Today we continue looking at John Wesley’s “Direction’s for Singing” with his second point,
2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
This point is an overflow from point 1. There we saw how Wesley wanted to build a foundation based on sound doctrine and create a formative tradition. Point 2 indicates that Wesley was concerned with the purity of what he was feeding his people. His initial point, “Learn only these songs first” was important because the songs had something particular he wanted taught. But if the songs are changed or had been learned in a different way, then it just might act as a monkey wrench and disrupt both doctrine and fellowship.
In the previous post I spoke of the people having a common language through these hymns. But if some had learned a song in a different way or if some chose to alter the words printed, then that common language is in danger of being lost. And more importantly, the purity of the doctrine that was laid down originally, if altered, may lead to division within the body over doctrine.
So we see that Direction 2 serves to preserve the goal in Direction 1.
I find myself a bit on both sides of the fence on this, but I largely find myself sympathetic to Wesley’s line of thinking. On one hand I am a huge proponent of clarity in worship. I imagine a 300 year old hymn, full of rich truth and beauty, but it also contains words or phrases that are essentially meaningless and/or confusing to the common parishioner. I believe that someone with deft hand with a pastoral heart may take that hymn and alter it, without changing the content or context of the hymn. Thees and Thous come to many minds, but some words like fetter or Ebeneezer cause many to pause and say, “raise my what!?” The phrase “contracted to a span” while beautifully crafted, may not convey a lick of the Incarnation to some congregations. And don’t get me started on the yearning of our bowels.
So I really do believe it is okay in some ways to alter words or phrases when done with skill and a heart to make things clear for the worshippers of God. Even when it goes beyond language and overlaps into doctrine, I still think there is a time and place to alter words. Emphases on certain doctrines change throughout the centuries and so it is conceivable that there might be a phrase that was appropriate for sound doctrine in days past that may not be fully understood as sound in our day. In our aim for clarity we need to be wise, discerning, and respectful of the hymn writer’s art.
With that said, I tend to side with Wesley on the whole. I believe Wesley was aiming at keeping pure the doctrine contained in the hymns. If alterations are made, not simply for clarity, but to change the context or content of the song, especially to make it mean something other than it intended, then the hymn has been hijacked and ruined. While there are likely exceptions, it’s probably better to drop the hymn than to give it a Total Hymn Makeover. It is one thing to patiently restore a masterpiece painting, slowly revealing and touching up that which has faded. It is quite another to superimpose or erase content so that you and your followers feel better about it.
Here’s a good example. A couple years ago in Spain a woman attempted to restore a beautiful but worn and faded fresco of Jesus. It turned out bad. Like a-train-loaded-with-explosives-running-headlong-into-the-middle-of-a-nitroglycerin-factory-next-door-to-a-nuclear-plant bad.
|umm...don't do this to your hymns...|
Here’s a more appropriate example, and it’s one that I think really gets to the heart of Wesley’s concern. Recently the song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend made national news when the song was ultimately rejected to be included in a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (USA). The reason it was rejected was because the songwriters pulled a John Wesley and refused to allow one of their lyrics changed. The lyric in question is originally written as,
Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
The hymn committee wanted to change the lyric to read,
Till on that cross as Jesus died
The love of God was magnified
It was a close decision but ultimately, after Getty and Townend refused to allow their lyrics to be changed, the committee voted to drop the song from their hymnbook. This sparked a firestorm of blogs and news outlets that centered on the doctrine of atonement. All because of one line, and some say one word, in a hymn. I think this example alone is enough evidence to justify Wesley’s second point.
Previous installments of the Direction's for Singing series