'm not a worship pastor, so I probably have no clue how it works, but let's say you want the congregation to sing "Sweet Hour of Prayer" this Lord's Day (and it looks like a really great hymn, though I hadn't encountered it personally before now). But it's got this stanza that you have previously taught has no Biblical basis and that is an "old misconception that should have been reconsidered and retooled ages ago."
As an elder of your church who is personally responsible for the content of the message proclaimed in song, what do you do?

DJP said...

Wow... I've been out-cited, of myself, to myself!

Well, to a general question, the general answer: it depends. For instance, though not going for the Canaan/heaven equation, I've no problem singing that hymn. I get the imagery. Depends on how significant the variance.

For instance, that "all may come in line" I sing, meaning by it the same thing the Bible generally means by "all." Did the original author mean all without exception, or all without exclusion? Don't think it's necessary that I get into that kind of exegetical detail when it comes to un-God-breathed hymns.

Trinian said...

By a similar token, another unfortunately general question - Is it necessary to be so purist towards un-God-breathed hymns or does a worship pastor have the license to make alterations as he concludes through prayer and careful study that it improves his ministry?
Are we putting undue emphasis on the exact preservation and unquestioning reuse of what is simply man's interpretation of God's Word, or is it so important to preserve the lineage of faith present in our litany of hymns that changing even one word leads us down a slippery slope of the betrayal of historical Christianity?

Again, the answer is probably - it depends. But then I would suggest that it requires us to be very careful when coming down on worship pastors who lean one direction or the other. (Excepting those whose only reason is to make worship more contextually relevant to the shifting paradigm of cultural buzzword buzzword. Snide glare over at the NLT.)

trogdor said...

As far as song lyrics go, totally with you on not dumbing it down to account for ignorance instead of teaching. Just as bad are the songs that are at best Bibley-sounding words incoherently strung together. Gibberish with a good beat does not equal praise. One song in particular I once objected to during a leadership meeting, and was challenged to point out what was wrong with it. Rather than an exhaustive list, I just asked if anyone could explain what it meant. Nobody could (because it's nonsens, but it mentions God and has a good beat). Now if we don't even know what it means, should we be offering it as praise? Hmmm.

As to Canaan as heaven, I thought the use of it as a type in Hebrews 3-4 was pretty clear. That doesn't mean I want to sing it though; after all, we wouldn't sing songs about longing for the Melchizedekian priesthood or praising the offering of goats and a red heifer. We know what the antetype is, why dwell on the type?

Kyle said...

How can we truly understand the value of the Antetype if we don't meditate on the type?

Highland Host said...

Plus, how can we sing the Psalms if we refuse to mention types in worship?

Types and symbols are an important part of poetical language. To refuse to mention them in any hymns is to condemn us to singing only bald and bland hymns.

But we certainly need to update some old English. I am reminded of an event during the 1875 revision of the old Methodist Hymn-book. One of the older men on the editorial committee contended that every Wesley hymn in the old book should be retained with the original wording. Thus the word 'bowels', which used to refer to compassion, kept coming up. Finally a young man, as the word came up yet again, groaned. "Bowels again," he said. "surely we can change it to something like 'compassion' here?" "What? Are we too refined to have bowels nowadays?" the old man replied acidly. Quick as a flash the younger man answered: "I have no objection to your having bowels, sir, so long as they are not protruding!"

I think that 'With joy we meditate the grace' is much improved by no longer containing the line: "His bowels melt with love". Don't you?

MarieP said...

I heard of a liberal church (I think it was UCC) that changed the hymn "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" to "crown Him servant of all." Not sure what they do with the rest of the hymn, but I really don't want to know.

The Celebration Hymnal (used in the Disciples of Christ church I used to go to) has "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" but replaces "sovereign" with something like "mighty" and takes out the stanza about God's frowning providence.

MarieP said...

One change my Reformed Baptist church makes is in "All People that On Earth Do Dwell," we change "fear" to "joy." It's not that we don't like the word fear, but joy more accurately conveys what Psalm 100 says.

As for Wesley, I have heard arguments on both sides for the changes in "And Can it Be." I personally don't think the Trinity Hymnal needed to change "bled for Adam's helpless race" to "bled for all His chosen race." But I am glad they changed the infamous "emptied Himself of all but love" to "emptied Himself because of love."

Another Wesley hymn that was changed in the TH is "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing." "Canceled sin" is changed to "reigning sin." Do you know why this was changed? A Calvinist can sing that...

And there is one hymn that I was a little shocked when I read the original. The TH version of "Christian Seek Not Yet Repose" says "Christian, seek not yet repose, Cast thy dreams of ease away" but the original says "Hear thy guardian angel say" :-o

Susan said...

Dan, your 9/5/08 post on Pyro led me here--this accounts for my late thoughts! (Sorry, reading Pyro takes up a lot of my time--sometimes too much--that I don't read other blogs....)

Marie P., I'm glad you mentioned "And Can It Be". It reminded me of a change that R.C. Sproul, Sr. made to its refrain at a Ligonier Conference (I forget which...either San Diego 2004 or Anaheim [CA] 2006). Instead of the original text, we sang:

Amazing love, how can it be
That Thou, my LORD shouldst die for me! [capitalization mine]

Before we sang the hymn, Dr. Sproul explained to us why he changed it. The original line says "That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me". Since it is incorrect to say that God died on the cross (though I'm sure people can argue about this), he changed the line instead.

What does everyone think about this kind of "reformed change"?

DJP said...

Acts 20:28 suggests to me that the original is just fine.

MarieP said...

Hey, Susan! You aren't the one who used to post on the Highway, are you?

You said: "Since it is incorrect to say that God died on the cross"

As for arguing about that line, I would say there should be no argument. I am actually quite shocked Sproul had a problem with this.

I would say that, if Sproul has a problem with that, he would also have a problem with Isaac Watts' "when God the mighty Maker died for man the creature's sin"

Even more than that, what does Sproul think of Thomas called Jesus "my Lord and my God" (John 20:28)? Shouldn't Jesus have said, "No, no Thomas! You are wrong...I am the Son, one of three Persons of the Godhead. Don't call me your God!"

Also, we are told in in Col. 2:9 that "in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." Jsus was (and remains) fully God.

I think part of the confusion is that sometimes God is referring to the Father and other times to the entire Godhead.

Titus 2:13 says, "looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ"

2 Peter 1:1 says, "Simon Peter, a bondservant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ"

Sproul should know his Granville Sharp Rule...I wonder if James White knows about this ;-)

MarieP said...

Dan...I thought about that verse too.

Although don't the Presbyterians interpret that differently than Baptists?

Susan said...

No, Marie, I'm not the Susan you were thinking about. Sorry. Thanks for the friendly welcome and the good thoughts, though. Oh, and thanks for Acts 20:28, Dan. I think when Dr. Sproul was referring to the impossibility for God to die, he might have been pointing to the Trinity as a whole--but don't quote me on that! (Maybe someone else who attended the same conference and remembers better than I can tell me if I'm right.)

DJP said...

[ puzzled ] Not as far as I know, Marie.

MarieP said...

Dan, I was thinking of Hebrews 13:20 and "the blood of the everlasting covenant." But the difference (does the everlasting covenant include children of believers?) really isn't on topic.

Melody said...

The one that really gets me is the "Battle Hymn Of The Republic". Nearly every rendition of this great song replaces "...let us DIE to make men free." to "...let us LIVE to make men free." No sacrifice, just add another social program.

Trevbot said...

I don't think God is grieved when we change old hymns to make them something we relate to. I think this can and should be done, otherwise hymns can turn into just another form of liturgy.

However, I do think God is grieved by our ignorance of the Bible, and nothing should be changed, hymn or otherwise to accommodate our ignorance rather than inform it.

Trevbot said...


Just a suggestion: Maybe "live to make them free" rather than "die to make them free" conveys the idea of a lifetime of sacrifice as opposed to a devotion to a war.