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Changing hymn lyrics

Changing the lyrics of hymns we sing has a long, established precedent, and for good reason. If hymns are meant to be genuine expressions of corporate worship, then we should sing what we mean and mean what we sing. If a hymn is good, and yet there are one or two words or phrases we either cannot understand or cannot express, then it makes sense to change them.

Even hymn writer Isaac Watts expressed in the Preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs,

What is provided for public worship should give to sincere consciences as little vexation and disturbance as possible. . . . Where any unpleasing word is found, he that leads the worship may substitute a better; for (Blessed be God) we are not confined to the words of any Man in our public solemnities.1

Some changes are better than others, however. I won’t go into all the pros and cons of such practice in this essay; my aim is only to direct your attention to hymns in which this is commonly done today (both in print and “live”).

Assuming changing texts is acceptable, which of the following common reasons hymnal editors or individual churches change a text are valid? Which are not? Why? Are there any other valid reasons to change texts?

  1. Masculine reference to God (“Him,” “Father,” etc.).
  2. Masculine reference to people (“he,” “mankind,” etc.).
  3. Changing singular pronouns to plural (“I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” etc.).
  4. Removing demeaning terms (such as “worm” in “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed”).
  5. Doctrinal heteroxy.
  6. Doctrinal idiosyncrasy.
  7. Unclear biblical allusions (such as “Ebenezer” in “Come, Thou Fount”).
  8. Difficult theological terms (“reconciliation,” “imputed,” “justified,” etc.).
  9. Archaic pronouns (“thee,” “thou,” etc.).
  10. Archaic terms (“welkin”, in “Hark the Herald Angels” (see below), etc.).
  11. Words with changed meaning (“bowels,” “awful,” “peculiar,” etc.).
  12. Awkward euphony (“Our God, our Help,” etc.).
  13. Syllabic stress (“Jesus, the name” in “O for A Thousand Tongues,” etc.).

Consider the following examples. Why were the changes made? Was the change valid? Was the change successful?

Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed by Isaac Watts

Original: Alteration:
For such a worm as I? For sinners such as I?
When God, the mighty Maker, died When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
[No chorus] At the cross, at the cross
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!2

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts

Original: Alteration:
That were a [present/offering]3 That were an [offering/present]

And Can It Be by Charles Wesley

Original: Alteration:
Emptied Himself of all but love, Emptied [Humbled] Himself and came in love,

All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name by Edward Perronet

Original: Alteration:
Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race, Ye chosen seen of Adam’s [ev’ry] race,

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing by Charles Wesley

Original: Alteration:
Hark how all the welkin rings!
“Glory to the King of kings,
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Universal nature say:
“Christ the Lord is born today.”
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus, our Immanuel here!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

O God, Our Help in Ages Past by Isaac Watts

Original: Alteration:
Our God, our help in ages past, O God, our help in ages past,

Jesus Shall Reign by Isaac Watts

Original: Alteration:
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Does its successive journeys run;4
His kingdom spread from shore to shore,
For him shall endless prayer be made,
And praises throng to crown his head;
To Him shall endless prayer be made,
And endless praises crown His head;
Peculiar honours to our King; Honor and glory to our King;

Amazing Grace by John Newton; st. 5, John P. Rees; consider the added stanza itself and the change within the stanza.

Original: Alteration:
When we’ve been there
ten thousand years,
When we’ve been there
ten million years,

Praise ye the Lord, the Almighty by Joachim Neander; tr. Catherine Winkworth

Original: Alteration:
Praise ye the Lord, the Almighty Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
Now to His temple draw near; Brothers and sisters draw near;
Hast thou not seen
How thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
Hast thou not seen
How all thy longings have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing by Robert Robinson

Original: Alteration:
Here I raise mine Ebenezer; Here I raise my sign of vict’ry;
Let thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.
Let thy grace, Lord, like a fetter
Bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.

Arise, My Soul, Arise by Charles Wesley

Original: Alteration:
His blood atoned for all our race
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.
His blood for sin did once atone5
And now it pleads before the throne.
My God is reconciled, I now am reconciled,

Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy by Joseph Hart

Original: Alteration:
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
There I will find his mercy sure,
In the arms of my dear Savior,
I have need of nothing more.

How Sweet and Awful by Isaac Watts

Original: Alteration:
How sweet and awful is the place
With Christ within the doors,
How sweet and awesome is the place
With Christ within the doors,
‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly forced us in,
‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in,

Come, We That Love the Lord by Isaac Watts

Original: Alteration:
That never knew our God;
But fav’rites of the heav’nly King
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heav’nly King

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus by Charles Wesley

Original: Alteration:
Dear desire of ev’ry nation, Desp’rate need of ev’ry nation,

My Jesus, I Love Thee by William R. Featherston

Original: Alteration:
In mansions of glory In dwellings of glory

This is the Day the Lord Has Made by Isaac Watts

Original: Alteration:
Salvation from thy throne. Salvation from Your throne.

What other hymn text alterations have you seen/heard?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Watts, “The Preface,” in Bishop, ed. Isaac Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs, liii. []
  2. Chorus added by Ralph E. Hudson. []
  3. The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts has “present,” yet several hymnals also have “present,” but include a footnote indicating that the original was “offering.” []
  4. Ironic example of reason to change: in The Majesty Hymnal (Majesty Music, 1998), the editors capitalized “His.” []
  5. another alternative I’ve heard is “His blood atoned for ev’ry race” []

16 Responses to Changing hymn lyrics

  1. Rock of Ages, stanza 1
    Original: "be of sin the double cure; save from wrath and make me pure. "
    Hymns of Grace & Glory: "be of sin the double cure; Cleanse me from its guilt and pow'r" 

  2. Good example. I wonder why they changed it. Were they afraid of perfectionism in the "make me pure" line?

  3. I don't know, and I think the revision somewhat misses, or lessens, the 'double cure' – salvation from wrath, and imputation of righteousness. 

  4. Scott,
    Excellent article. For several years I have noticed a changing of the words in many hymns. Some for the good, but most were what I say "for the bad".
    Like the change that David brought up, I agree with him. The change lessens the impact of what the writer originally meant. The same goes with Watts, "Alas and Did My Savior Bleed" where today's editors have changed "worm" to "sinner". Even though it may seem like a minor change, Watts was actually trying to say that we as sinners are the lowest of the low and a worm is about as low as one can get, crawling on the ground in the muck and mire of "sin".
    At our church where I lead music, we still use the original words in the hymn, even though our "newer" hymnal has changed them.

  5. I think those who change "All Hail The Power" from "Israel's" to "Adam's" miss the theme of the whole hymn (Se e The hymnwriter isn't identifying those who are singing the hymn as part of Israel's race- rather, the hymn addresses several different audiences, beginning with angels ("let angels prostrate fall…"). Seraphs, sinners, and martyrs are among the audiences included in verses not commonly sung today. "Every kindred… every tribe" is not even with "us" in view, as the last verse expresses that along with that group that we see at a point yet future, "_we_ at His feet may fall…)

    Sorry. That one bugs me.

  6. I agree with both of you, Andrew and Greg. I think for the most part these changes are unnecessary and even misleading. Hymnal editors should be very, very slow to make a change, in my opinion!

  7. While I don't see a need to change archaic pronouns in our existing hymnody, I do wonder why people still write hymns today referring to God by "Thee" and "Thou", especially folks who would preach from a modern translation. Doesn't make sense to me.

  8. I agree, although I'm OK with changing archaic pronouns as long as it's consistent and doesn't mess up rhyme.

  9. (All IMO, of course)

    "such a worm" to "sinners such as I".  Unsuccessful, as it severely lessens the impact.

    I actually like "Christ, the mighty Maker" better, in that "Christ" alliteratively connects with "creature" in the next line.  What I think ruins this stanza is when the line is changed to "When Christ, the great Redeemer died," as it obliterates the "Maker-creature" connection.  See&nbsp ;  The chorus added in "At the Cross" (HUDSON) seems to have a significantly different tone than the original hymn.  Contrast "sinners," "crimes," "groaned," "darkness," "grief" with "happy all the day" in Hudson's added refrain.  It's not that there is nothing positive in the original hymn ("Amazing pity! grace unknown! and love beyond degree!"), but it is tempered to the tone of the awestruck wonder at the cross.

    "present" and "offering" have differing connotations, of course, and it seems that "offering" would fit better.  "present" seems to indicate something not required, above and beyond, while "offering" comports better with the "demand" later in the stanza.

    "Emptied himself".  I doubt strongly that Wesley was a christological heretic. All the same, the kenotic controversies of the late 19th century (read: after Wesley's time) may make more doctrinal precision a good idea in this case.  This phrase ("emptied himself…") will be good fodder for its own blog post!

    I echo Greg's comments on "Israel's race" although interestingly, the link he gives actually has the text as "ye seed of Israel's chosen race" not "ye chosen seed of Israel's race," which is a thought-provoking difference.

    Losing "welkin" is no doubt helpful, I'm not exactly sure what "universal nature" is referring to (all of creation?), and while "appear" to "dwell" loses the awkward extra syllable ("t'appear"), it does emphasize an unusual syllable in "EmmanuEL".

    "O God, our help…" sings better and I don't think we lose much if anything by the change.

    "his" to "its successive journeys" is a good change (unless "his" is indeed meant to be a reference to God, which is doubtful, Majesty's opinion notwithstanding) in that it clarifies the pronoun from that in the next line ("his kingdom"). The other changes you reference in this hymn are also warranted, I think.

    I'm OK with the added verse of "Amazing Grace," but it should definitely be "ten thousand".

    In "Praise ye the Lord", I'm not sure which if any of the alterations were done with the German text in mind (I'm guessing none), but the original strikes me as better in each case.

    In "Come, Thou Fount": Losing "Ebenezer" reflects increasing biblical illiteracy; I prefer to keep it.  Even if one wished to change it, I'm not sure "sign of victory" is the best way to do it.  And there is a difference between "goodness" and "grace"; this change makes the hymn say something different.

    In "Arise", the issue at hand is no doubt limited vs. unlimited atonement, and I think an adjustment can be appropriate depending which side of that fence one finds oneself.  Although a 5-pointer could just say that "all" means "all without distinction" in this text (although Wesley might disagree).  And it is unnecessary to change "My God is reconciled."

    I wasn't aware of an alteration of "Come, Ye Sinners," and not sure which of the above categories the motive for this change would correspond here.  However, the alteration loses the connection to the parable of the prodigal son (KJV: "'I will arise and go to my father'….his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck (NAS: "embraced"), and kissed him."  Luke 15:18-20).

    With "awful"/"awesome" we have a quandary, as both of these terms have changed in meaning.  "awful" is now "bad" and "awesome" is becoming more and more "really neat".  Perhaps a different word altogether would be appropriate.  "Awesome" is better than "awful" at the present time, though.  The connotation of the English "drew" is closer to the biblical terminology of election than "forced", I would suppose, although the strength of the word is somewhat balanced by "sweetly", and the whole point of the verse is that we would have "refused" Christ but for the work of God.

    "Come, We that Love the Lord": the "that"/"who" change is appropriate. "fav'rites" is used in the older sense of "a person treated with special or undue favor by a king, official, etc.: favorites at the court." ( so technically is probably the best choice, but because that understanding is much less common, "children" might be better today.

    In "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," the original is taken from Hab. 2:7, and ought to be retained.

    "Mansions of glory": clearly a reference to the KJV text of John 14:2, which I happen to consider an unhappy translation.

  10. Thanks for the run-down, Chuck! I agree with most of your judgments, but a couple comments:

    1. The interesting thing about "Hark the Herald Angels" is that the entire focus of the hymn has been changed with the revisions (which is not clear by the few snippets I have above). The original hymn expressed the fact that all of creation shouted with joy and praise at the coming of its creator. The revision has become more of a narrative account of the nativity, and has even perhaps contributed to the errant idea that the angels actually sang to the shepherds (they may have, of course, but the text does not say that). Even so, it is quite possible that a revision could actually improve upon a hymn text, even if it refocuses the hymn, and that may be the case with this example! :)

    2. I agree that the "O God Our Help" change was likely made for euphony's sake. However, it does alter Watts' intended parallelism in the rest of the stanza (Our God, Our Hope, Our Shelter, Our Eternal Home). On the flip side, someone recently mentioned that he thought "Our God" implied that there were other gods, while "O God" implies only one. Interesting counterpoint.

    3. I think the point with changing "My God is reconciled" is that reconciliation implies change, and God does not change. God was not reconciled to us; we were reconciled to him.

    4. The "Come Ye Sinners" change was by Bob Kauflin. My guess is that the entire change was an attempt to get away from the word "charms," but I could be wrong. I agree that it looses something, though. I like the original.

    5. I am a firm proponent of keeping "awful." I think "awesome" is a far inferior choice, although I agree that "awful" has changed meaning today. I'd rather have to explain what "awful" implies rather than have people assume they know what "awesome" means!

    6. "Mansions" was changed exactly because of the "unhappy" translation. :)

  11. I agree with the consensus that well-crafted hymnody is just that, and doesn't need much help from editors. In a camp songbook I sadly saw "Come Thou Fount" with "He to rescue me from danger bought me with his precious blood," removing the apparently offending "interposed." The danger in question is the justice of God, and Christ stands between to absorb God's wrath on sin. The image of the hymn text is ruined by the change. On another related front, perhaps Scott would care to comment on modern hymn/music writers who change a word or two of an old hymn and then copyright the new lyric, claiming the work as their own without credit to the original poet.

  12. A touchy subject. And as something of a traditionalist I tend to keep pretty close to the original wording. I do not feel the church of Jesus Christ needs to be subject to every current whim of "political correctness." Nor do I believe that congregations are so lacking in intelligence that they cannot appreciate the meaning of "Lord Sabaoth" in A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, or "Here I raise mine Ebenezer" in Come, Thou Found of Every Blessing, if these things are explained to them. Don't capitulate. Educate!

  13. If these hymn writers were alive today to see how their originals are literally being ripped apart, they would gasp in horror. They are mostly public domain. Leave them as they were intended.

    I am old, but still alive; and play pipe organ and piano.

    The hymns of Watts. Wesley, Tolady, Beadon, Howe, Crosby, Clairvaux, Chapman, Thrupp and the list goes on an on; were left for the next generations to come. They told a true story right from Scriptures.

    When trying to put a service together to praise and thank the Almighty, a minister had literally thousands of beautiful meaningful hymns to choose from to go with any message he would like to speak on. Music with meaningful lyrics will drive that message home believe me! A good hymn and a converted soul can come to tears of remorse and than to much happiness in forgiveness.

    Now, please bear with me as I give a little history on Thee, Thou and YOU

    We hear a lot about the words 'ye,' 'thee' and 'thou' in the King James Version: and that these should all be replaced by the word 'you'. Everyone knows that the word 'you' is a uni-plural word like 'sheep' or 'fish.' It may refer to one or many depending on the context. Believe it or not the word 'you' is used over 950 times in the KJV New Testament alone – but not exclusively.

    Why not?

    The answer is because of the vital difference between 'you' (plural) and 'thee' (singular) and there are times when it is necessary to make the difference. The word 'thee' refers to a single person, church, town or nation: whereas the word 'you' is the second person plural: it refers to many persons. To understand what I mean we will need to look at a few examples.

    Just before the Saviour's crucifixion he warned his disciples – particularly Peter – of Satan's intended plan to test them all. These are the Master's words:

    Luke 22:31-32: And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.

    In this passage the Saviour used the word 'you' to mean all the disciples. But when he used the words 'thee' and 'thou' he meant Simon Peter alone. By replacing the 'thee' and 'thou' in this passage with 'you,' the Saviour's explicit warning to Simon Peter is considerably weakened. As for his warning to all the other disciples, that Satan wanted to sift them all, that warning is completely lost.

    Here are two more examples where the plural word 'you' and the singular words 'thee' or 'thou' are used.

    In this example Festus speaks to king Agrippa and Bernice concerning the Apostle Paul. Here the word 'you' refers to Agrippa and Bernice: whereas the word 'thee' specifically addresses king Agrippa. (Acts 25:26) Of whom I have no certain thing to write unto my lord. Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, and specially before thee, O king Agrippa, that, after examination had, I might have somewhat to write.

    In the following example two towns are initially addressed individually, therefore the word 'thee' is used. But when referred to together the word 'you' is used. (Luke10:13) Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.

    Other examples where 'you' is plural and 'thou' or 'thee' is singular are found in (Deut. 4:3; 1 Kings 9:5-6; Matthew 5:39-44; 6:4-7; 11:23-24; 18:9-10; 23:37-38; Mark 14:37-38; Luke 6:30-31; 9:41; 16:25-26; John 1:50-51; James 2:16). These texts, and there are hundreds more, prove that the word 'you' was well known by the translators of the King James Version. If you consult a concordance you will discover that it was used over 1800 times in that version; but not exclusively as in modern translations. In short, when the Saviour addresses a particular individual, church or town he uses the words 'thee' or 'thou' simply because these words are more explicit and personal than the uni-plural word 'you.' The Bible, remember, is the Word of God: explicit in every sentence – yea in every word!

    These old hymn writers of the past knew exactly what they were writing and the words to choose and use.

    Today's church services are watered down with contemporary music. I truly wonder how they can call some of it music! The same lines over and over again; no meaningful lyrics, and let's be truthful, It just isn't the same.

    When I played for the old hymns and I have done it for many years, the goose bumps would come out on you because you knew that the Holy Spirit was really there. We praised our Creator and His only begotten Son who gave His life for sinners. We all are. We wanted to praise and thank our Saviour for so great salvation.

    Today, it's entertainment with all this clapping, jumping up and down, etc. You know the story well. Our Saviour is not pleased. Religion today is BIG business. It's a money making racket. Remember how the story goes about our Saviour, overturning the tables in the temple because of this sort of thing.

    The Church is under attack.

    The Bible, the fountainhead of faith, is under attack.

    Millions of Christians no longer believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.

    * They do not believe in the creation account of Genesis. They doubt it.

    * They do not believe in the virgin birth. They doubt it.

    * They do not believe in the resurrection. They doubt it.

    * They do not believe that the Saviour went to heaven and is coming back. They doubt it.

    * They think the Bible, all Bibles, are imperfect and have errors!

    They believe that the Bible itself is evolving; getting nearer and nearer the original manuscripts! This phenomenon of doubt is growing worse by the day.

    Is it any wonder that church congregations are on the decline. The doubters are moving out of the church! Some churches in Canada cannot even find enough preachers to take their services. Christian church buildings, which have stood for centuries are being demolished or sold to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs.

    The Christian church is being sifted and the fallout is astonishing to behold.

    (1 Timothy 4: 1) “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.”

    In view of these warnings what should we do?

    (2 Corinthians 13: 5) “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?”

    What does all this mean for us? Should we throw in our lot with the faithless; eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die? How should we behave?

    The Saviour gives the answer. He also asks a question; a question only you can answer.

    (Mark 11: 22) “And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God.”

    (Luke 18: 8) “I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?”

    May the Almighty grant that all of us will be able to answer: I will live by faith, and when the Saviour returns He will find faith in me! Praise His Name!

    In closing 3 verses from a hymn by David Denicke (1603-1680)

    How can I thank Thee, Lord?

    How can I thank Thee, Lord,

    For all Thy loving-kindness,

    That Thou hast patiently

    Borne with me in my blindness?

    When dead in many sins

    And trespasses I lay,

    I kindled, holy God,

    Thine anger every day.

    It is Thy work alone

    That I am now converted;

    O'er Satan's work in me

    Thou hast Thy power asserted.

    Thy mercy and Thy grace

    That rise afresh each morn

    Have turned my stony heart

    Into a heart new-born.

    I could but grieve Thee, Lord,

    And with my sins displease Thee;

    Yet to atone for sin

    My works could not appease Thee.

    Though I could fall from grace

    And choose the way of sin,

    I had no strength to rise,

    A new life to begin.

    Sing it with this score: Nun Danket (Johann Cruger: 1598-1662

    There are more verses, but I leave that for all too look up.

    Everyone! Make sure you name is on the Lamb's Book of life.

    The only church register recognized in the court of heaven is the Lamb's Book of Life. Only those whose names are on that divine register will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It makes absolutely no difference whatsoever – to your prospects of eternal life – whether your name is in a denominational register or not; no matter how big or powerful that denomination may be: because the only spiritual register heaven acknowledges is the Lamb's Book of Life.

    Amen, and keep singing! Thank you!

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