Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Hymn Surgery"
by Jessie Brown Pounds

The editorial alteration of hymn texts is a longstanding source of confusion, irritation, and sometimes amusement. For example, I had the honor of leading congregational singing of the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of every blessing” at a wedding. For those who do not know, the Churches of Christ in this country have inherited a significantly altered version of the text, in which the first stanza reads,

O Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise!
Teach me ever to adore Thee!
May I still Thy goodness prove,
While the hope of endless glory
Fills my heart with joy and love.

The better known version, found in the majority of hymnals, is:

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise!
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above!
Praise the Mount! I'm fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love!

(Dr. Harold Fletcher of Oklahoma Christian University has suggested that the alteration was the doing of Restoration Movement leader Alexander Campbell, who was probably uncomfortable with the “flaming tongues” line; whether on doctrinal or aesthetic grounds is uncertain.)

The bride chose to use the version familiar to herself and her family, and had it printed in the program. But as I suspected, the groom's family knew the other; and at the rehearsal, when we came to the midpoint of that first stanza, the scene resembled what it must have been like when God confused the languages of the builders of Babel. Fortunately, with the addition of a politely worded call to attend to the lyrics in the program, things went smoothly enough at the wedding itself.

In the 1921 volume of Memorial Selections by Jessie Hunter Brown Pounds, a posthumous miscellany, there is an essay titled “Hymn surgery.” The date of writing is undetermined. In this piece, Pounds compares editing hymns to the practice of surgery: sometimes necessary, but only to be undertaken circumspectly. (Read the full text of the essay here:

Her theme is stated as follows: “By what right, we are asked, does one lay irreverent hands upon the work of a master, cutting out a line or a stanza here and altering a word or a phrase there? Has a dead-and-gone author no rights which posterity, as represented by the editors of hymn-books, is bound to respect?”(91-92) She addresses the topic under three main headings.

“One reason is that most hymns, especially old hymns, are too long for congregational use.”(92) A quick look at an 1804 Methodist hymnal shows that probably half of the hymns have six or more stanzas, and a few have more than ten. If one counts the “doubled” eight-line stanzas twice, about two-thirds of the hymns have the equivalent of six or more stanzas. But Methodist hymnals of a century later--the turn of the last century--had already made the transition to 4- and 5-stanza hymns, and the 6-stanza hymn is more the exception than the rule. (Primitive Methodist hymnals were an exception, and tended to retain more stanzas.)

In another example, Pounds mentions the editing of a poem--a text not necessarily intended to be sung, or to be sung in its entirety. “Miss Hankey's ‘Tell me the old, old story’ had thirty stanzas, written at intervals during years of invalidism, and naturally lacking in the unity necessary for a hymn until there had been a very careful process of elimination.”(92) This is a classic example of a usable hymn being extracted from an otherwise impractical work.

Another is "The sands of time are sinking," by Ann Cousin. This is a beautiful poem in its 19-stanza entirety, but the personal and geographical references make some stanzas less useful for a hymn, which must speak to many people, places, and times. And sometimes a different selection of stanzas might be made by two different editors, rather by accident than by design. A related factor here is the appearance of different versions of a translated work, and sometimes the mixing of two different translations of the same hymn. The “Beautiful Savior” stanza sometimes found as the fourth stanza of the hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus” is actually an alternate translation of the first stanza.

Pounds anticipates one possible objection to the editorial selection of stanzas:
It may be asked why the entire hymn is not published and ministers allowed to make the necessary choice of stanzas most suited to the occasion. The answer will be found in your own experience. If you know how the average minister treats the hymn-book you can judge whether or not his selections would be more wisely made than those of the much-maligned editor.(92-93)
This raises a point that both interests and concerns me. Is the presence of a large number of stanzas simply off-putting to modern singers? A careful selection of certain stanzas can put a different spin on a hymn, sometimes to very useful effect. (I have to thank brother Dan Collins, an elder of the Wingate Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee, for impressing this point on me through his thoughtful preparation of his song services.) I would almost always rather have more stanzas available, and simply choose the ones I wish to lead. There is an excellent stanza to Robert Grant's hymn, “O worship the King,” for example, that I have never seen in the hymnals of the Churches of Christ:

O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm!

Very Scriptural (cf. Psalm 18), majestic, and thought-provoking. I would rather have it!

The second reason Pounds gives for the editing of hymns is sometimes a matter of literary taste, but also enters the realm of doctrine:
Another reason for elimination is the fact that good hymns often contain execrable stanzas. We often hear the judgment expressed that “When I survey the wondrous cross” is the noblest hymn in the language. Surely we should love it less rather than more if this stanza, with its crude figures and its obvious rhymes, were included...(93)
She then quotes the often-omitted third stanza,

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o'er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Perhaps “crude” is in the ear of the beholder. Pounds may have shared the squeamishness of some modern liberals who are shocked and offended at the “blood” and “violence” in our hymns and in our theology. But Jesus died a brutal death, and His blood did flow down His side--thank God!--just as described in this stanza. Watts visualizes the blood of Christ covering His body as a contrasting, holy counterpart to the purple robe that He had earlier been made to wear in scorn and mockery. The second half of the stanza refers to two important passages in salvation theology:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.(Romans 6:3-4)
Paul returns to this theme in Colossians, beginning in the second chapter: “With Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world . . .”(Colossians 2:20) He then expands on its practical application:
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.(Colossians 3:2-3,5)
Watts is reminding us that, just as Jesus died, so we must die to sin and no longer live in it. His death forever changed our lives, re-orienting our view of existence and our relationship to this passing physical world. “Then I am dead to all the globe / And all the globe is dead to me.”

In light of this strong point, it seems a little petty to criticize Watts’s less-than-Shakespearean poetry. “Robe” and “globe” rhyme, but “globe” is somehow out of place; we know he means “world” in the spiritual sense of “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” but it calls up an image of geography and the schoolroom instead. I would prefer a little edit here, replacing “globe” with “world.” It breaks the rhyme, but it is the rhyme of the 1st and 3rd lines, leaving the more prominent 2nd- and 4th-line rhyme intact. It would disrupt the rhyme scheme of the hymn as a whole, but it might be worth it to have a clearer and more direct expression of what Watts obviously meant. Still, even if I have to sing “globe,” I think the stanza is a keeper.

Pounds's final point touches an interesting question of our religious traditions and cultures. “The third reason for hymn surgery is that language and its content changes. There is the same reason for revising our hymns that there is for revising a translation of the Scriptures.”(93) She was speaking from the context of a momentous era in Bible translation--the first major new translation of the English Bible, the “English” Revised Version, came out in 1880, followed by its cousin, the “American Standard Version,” in 1901.

As much as I love the beautiful style and reverent handling of Scripture found in the King James Version, I am thankful that we have other English translations. I am thankful for the sake of the majority of English readers who have difficulty reading the language of 400 years ago, because it is more important that they hear the gospel than that they gain an appreciation for the King James Version’s eloquent style. I am thankful for my own sake, because I can read faithful, careful translations that take into account the discoveries we have made in four centuries of textual and historical studies.

But at the same time, I am sorry for those who have not been blessed to know the strong, powerful language of the King James Version. Even those who do not accept the Bible as God's word, have to admit that this translation has been a touchstone of the development of our language and culture. For the same reason I resist the idea of passing over a great old hymn just because its language is antique. If it is part of our heritage, and if it is high in quality, we are the poorer for its loss. There are many fine hymns in this category, including many of Watts’s, who for all his faults is still rightly called the “father of English hymnody.”

But what about careful editing and modernizing of language? It has happened already; sometimes the versions of hymns that we consider sacrosanct are actually edited a bit from their originals. I have mixed feelings about this. If changing out “Thee” and “Thou” for “You” makes a great old hymn acceptable to a new generation of worshipers, I am glad; I wish they could instead expand their cultural horizons instead, but if the style and more importantly the content of the hymn are still intact, it is all for the good.

Where is the threshold on antiquated language? When I first encountered the following stanza of “O sacred head now wounded,” I was in a quandary as a songleader:

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

The congregation would be fine with “Thou,” “hast,” “Thine,” “Lo,” “‘Tis,” and “Thy,” but “vouchsafe?” I had to look that one up myself, and I was fairly sure that it would be a real distraction in an otherwise excellent stanza. Since we were singing from PowerPoint, I did a quick edit to the slideshow and changed the last line to, “Look on me with Thy favor, and grant to me Thy grace.” Not exactly Shakespeare, but within the author’s intent and less distracting.

Pounds next introduces an interesting argument that sounds a bit condescending until you think about it:
The hymn-writer and the poet can not be put upon the same footing. The hymn-writer makes no claim to original thought. He simply expresses, in the best literary form at his command, the religious feelings possible to the body of Christian worshippers.(93)
Perhaps Pounds was looking down her nose a bit at the general quality of hymn texts, but I cannot help but agree with her main point.

We also sing very few hymn tunes and arrangements by the great Classical composers, for much the same reasons. The few tunes we have from Mozart and Beethoven are generally not church music as such, but are adapted from secular music. The chorale arrangements of Bach, and to some extent those of Mendelssohn, are definitely church music, but the harmonizations were meant to be sung by a choir and are difficult for congregational singing. The same is true of the arrangements by Vaughan Williams. (This doesn’t mean we can’t try, and we are the better for it if we can learn some of these!) Most of the successful hymn tunes are by relatively obscure writers who were willing to write in the self-limiting form of the congregational hymn, within the abilities of the average untrained singer.

To some extent the same must hold true for the texts. Though reading literacy is much higher than musical literacy, the difficulties of the text must not rise so high that they become a frustration or distraction to the congregation. (Here is another reason that the songleader needs to know the congregation well.) And for songwriters of today, it seems obvious that we would not want to deliberately use obscure or obsolete language, or to mimic the poetic styles of the past. Strong, plain language can get the point across--just read the Gettysburg Address in comparison to other speeches of its time!

Another variety of “hymn surgery” that deserves mention, but that perhaps was not such an issue in Pounds’s circle, is the editing of texts for doctrinal reasons. An example that may be observed in Praise for the Lord is #351, “Jesus is coming soon.” Here the entire 2nd stanza is omitted, which runs thus:

Love of so many cold, losing their homes of gold,
This in God’s word is told, evils abound.
When these signs come to pass, nearing the end at last,
It will come very fast, trumpets will sound.

Not that this is a great loss to English poetry if it is omitted, but it is worth discussing why. Churches of Christ for the most part (though not universally) do not believe that God left us a cosmic puzzle to sort out in predicting the end times; rather, we fasten on to the clear command of our Lord to “watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”(Matthew 25:13) We believe He will return, but we do not know when; and since none of us knows “what the day will bring forth,”(Proverbs 27:1) we do not know if we will go to meet Him first anyway! Thus the Lord’s command in Matthew 25 is eminently practical. Don’t obsess over obscure and contradictory theories; accept that any day may be your last, and certainly one day will be your last, and be ready.

Some congregations eschew this song completely, therefore, because of its fairly obvious premillennial overtones. Many will sing it, however, simply omitting the more overt “end times” third stanza. The editors of Praise for the Lord felt strongly enough about it that they simply omitted the stanza.

A more complex and surprising textual oddity is the ending of the first and last stanzas of Reginald Heber’s hymn “Holy, holy holy!” It is universally known with the ending, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” but one may be surprised to find that among the Churches of Christ many sing it with the words, “God over all, and blest eternally.” My nephew, who was not raised among Churches of Christ, was rather surprised at this alteration and once asked jokingly, “We are Trinitarian, aren’t we?” (We are.)

The original “blessed Trinity” text has been found in many mainstream hymnals among Churches of Christ, including the influential Christian Hymns series from Gospel Advocate (in no. 2 and no. 3 only; the hymn was not yet included in the first edition). It is also used in Sacred Selections, the editor of which was extraordinarily particular about the Scripturalness of song texts. I have found it in a few of Will Slater’s publications as well.

The altered text is found, however, in the most influential hymnal of all among Churches of Christ in the United States, Great Songs of the Church by Elmer Jorgenson. I have no doubt that the influence of Great Songs is the reason that this version of the text was used in the Howard Publishing hymnals such as Songs of the Church and Songs of Faith and Praise. Great Songs was the starting point for Praise for the Lord, so there is no surprise here either. The altered version also occurs in some Firm Foundation hymnals such as Majestic Hymnal.

But where did this version originate? In The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of the Disciples of Christ (Chalice Press, 1979), p. 52, Ronald Osburn claims that Alexander Campbell, one of the most prominent Restoration Movement leaders, originated this alteration in his own influential hymnals. Supposedly he was uncomfortable with the term “Trinity,” because it does not appear in the Bible, and holding to the principle of “calling Bible things by Bible names,” he simply avoided the word.

But according to John Wiegand, editor of Praise for the Lord, the altered lyrics came into use through the Fillmore Brothers publishing house in Cincinnati, who took the hymn from a Unitarian Hymnal without even knowing that the lyrics had been changed to agree with that viewpoint. Whichever origin is true, the traditional Trinitarian view is the norm in Churches of Christ, and I have seen no evidence that the use of the altered hymn is by design.

Two of the most striking examples of doctrinal alterations have happened to hymns by the same author, Frederick W. Faber (1814-1863). Faber was one of the Oxford Movement Anglicans who followed John Henry Newman into the Catholic fellowship, and his very beautiful hymns often reflect his changed theology. “Faith of Our Fathers,” for example, contained a stanza that does not appear in Protestant hymnals, for obvious reasons:

Faith of our fathers! Mary's prayers
Shall win our country back to thee
And through the truth that comes from God
England shall indeed be free.
Faith of our fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to Thee till death.

And if we follow Pounds's metaphor of “hymn surgery,” the Faber/Flowerdew hymn “Father of Mercies” is a veritable Frankenstein's monster! Faber's original hymn began in this way:

Mother of mercies, day by day
My love for thee grows more and more;
Thy gifts are strewn upon my way,
Like sands upon the great sea-shore.

The succeeding stanzas are devoted to an impassioned defense of the veneration of Mary. But non-Catholic hymnal editors found this opening stanza just too good to pass up. With the change of a word it was made a hymn to the Father, then matched up with two other stanzas from a hymn by Alice Flowerdew. It's a strange way to write poetry, and quite an affront to Faber's intent. But it made a great hymn, one that is a favorite of many people I know.

Jessie Pounds concludes saying,
Where a hymn has real value and beauty, and where it has become endeared to the church through the associations of generations, it is undoubtedly better that it should be slightly and wisely altered than that it should pass forever. . . . It seems reasonable to believe that most writers of hymns would prefer to have their work go on living and serving, even though, that this may be, a minor operation is sometimes necessary.(93)
I agree, but if we can extend the surgery metaphor just once more, let the hymnal editor remember: “First, do no harm.”


  1. Hi, David:

    I enjoyed your article about Jessie Brown Pounds and "hymn surgery." I wonder if you have ever heard of a hymn by Isaac Watts called "Happy Frailty." It was sung by one of my grandfathers, Thomas Dooley, an early member of the Restoration Movement. If you could tell me of a source for the words and music, I'd be grateful.

    Dale Blanshan
    Rochester, MN

  2. Dale,

    Great to hear from you! This is from Horae Lyricae (1706), which was Watts's first publication of poetry, before he became famous as a hymn writer. There is a free copy online at: "Happy frailty" is on p. 89.

    God bless!

  3. My mistake, Dale is looking for the tune to which this hymn was sung. I can find it in a few hymnals from the early 1800s, but none of them have music or even tune suggestions. The first line is "How meanly dwells the immortal mind." Any help would be appreciated.