Bad things done to good hymns

One of my favourite occasional blogs is Bad things in new hymn books and other sad tales, in which the proprietor, Cathy, compares original hymn texts with the versions that get printed in hymnals. In almost all the cases she highlights, the change is for the worse, owing to insensitivity, cack-handed attempts at ‘improvements’ or sheer ignorance. The author’s direct style add to the enjoyment, even when I disagree with her theologically.

As a heavy user of the Lutheran Service Book, I have occasion on a fairly regular basis to mutter Cathy-like about unnecessary mutilations of hymn texts. By the same token, as a member of a hymnal committee, I also have sympathy for hymnal editors, who have to tinker with texts in order to make sure that they pass theological muster. I know how hard it is to do well.

Every now and then, however, I discover that behind the good hymn that we all know and love there is an even greater hymn that we don’t know because someone decided at an early stage that they could improve it, and the rest of the world has been following suit ever since.

While researching the origins of one great and well-loved hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation”, I made just such a discovery. It turns out that the hymn, by Samuel John Stone, was written as part of a collection of 12 hymns on the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed (you can buy a facsimile edition here*). Now that’s a great hymnal project if there ever was one!

Having obtained my copy, I quickly looked up “The Church’s One Foundation”, to see whether it had been transmitted unmolested (the LSB molests it slightly, and unnecessarily, in the second half of the final verse to remove any suggestion that being meek and lowly might have any relationship with inheriting the kingdom of God [I mean, who would ever suggest such a thing!]).

And what did I discover? Seven whole verses (surely not an accidental number!), none worth removing. And the final verse of the version commonly printed in fact a spliced up contraction of two final verses, both worth singing in whole.

Here it is, in its full glory:

  1. The Church’s one foundation
    Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
    She is His new creation
    By water and the Word.
    From heaven He came and sought her
    To be His holy bride;
    With His own blood He bought her
    And for her life He died.
  2. She is from every nation,
    Yet one o’er all the earth;
    Her charter of salvation,
    One Lord, one faith, one birth;
    One holy Name she blesses,
    Partakes one Holy Food,
    And to one Hope she presses,
    With every grace endued.
  3. The Church shall never perish!
    Her dear Lord to defend,
    To guide, sustain, and cherish,
    Is with her to the end:
    Though there be those who hate her,
    And false sons in her pale,
    Against or  foe or traitor
    She ever shall prevail.
  4. Though with a scornful wonder
    Men see her sore oppressed,
    By schisms rent asunder,
    By heresies distressed:
    Yet saints their watch are keeping,
    Their cry goes up, “How long?”
    And soon the night of weeping
    Shall be the morn of song!
  5. ’Mid toil and tribulation,
    And tumult of her war,
    She waits the consummation
    Of peace forevermore;
    Till, with the vision glorious,
    Her longing eyes are blest,
    And the great Church victorious
    Shall be the Church at rest.
  6. Yet she on earth hath union
    With God the Three in One,
    And mystic sweet communion
    With those whose rest is won,
    With all her sons and daughters
    Who, by the Master’s Hand
    Led through the deathly waters,
    Repose in Eden land.
  7. O happy ones and holy!
    Lord, give us grace that we
    Like them, the meek and lowly,
    On high may dwell with Thee:
    There, past the border mountains,
    Where in sweet vales the Bride
    With Thee by living fountains
    Forever shall abide! Amen

Now, why would anyone want to remove verse 3? A Lutheran hymnal would surely want to have a little reference to Augsburg Confession VIII in the margin. As for verses 6-7; well, it seems that Mr. Stone never did need redacting by Lutheran hymnal editors; all they needed was to stick to his original text rather than the one passed down courtesy of other hymnal editors.

So, dear clergypersons, give your congregations the whole glorious hymn. Dear laypeople, get your clergypersons to give it to you.

Now, did I mention already that I serve on a hymnal committee? An item suggests itself to me for inclusion…

*[UPDATE: Pastor James Sharp has pointed out to me that the text of Lyra Fidelium is available online here. You can also read the 1870 edition at Google Books. Though I would recommend buying the book—far more satisfying!]

4 thoughts on “Bad things done to good hymns”

  1. A glance at the LW Hymnal Companion will explain the (entirely faulty) thinking of the committee that butchered the hymn. They claim that the hymn is speaking of the “invisible Church”, and so should not include references to “false sons within her pale”. This is a classic misunderstanding of Lutheran ecclesiology, separating visible from invisible, as if they were two different churches. I agree with you quite heartily that Stone was more Lutheran (in the sense of AC VII and VIII) than his “Lutheran” revisers!

  2. Being Presbyterian, we always have the first line of the second stanza as “Elect of every nation;” I was amazed and saddened to find that was not original. Whether or not this improves the hymn is perhaps a matter of doctrinal opinion, but regardless, I say that the editing results in a tighter composition on stylistic grounds. “She is from every nation” is a weak construction. Linking verb. 😉

  3. I was being facetious. This beautiful hymn is about the mystery and unity of the holy Church, and sectarian editing only mars the original intent of the author.

    We must either take the hymn as it is, or reject it as it is. We must never tweak the original to suit a particular doctrine. I wish that principle could be applied to all new editions of hymnals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *