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Should we change hymn lyrics to reflect our theology?

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 atone ((another alternative I’ve heard is “His blood atoned for ev’ry race”))
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?

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.” []