Something about the human condition makes us revere the famous and the infamous more than is warranted
— especially if they’re long dead. We Americans don’t like it when killjoys point out that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson may not have walked on water. And we Christians blush when reminded of some of the not-so-holy things Moses, David and Peter did.
We church music guys — especially since the advent of the modern hymns movement — have come to think of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Anne Steel, and other hymnists as an almost inhumanly good collective of writers, whose every lyrical phrase was more sublime than the preceding one.
I do think, like many others, that the 18th and early 19th century was as much of a “golden age” for English congregational church music as has ever been. Many of our contemporary praise and worship songs fall below even the “average” works of that era, in terms of theology, storytelling, lyricism and even accessibility.
But here’s some cold water in the face:
- Isaac Watts wrote 750 hymns, most forgotten by time. While there are hidden gems, many of them are nothing special.
- Charles Wesley wrote 6500 hymns. Many of them only made sense after his brother, friends or later hymnal committees reined his genius in, calmed his exuberance down and whittled his excesses away. And others were beyond repair.
- Anne Steel wrote 144 hymns and 34 metrical psalms, some of which border on schmaltz.
What’s more, some of the best hymn writers in the English hymn tradition wrote nationalistic hymns that were closer in sentiment to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The U.S.A.” than to “When I Survey The Wond’rous Cross.” In many of Watts’s metrical psalms, he substituted references to Judah for references to Great Britain (for more on this, see John Hull). And here is a selection from his version of Psalm 60, which he marked for use “On A Day Of Humiliation For Disappointments In War.”
Great Britain shakes beneath thy Stroke,
And dreads thy threatening Hand;
O heal the Island Thou hast broke,
Confirm the wav’ring Land …
Our Troops shall gain a wide Reknown
By thine assisting Hand;
‘Tis God that treads the Mighty down,
And makes the Feeble stand.
I think in a many cases hymns are forgotten because they’re so forgettable. Even today there’s such a small ratio of great songs versus number of songs written, which makes it easy to imagine that history acts as a refinery for allowing the best hymns to rise to the surface and be handed down through generations. The Church will probably still be singing “Amazing Grace” in 100 years, but they’ll also be singing “How Great Thou Art” and “In Christ Alone.” Only a slim few will make it.
What Is The Point Of All This?
I have two points, both of which are important for worship pastors and songwriters to remember:
1. Don’t just jump (or remain) on a hymns bandwagon. Think critically about all the songs with which you lead God’s people in worship. Whether the name on the lyric sheet is John Newton or Chris Tomlin, recognize they’re only human. Some of their work will be better than others, and some of their work will be more fitting for your particular context than others.
2. Songwriters, don’t give up and don’t despair when you write a song that doesn’t turn out well. On the other hand, don’t be conceited enough to think that everything you touch turns to gold. If even the best hymn writers in time wrote song after song that didn’t “make it,” then you should regard this fact as a huge weight, lifted from your shoulders. You have freedom to fail and grace to try again.
Bobby Gilles is the Director of Communications at Sojourn Church in Louisville, KY. Follow him on twitter @bobbygilles.
About Matt Boswell
Matt Boswell is the founder of Doxology & Theology, and Pastor of Worship at Providence Church in Frisco, TX. Follow Matt on Twitter @mattboswell.