It was none other than the venerable Charles Wesley, writer of hundreds of grand hymns, who in the preface (1779) to one of his hymnals pronounced a word of stern warning against anyone who would mess with the words—and thus the theology, not to mention the beauty—of one of his hymns. He had little use for “hymn-tinkerers.”
During most of my growing up years, my home church, and most others of our brand, used a hymnal that contained 665 songs, or 666 in one edition if you counted “1-a” printed inside the front cover. (Cue scary music here or not, depending upon your eschatological views.)
I later learned that 130 or of those songs had been tinkered with by the compiler. I also learned why my Uncle Kline (not really my uncle but whose name was given to me as my middle moniker and whom I am proud to claim) referred to the hymnal as Sacrilegious Selections. Uncle Kline was an English professor and much of the tinkering grated on his ears; more than that, he also loved the gospel and hated to see it gutted.
It’s rather amazing that while Christ’s people have so often made a real mess of recognizing the unity for which the Lord prayed so poignantly just before he died (John 17), at least we’ve all sung an incredible number of the same hymns. Most of us don’t know or care about the “religious preference” (as in Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Assembly of God, etc.) of the hymn-writers; we just know that their Lord was Jesus Christ, and, as hard-headed as we may have been in lots of areas, music did what it so often does— tore down walls, lifted hearts, and united us in praise.
I’ve got the words in my head, verse upon verse of many of those hymns of my childhood (most of which included a bit richer vocabulary than the presently popular variations of “Father, I love you—Jesus, I love you—Holy Spirit, I love you—repeated thirty-nine times). But I still sadly discover on occasion that the words in my brain are a few words or phrases off of what the writer originally wrote.
Some of them don’t surprise me much. References to harps, lyres, zithers, stringed, or other instruments might be all over the Psalms, but you can bet your pitch pipe they’d not make it into that hymnal. Sad, but much worse was some of the theological tinkering. Done with pure motive, I don’t doubt, some of the tinkering nonetheless cut at the very heart of Christ’s cross. (It was, thus, more serious than some of the modern linguistic atrocities perpetrated by politically correct hymn-tinkerers who failed to learn in, oh, about third grade or so, that “-man” is a suffix for “human” and that words like “mankind” are no assault at all on “womankind.”)
Fanny Crosby could write beautifully, “Pass me not, O gentle Savior / Hear my humble cry.” And then in Verse 3, “Trusting only in Thy merit, / Would I seek Thy face.” But the hymn-tinkerer in his version changed “only” to “always.” Why? Because he wasn’t sure that “only” Christ’s merit, his sacrifice, is enough—which, whatever the tinkerer’s intent—makes his “cry” a lot less humble and effectively undercuts the cross.
“When We All Get to Heaven” became “When the Saved Get to Heaven.” As if someone unsaved might somehow sneak in?
But the absolute worst example comes in, of all places, “Amazing Grace” where Verse 2 was tinkered with, and Christ’s cross violated, when “How precious did that grace appear / The hour I first believed” was changed to “When I His Word obeyed.”
So wazzamattuh? We want to obey Christ, right? Yes! But if for salvation I trust in my power to obey, that is not at all the same thing as trusting completely and only in Christ and his blood. That hymn-tinkered “grace” suddenly becomes not very amazing at all. The world didn’t and doesn’t need yet another “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” self-help program or do-it-yourself religion. God’s Son did exactly what we needed. He did it once. He did it all. He did it forever. On a cross. Amazing!
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Copyright 2017 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.