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Viewpoint: Why we change hymn texts

The language we use can clarify and expand our faith or limit our vision

Katie Graber, Mennonite Worship and Song Committee
Oct 03, 2017

Each new hymnal committee assesses and edits hymns. Pictured are notes concerning textual changes for the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal. (Photo by Adam Tice)

Should hymns be sung in their original form or should they be updated? This is a more complicated question than it may seem. Take “Be Thou My Vision,” for instance. Hymnal Companion discusses three versions of this song: the Old Irish poem from the eighth century, a 1905 English translation, and a later “versified” or metered version. If someone wanted to be true to the original, which version would they believe we ought to sing? Or, if someone wanted to update the language, could they do so without losing the stately poetry?

The Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, working under the name Resonate Team, includes a text subcommittee (made up of myself, Tom Harder and editor Adam Tice) that reviews new works and studies each text that will move from the current hymnals into the future collection. Our purpose statement begins, “In selecting and revising congregational songs and worship resources, we seek to explore the breadth and depth of our faith. In Scripture, tradition and experience, we encounter God in many ways. The language we use can clarify and expand our faith or limit our vision.”

In “Be Thou My Vision”—as with any translation—we seek to balance the meaning of the original with a poetic and singable English rendering.

Further complicating the question, “Which original version?” is the fact that many older English texts have a long history of alteration. For example, the line “Hark! the herald angels sing” replaced Charles Wesley’s original “Hark how all the welkin rings” in 1753. Hymnal Companion tells us that “‘welkin’ is an Old English word for ‘vault of heaven,’” but since most singers are unfamiliar with this word it would be impractical to return to the original. Language changes over time, and the text subcommittee seeks to balance elegant and traditional with comprehensible and relatable.

We have had discussions about many questions already, from the minute to the weighty: Should this be a semicolon or a dash? Should this be O or Oh? Is this reference to humans inclusive or limiting? Does this word used for God fit the rest of the song’s biblical depictions of Creator, Christ, I/Emmanuel, Sophia or other image? Is “Lord” being used as a translation of the Hebrew title “Adonai,” or is it serving as a stand-in for the name of God?

In many cases, we make no changes; sometimes we modify words or phrases, and occasionally we make larger amendments such as adding a lovely but forgotten verse. We know there will be disagreements about our decisions. In fact, many of us on the committee have already heard conflicting suggestions about changes we ought—or ought not—make.

The committee that assembled Hymnal: A Worship Book (a partnership between Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren) made numerous textual updates, many of which have become comfortable and beloved. The changes it made toward gender inclusivity matched those that have become commonplace in other writing, so much so that now many publishers have policies requiring gender-neutral language when possible.

Another kind of alteration was a line in “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” changed from “whiter than snow” to “wash me just now.” Hymnal Companion explains, “Though the cleansing can be construed as referring to the soul, it is one more example of how purity in North American Anglo culture has often been equated with whiteness, to the detriment of people of colour.”

The current text subcommittee likewise takes seriously our job of evaluating texts. We do not make changes lightly and we try not to make them excessively. While we hope that most alterations we do make will be so smooth as to be almost undetectable, we also hope that some changes will be an opportunity to re-experience a hymn. Sometimes we sing without thinking; perhaps encountering something new in the midst of a familiar favourite can allow us to experience a cherished song in a fresh way.

For more about Resonate Team and its work toward developing a new worship and song collection, visit MennoMedia.org/Resonate.


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