Wonderful Words of Life

These days, when appearing at events where I am scheduled to speak, I am often asked whether any hymns will be quoted. I think it is fair to say that I have gotten a reputation of sorts for doing that kind of thing, but it is a reputation that comes naturally. My preacher-father, who regularly quoted some lines from a hymn to nail down a point he was trying to make in a sermon, schooled me in the practice.

Sometimes I wonder, though, whether I was born a little too late to be doing this sort of thing. My father’s congregations were well educated in the contents of their hymnbooks. It was a regular practice at our Sunday evening services to have “request time,” and there was never a lull during that part of the service. Typically several favorites would be called out at once, and we usually did not have enough time to sing all of the hymns that were requested. When my father quoted a hymn, he was drawing on material that was familiar to his hearers.

But when you quote a hymn to a contemporary congregation, you now risk getting a wall of blank stares in response. These days many evangelical congregations do not even possess hymnbooks. Or the books may be there in the pew racks, but the words of hymns to be sung are either projected onto a large screen or printed in the bulletin. None of this is conducive to the spontaneous quoting of favorite hymns.

  I am convinced that hymn singing will eventually loom large again in evangelical worship.  Indeed, in many congregations, gathered worshipers sing more praise songs than hymns, if they sing any hymns at all.

Not that I want to be counted among the cultured despisers of praise songs. Many of the criticisms of this form of music strike me as misguided. Yes, they are repetitious. But evangelicals have always been fond of repetition–as those of us from the generation raised on “Do, Lord” and “I have the joy, joy, joy, joy” know only too well. Besides, Gregorian chant is also nothing if not repetitious.

Indeed, one of the merits of praise music, which is too-seldom acknowledged, is that it represents a partial revival of psalmody. To be sure, the use of the biblical psalms in praise music is not nearly as comprehensive as what we find in the Genevan Psalter. There is almost no lament, for example, in contemporary Christian music. But for all of that, much praise music is simply phrases from the Psalms and other biblical texts put to music. This is a good thing, although it is regrettable when such music simply replaces the contents of the hymnbooks.

I do think the trend away from more traditional music will be reversed sooner rather than later. The older hymns, I predict, will make a comeback. Maybe we will sing them to a different beat, accompanied by different instruments than in the past. Chances are we will not hold hymnbooks in our hands as often as we once did. But I am convinced that hymn singing will eventually loom large again in evangelical worship. I hope I am right in my optimism, because if we do abandon the older hymns we will have lost a precious treasure in the life of the believing community.

Hymns as Compact Theology

There are some Christian leaders, of course, who are convinced that the hymns of the past are actually an obstacle to our spiritual well-being. In the summer of 2001 The Los Angeles Times ran a piece about a pastor who organizes his services around show tunes, accompanied by dialogue with the gathered worshipers about various lines in the songs. The pastor admitted that some members of his congregation were uneasy with this style of worship. “How’s this got anything to do with religion?” they ask him. His response: “If you are sitting in church for an hour, reciting words and singing hymns you hardly know, what’s that got to do with religion?” The pastor apparently meant his question as a rhetorical one, but I can think of several good answers. For one thing, hymns are an important means of theological pedagogy. My mentor David Hubbard was fond of saying that hymns contain “compacted theology.” His favorite example was the line from Edward Mote’s hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less” (ca. 1834), which reads: “His oath, His covenant, His blood, / Support me in the whelming flood.” “There are several centuries of theology packed into those lines,” Hubbard would say.

My own theological reflection is greatly enriched by thinking about the contents of hymnody. An illustration is this verse from Matthew Bridges’ “Crown Him with many crowns” (1851):

Crown Him the Lord of love;

Behold His hands and side,

Rich wounds, yet visible above,

In beauty glorified:

No angel in the sky

Can fully bear that sight,

But downward bends His wond’ring eye

At mysteries so bright.

The imagery here not only captures important theology, but it does so in a way that impresses the theological point on your consciousness as no scholarly treatise can do. I may know theologically that Christ ascended into the heavens as the victorious Crucified One, the Lamb who was slain. But the theological point is underscored–it becomes graphic–through the marvelous words about his “Rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified”–wounds that create a sight so full of mysteries that the celestial hosts cannot bear simply to fix their gaze on them.

In some worship settings that I have suffered through, the hymns have been the only available expression of theological orthodoxy. Once I participated in an ecumenical service where the preacher of the day made it clear that he had no use for the idea of a substitutionary atonement. I was sitting in the front row next to the worship leader, a Roman Catholic friend. Halfway through the homily I whispered to her, “This is awful!’ She whispered back: “Be patient. I’m the one who chose the hymns!” At the end of the service she invited us to sing all of the verses of Carl Boberg’s “How great thou art” (translated 1949). Her enthusiastic singing was a striking contrast to the preacher’s obvious discomfort when we got to the third verse:

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;

That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,

He bled and died to take away my sin.

Hymns as a Record of Religious Consciousness

Hymns are also an important record of the past spiritual experiences of the believing community. It is not uncommon to hear critics complaining about the extensive use of the first person in evangelical hymnody–although these same people seldom extend that critique to the same pattern as it appears in the biblical psalms! To be sure, evangelical religion has often operated with a much too individualistic understanding of the Christian faith, and evangelical hymns can certainly be a force for encouraging a one-dimensional egotism. But there are also strengths in the first-person character of many evangelical hymns. For evangelicals who take seriously the need for a personal relationship to Jesus Christ, the fact that many hymns speak of personspecific experiences is not necessarily a defect. Indeed, we should expect that people who have important things to say about their specific faith journeys would want to put their testimonies to music.

  Hymns have also served as a powerful resource for thinking about issues in social ethics.  

Properly understood, the resultant records of individual spiritual experiences can actually promote a sense of community. By attending to ways in which the hymnal serves as an archive for the rich diversity of Christian narratives, we gain the kind of empathy that is crucial for the formation of what the philosopher Hannah Arendt liked to refer to as “the expanded consciousness.” In this sense, singing “I”-centered hymns can be an important means for experiencing the communion of the saints.

For example, I am a Fanny Crosby enthusiast, and her employment of the first person often inspires me precisely because of the uniqueness of the “I” that is the subject of her hymnic testimonies. Her frequent use, as a blind person, of visual imagery expands my own understanding of the character of spiritual sight. When she expresses the conviction, for example, that “I shall see in His beauty the King in whose Law I delight”–the One who presently gives her “songs in the night”–I am drawn into an experience of spiritual empathy that enhances my sense of the communion of the saints.

While participating not long ago in a service in Beijing, China, with a large congregation of about five thousand people, hymn singing resulted in a memorable experience of spiritual empathy. We had met the evening before with someone who described–reluctantly at first, but eventually in some detail–what it had been like for believers during the enforced suppression of Christian worship during the Cultural Revolution. These matters were still on my mind the next morning as I sat in the worship service. The first hymn announced was the old gospel song, “There is sunshine in my soul today” by Eliza E. Hewitt. As we sang, I watched a row of elderly women who, of course, were singing in Chinese. But since I knew the words I sang along in English. Like me, the women obviously knew the words by heart, and I choked up when I thought about their experiences in the Cultural Revolution and the message of these words in the hymn: “There is music in my soul today, a carol for my King / A
nd Jesus, listening, can hear, the songs I cannot sing.”

Hymns as Ethical Encouragement

In my own experience, hymns have also served as a powerful resource for thinking about issues in social ethics. When some of us began, in the 1960s and 70s, to insist that evangelicals should be actively committed to such things as racial justice and the task of peacemaking, we were often met with hostility from other evangelicals. The resistance to such concerns was so strong that it was easy to start wondering whether one had missed a warning from the Lord against Christians getting caught up in such matters. In times of discouragement, though, it was the hymnbook that provided much encouragement.

As I compared the dominant evangelical social attitudes of the time with the message of many evangelical hymns, I was struck by the gap between what we talked about and what we sang. One preacher, for example, having issued a bold call for Christians to support military crusades as the only way to defeat the godless forces in the world, then called on the congregation to sing Ernest W. Shurtleff’s “Lead on, 0 King eternal” (1888), which contains this most interesting proclamation:

For not with swords loud clashing,

Nor roll of stirring drums,

With deeds of love and mercy,

The heavenly kingdom comes.

The hymn proved to be a perfect antidote for the sermon!

Many of the best lessons in evangelical hymnody concerning the scope of Christian discipleship came from the “altar call” hymns of evangelistic crusades and revival meetings. They call for a radical kind of self-examination before the face of God. Typically the preacher would ask that every head be bowed and every eye closed. Then we would sing Judson W. Van DeVenter’s “I surrender all” (1896). Such moments made up some of the most sacred experiences of my life. It was precisely the “all-ness” of those times of self-examination that exerted a profound influence in the deep places of my soul–so much so that I have never been tempted to doubt the power of those moments, but rather to expand the scope of self-examination that hymns encouraged in those sacred moments of my youth.

There is much about that older evangelical ethos to which many of us would never want to return. But the songs that we learned to sing will reside forever in a very deep place. Perhaps new generations will find equally–or even more–effective ways to sing about the basic issues of life. But those generations would do well to pay at least some attention to testimonies from the past. As my own experience suggests, hymns and gospel songs have enjoyed the deepest possible connections with personal experience– domestic, intergenerational, and social, as well as religious. They are also a full expression of theology and have the capacity to comment at unexpected length on ethical relations between churches and society–particularly as a barometer of shifting cultural standards. And they act powerfully to form deep individual and group identities.

This article is excerpted from the introduction to the book Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology, edited by Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co.) It is printed here with permission from Eerdmans.

Richard Mouw is president and professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.