Hymns Today Conflict with Historical Counterparts

Article excerpt

Byline: Don Lindman

"Peace on earth, goodwill to men," the angelic choir is reported to have sung from the heavens overlooking Bethlehem on that first Christmas Eve.

But some of the music of the season has been cursed more by conflict than blessed by peace. Some of the struggle sounds strangely current.

Pick up a contemporary Christian hymnal and you will find many songs that you will recognize, and yet not recognize, from your childhood. The words have been changed to "modernize" them. This makes the song easier to understand for people not familiar with it, but for those who have sung it so much they have memorized the words, the changes are disruptive. Three hundred years ago the same thing was happening, and Charles Wesley hated it.

The composer of more than 6,000 hymns, Wesley wrote in one of his hymnals, "Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honor to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them."

One of Wesleys hymns began, "Hark, how all the welkin rings ... " Someone paid no attention to Wesleys request, changed the words, and now we sing with enthusiasm, "Hark, the herald angels sing!"

Another issue in Christian music is new styles versus the old traditional ones. The new styles are frequently closer to the style of secular music. The lyrics, too, are modernized in one way or another. Traditional Christian hymnody often began as a secular rebellion against tradition but as decades passed it became "christened" and now is identified with the church. …