How to sing the faith, and how not

Have I told you lately that I’m no great fan of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’?

What strikes me about that, and some other famous and very popular hymns by Cecil Alexander, is that they were written to help her young godchildren to understand the Creed. A laudable goal indeed. Setting anything to rhyme, rhythm and music is going to be a great way to teach it. And if you are going to teach only one thing to a child, the creed is that one thing.

But it has to be done well. And I don’t think Mrs. Alexander did it all that well. What she produced was frequently trite, often moralistic, and occasionally plain false (but in fairness, not always).

Another British hymn writer of the same era, the Rev. Samuel Stone, also gave himself the task of expounding the creed through hymn, though this time in response to a theological controversy. Let’s compare and contrast their efforts.

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth”

C. AlexanderS. Stone
1. All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

2. Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

All things bright ...

3. The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

All things bright ...

4. The purple headed mountain,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning,
That brightens up the sky;−

All things bright ...

5. The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,−
He made them every one:

All things bright ...

6. The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
We gather every day;−

All things bright ...

7. He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell,
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

All things bright ...
None else but Thee, for evermore,
One, All, we dread, believe, adore:
Great Earth and Heaven shall have their day
And worn and old shall pass away,
But Thou remainest, on Thy throne
Eternal, changeless, and alone!

None else we praise! in every form,
In peace of calm and power of storm,
In simple flower and mystic star,
In all around and all afar,
In Grandeur, Beauty, Truth, but Thee
None else we hear, None else we see.

None else we love! for sweeter grace
That made anew a ruined race:
The heirs of life, the lords of death,
With earliest voice and latest breath,
When days begin, when days are done,
Bless we the Father for the Son!

None else we trust! our flesh may fail,
Our heart may sink when foes assail,
But Thou art strength to be our stay,
And Glory not to pass away:
None else in life and death have we,
But we have all in all with Thee!

Yea, None but Thee all worlds confess,
And those redeemed ones numberless:
None else, from everlasting One,
And evermore beside Thee none.
Of all that is, has been, shall be,
Father of Life, None else but Thee!

“I believe in Jesus Christ … who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the  Virgin Mary …”

C. AlexanderS. Stone
1. Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

2. He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

3. And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

4. For he is our childhood's pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

5. And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.

6. Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God's right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.
THE Son forsook the Father's home
For mercy to lost man,
And did not scorn the Virgin's womb
To bear the sinner's ban.

Meekly the Maiden pure believed
The great Archangel's word,
And by the Holy Ghost conceived
The Saviour Christ the Lord.

The Word made flesh creation sees,
Its mighty God in Man:
Great mystery of mysteries
Since ever time began!

That we might gain a second birth
The Holy Son was given:
T'was God Himself came down to earth
To win us back to heaven.

Lord! we believe with love and praise
This wondrous truth of Thee:
Thereby in all our troublous days
How strong henceforth are we!

So near art Thou, so strong are we,
For now, if we are Thine,
Our Brother in humanity,
Thou makest us divine!

We see with peace in times of fear
Serene Thy human Form
Thy human Voice with joy we hear,
Sweet-toned above the storm.

So dread we not the deathly strife,
Knowing that Thou hast died:
It can but bear us into life,
Since nearer to Thy side!

“I believe in … the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints …”

C. AlexanderS. Stone
LITTLE children must be quiet,
When to Holy Church they go,
They must sit with serious faces,
Must not play or whisper low.

For the Church is GOD'S Own Temple,
Where men go for praise and prayer,
And the Great GOD will not love them,
Who forget His Presence there.

They were little Jewish children,
Who within the temple cried,
" Honour to the Son of David,"
Standing at our SAVIOUR'S side.

How much more should Christian children
Know His Name and praise Him too,
Who of His Own Church are members,
Sons of GOD, and born anew.

They must walk in reverent order,
Stand for praise and kneel for prayer,
For the Church is GOD'S Own Temple,
And His Presence dwelleth there.
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.

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.

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.

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!

’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.

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.

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!

Now, this isn’t entirely fair. Mrs. Alexander wrote for little children, Mr. Stone for adults. All the same, as I have suggested before, what children learn to sing as children has a very profound influence on their whole lives.

So here’s my advice for hymn writers: if you are going to set the creed as a series of hymns, you do well. But please can you make sure that the hymns are worthy of the creed they paraphrase!

And here’s my advice for teachers of little children: there aren’t better resources than Luther’s Small Catechism.

Finally, justice demands that I add also that Mrs. Alexander was quite capable of writing a good hymn. Here’s one:

1. When, wounded sore, the stricken soul
Lies bleeding and unbound,
One only hand, a piercèd hand,
Can heal the sinner’s wound.

2. When sorrow swells the laden breast,
And tears of anguish flow,
One only heart, a broken heart,
Can feel the sinner’s woe.

3. When penitence has wept in vain
Over some foul, dark spot,
One only stream, a stream of blood,
Can wash away the blot.

4. ‘T is Jesus’ blood that washes white,
His hand that brings relief,
His heart that’s touch’d with all our joys,
And feeleth for our grief.

5. Lift up Thy bleeding hand, O Lord!
Unseal that cleansing tide;
We have no shelter from our sin
But in Thy wounded side.

The Catechism as the Glue of the Church

… only by this means can there be a bonding of families with the Catechism, agreement between educated and uneducated, or a closing up of the vast gulf between elite Christianity and Christianity for the common folk …, the fact that the rift can only be healed by way of a discipline which treats the one as the other with the same elemental portions of God’s Word, that is, the Catechism, makes it the severest task of the office of shepherd first to proceed evenhandedly with this discipline, without respect of rank, educated or not.

A.F.C. Vilmar, The Theology of Facts versus the Theology of Rhetoric” (Lutheran Legacy, 2008), 103.

Why do we sing?

Luther’s hymns were more than sung propaganda. They had a specific catechetical function in undergirding the principal teachings of the faith. They were sung during the narrow catechesis of teaching the main parts of the catechism in church and home. But there was a broader catechetical function when these same catechism hymns were sung on particular Sundays of the church year when a vital link was made between the celebration of that Sunday and a specific part of the catechism. Similarly, when such hymns as Wir glauben and Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der von uns den Gotteszorn wandt, were sung as the creed and during communion, and important connection was again being made between these liturgical actions and fundamental theology as expressed in the catechism.

For Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues the singing of hymns was therefore more profound than the way we tend to sing them today. We sing them for nostalgic reasons, to remind us of an earlier time in our lives. We sing them as shibboleths, identifiers—usually enshrined in a specific musical style—that marks out what kind of contemporary Christians we are. We sing them because we have always sung them, and we like the emotions they evoke, though we do not necessarily understand what it is we are singing. Or we sing them because they are new and up-to-date, and we would not want to b e heard singing stuffy hymns, especially those old German ones. But such modern criteria for the singing of hymns appear very superficial when compared with how hymn-singing-as-we-know-it began in the sixteenth century.

Luther’s hymns, as well as those written by his Wittenberg contemporaries, were grounded in Scripture and functioned not only as worship songs, expressing the response of faith to be sung within a liturgical context, but also as theological songs, declaring the substance of the faith. Today the emphasis is on “Christian experience,’’ and very little is heard about the essential catechesis of hymnody. But the catechetical function of hymns has been fundamental in Lutheran theology and practice, at least, until the later eighteenth century. In contemporary Lutheran hymnals now in use this hymnic catechesis is either somewhat muted or obscured. But perhaps in the Lutheran hymnals of the twenty-first century that have yet to be edited there will be a return to Luther’s understanding that through catechesis—and in this case, hymnodic catechesis—Christian experience is both created and interpreted.

Robin A. Leaver. Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Lutheran Quarterly Books. Grand Rapids & Cambridge: Eerdmans, pp. 168–9