in defense of the (whole) hymn

I love to sing hymns. You know, the kind with the organ swelling in four-part glorious harmony as the congregation sings along, maybe in harmony, too – and if you’re lucky, you get an organ interlude/flourish before that last verse, and maybe even a key change (though that usually take me out of tenor range). Many take me back to my childhood, be it only the tune or the whole hymn itself, but it just brings me back to a place of confident faith that I can’t say I experience anywhere else. (Excuse me if I’m sounding too much like Garrison Keillor here.) And while I do enjoy singing the praise songs that have become popular in many worship settings today, there’s something about holding that hymn book in my hand and joining the heavenly chorus.

Part of what I love about hymns, and something that I’ve only more recently really began to realize, is the beautiful poetry of hymns. On Easter, I wrote about the way the words of a particular hymn stuck me that morning, and it seems every Sunday I’m greeted anew with more words of faith and assurance, many written by saints of old. This morning it was “God Himself Is Present” (see below) that (masculine pronouns not withstanding) really got to me, taking me into the presence of the Holy One.

And it’s the poetry aspect of the hymns (what else could it be) that has gotten me frustrated various times in the past few months and brings this critique: if you’re going to sing a hymn, you really should sing all the verses. If you were going to read a poem, would you only read half of it? In fact, many poems we remember by their concluding lines of verses (i.e. “… and I took the road less traveled), so why do we feel it OK to conclude a hymn early? If it’s the length of the service one is concerned about, pick a different hymn or fewer hymns – don’t shrink a perfectly good poem down from it’s full nature.

I attended a Catholic mass a few months ago with a few friends, having gone to a Lutheran service earlier that day with one of them, and she noted that one thing about Catholic services is that it’s a very rare occasion to sing all the verses of a hymn – in fact, at that mass I attended, we sang only the first two verses of each hymn we sang. I won’t go as far as calling it sacrilegious, but it would certainly be a deterrent for me attending mass if I knew I’d never get to sing a hymn in its fullness.

A particular example which really got me going with this, about a year ago: At a particular service, they have hymns during communion. The final song was “O Christ The Same.” This is a beautiful hymn to the tune of “O Danny Boy,” with three verses: the first speaking of Christ in ages past (“our yesterdays”), Christ today (“the present hour”), and Christ in the future (“all that is to be”). We were on the second verse as communion distribution concluded, and the service would continue when we stopped singing.

And we stopped singing after the second verse!

Here you have a wonderful poem by Timothy Dudley-Smith, telling this story of past, present, and future, and all we get is the first two pieces of the story! It happened again last week with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” as we failed to sing the final verse, which sings of assurance in death (“the night draws near”).

I implore all you worship planners (or those with such influence): don’t do a disservice to these great poets and SING ALL THE VERSES OF THE HYMNS!

“God Himself Is Present” by: Gerhard Tersteegen

God himself is present;
Let us now adore him
And with awe appear before him!
God is in his temple;
All within keep silence,
Prostrate lie with deepest rev’rence.
Him alone God we own,
Him, our God and Savior;
Praise his name forever.

God himself is present;
Hear the harps resounding;
See the hosts the throne surrounding!
“Holy, holy, holy!”
Hear the hymn ascending,
Song and saints and angels blending.
Bow your ear to us here:
Hear, O Christ the praises
That your Church now raises.

Light of light eternal,
All things penetrating,
For your rays our soul is waiting.
As the tender flowers,
Willingly unfolding,
To the sun their faces holding:
Even so would we do,
Light for you obtaining,
Strength to serve you gaining.

Come, celestial Being,
Make our hearts your dwelling,
Ev’ry carnal thought dispelling.
By your Holy Spirit
Sanctify us truly,
Teaching us to love you only.
Where we go here below,
Let us bow before you
And in truth adore you.


3 Responses to in defense of the (whole) hymn

  1. Steve Basselman says:

    Hey Eric,

    THis worship planner RARELY drops verses. I ALWAYS read through the entire text of the hymn before making any decision about cutting verses.

    You’ll never see me cutting any of the 8 verses of “For All the Saints” – you simply can’t – it tells a story!

    I have to agree with you about the lack of theological content in so many newer praise songs. It would be very difficult for me to serve as a worship planner in a congregation that didn’t use good solid hymnody!

    Thank you for your comments.

  2. Andrew says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is another one that you just can’t skip around in, especially with the first/last verse model that many employ. You hit the fourth stanza and ask… “what word?”

    For me, the distinguishing factor for hymns is a continuity of thought, a progressive exploration of who God is, what he has done, or the process of salvation. Praise songs you can jump from verse to verse, sing a chorus a couple times, and not lose the continuity. But hymns just don’t fit into that flexibility.

    As to the lack of content in praise songs, often identified as only one verse sung over and over or even one phrase repeated, I have mixed feelings. They certainly aren’t my favorite songs, but there is scriptural basis for them. Psalm 117 is a single stanza, and 136 repeats “for his steadfast love endures forever” in every verse! Certainly these shouldn’t be the only songs we sing (there are 148 other psalms, after all), but we can’t say they have no place in worship. (Not saying that’s your stance, but I have run into that opinion before.)

    As for the Garrison Keillor shout out, bring on the PHC.

  3. The Rev'd R E LANGFORD Jr, FAPC, ELCA pastor (ret.) says:

    I read somewhere that the original, untranslated,
    verses of the hymn went to a total of eight. Only
    the first two were put into English. The third in
    English is not part of the original supposedly. Has
    anyone else seen, or researched, such a rumor?

    Lutherans (LBW type) suggest this as a “Hymn of
    The Day” for today, Day of Saint Michael and All
    Angels, 29 September. IMO what we need is a suitable
    verse addressing commemoration of Saint Michael (and
    All Angels) to be sung to “By all your Saints in Warfare”
    or some such hymn.

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