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On hymns and the perils of tinkering with them

Gary Parrett, professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has written a helpful piece on worship music.  Parrett begins by lamenting the loss of “Ebenezer” from many contemporary versions of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”  The Robert Robinson hymn states, “Here I raise my Ebenezer…”  Recently, this line has been replaced by lines like “Hitherto thy love has blest me,” “Here by grace your love has brought me,” and “Here I raise to thee an altar.”  Why is Parrett bothered by these edits?  Parrett provides four reasons; here are two:

1) I protest on biblical grounds. Robinson’s choice of Ebenezer (which means “stone of help”) is a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12. After the Lord had given a great victory to Israel, “Samuel took a stone and … named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.’ ”

This single word ushers the worshiper into both the biblical episode and the greater narrative of God’s redemptive dealings with his people. It points us, also, to Robinson’s dramatic conversion three years before he penned the hymn, inviting us to reflect upon our own stories and to remember God’s faithful dealings with us. By removing the word from the hymn, we likely remove it from believers’ vocabularies and from our treasury of spiritual resources.

2) I protest as a Christian educator. What we have in such revisions is the worst sort of accommodation, even contribution, to biblical illiteracy. Our faith is filled with names and terms that were unfamiliar to us when we joined the family—atonement, propitiation, Sabbath, Passover, Melchizedek. What are we to do with such terms? We teach! How difficult would it be to simply explain the reference to Ebenezer?

Parrett concludes by saying that we are for the most part “misguided” in our efforts to improve hymns (unless the line likens God’s loving action to a “wet sloppy kiss”—my thought, not Parrett’s).  This is not to say that the older hymns (and hymnists) were more spiritual than we are.  It is to suggest, however, that the old hymn writers (and this may sting a bit) knew their Bibles better than we do, believes Parrett.

What do you think? Is Parrett correct?

If interested, there are some great things happening with older, almost entirely forgotten hymns.  Consider what these groups are doing:

Indelible Grace Music-This group has sought to make the old hymns culturally attuned by rewriting the music.  Read more about them here.

Here is an example:

Red Mountain Music-Like Indelible Grace, they are reviving and reworking the music for older hymns.  You can read some of their philosophy here.

Sojourn Music-Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY has a similar ministry.  I have especially enjoyed their compilation of Isaac Watts hymns, Over the Grave.

Also, Stuart Townend is writing hymns that engage both the mind and heart. This gifted hymn writer’s hymns include “In Christ Alone,” “How Deep the Father’s Love,” and “The Power of the Cross.”

Author: Casey Shutt

View more articles by Casey Shutt.

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