Hymn class last night was about “Hymns as Language,” which means that we were looking at hymns which have been either banished or changed because of their sexist, racist, militaristic, or archaic language.
The group I have for this class has been particularly interested in the idea of hymns being removed from the hymnal. We have previously looked at hymns that lost their place for bad theology, excessive sentimentality, images that modern worshippers find repulsive (like people being plunged into a fountain filled with blood), and so on. This time we were looking just at language. ( This article on inclusive language expresses the current mainstream position on this, in case you’re not familiar with the controversy.)
For example, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” which had the line “Whiter than snow, Lord, wash me just now,” in 1907 when it was written, now has “Wash me just now, Lord, wash me just now.” I’ve also heard “brighter than snow” substituted for “whiter than snow.” The thinking here is that the imagery of whiteness as purity can be interpreted as racist. “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” is “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” in the current Methodist hyman; I’ve also sung it “Good Christians all, rejoice.” The idea here is that “men” makes women feel left out.
Now, with songs like these that can be altered pretty simply, the debate is likely to be over whether the new version is bad poetry or not. “Wash me just now, Lord, wash me just now” is arguably a worse and a less sensible line than the original. “Good Christian friends” doesn’t quite mean “good Christian men” or even “good Christian people.”
And sometimes, including last night, there is a suggestion that people who are offended are just being touchy. “If you looked at every page of the hymnal, trying to be offended,” one person said, “You could find something to be offended about on every page.”
In response to that, we looked at “Rise Up, O Men of God.” This hymn was written for a men’s group wanting a hymn on brotherhood, and there is no way female listeners can feel included in it, it seems to me, even if there are still women who hear “men” as an inclusive term for humans, which I doubt. I suppose that when it was put into the hymnal, a woman who said, “This hymn depicts the church as a weak woman waiting for men to come and rescue her, and it talks only to men, and I don’t want to sing it,” would have been considered hysterical, but it probably doesn’t belong in modern hymnals. A song like this cannot be fixed with a couple of word changes, and often the tune is simply given a new set of words, or the whole thing is thrown out.
There also are usually discussions on what Brian Wren calls, “How I love that awful old hymn!” That is, we may know that “In the Garden” is vacuous treacle, but love it anyway. We may recognize that “The Church in the Wildwood” has a rudimentary tune and nearly content-free lyrics but still think it’s fun to sing.
One of my own favorites is “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” and I think you’ll enjoy this youtube recording of it, but I always forget what “Here I raise my Ebeneezer” means, and in fact large sections of the text are completely incomprehensible to the average congregational singer.
Now that few families gather around the parlor organ to sing hymns in the evening, people agitate to keep their beloved hymns in the hymnal where they’ll get some chance to sing them, no matter how horrible they may be as music or theology. Realistically, being removed from the hymnals of the mainstream churches is a death sentence for a hymn. Who among us now knows “We’re a Happy Pilgrim Band“? Google does, but just barely — there is only one entry for this song. (I’ve come back and updated that link, by the way. There are now two entries, but the one I had originally linked to is gone.)
But last night one of the women said that removing or changing hymns for the sake of inclusive language was censorship.
“It’s like taking Harry Potter out of the library because someone finds it offensive.”
I suggested that asking people to stand up and sing something offensive with a group was different from having something available for private reading.
“I appreciate the very clear way you explained the difference between the two cases,” she said with impressive courtesy, “but I still think that it is censorship, and something that shouldn’t happen in a free country.”
I imagine that, were we to ask the committee currently working on the new edition of the hymnal, they would say that there are so many hymns that it is impossible to include them all, that old ones must be removed to make way for new ones, and that it is not censorship but prioritizing.
But I am finding it an interesting question. Take it beyond the hymnal: should we lose good songs and stories because they are offensive or archaic? Should we have museums of bad old hymns people love?