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Gadsby’s Hymns for today?

By admin | September 3, 2008

Posted by Prof. Renihan

Sadly, hymnody is sometimes a controversial matter in churches.  It shouldn’t be like this, but it is. For many advocates of contemporary worship, hymns are outdated and outmoded, a relic of years gone by. In their place, choruses and worship songs numb the mind though appeal to the emotions and the church is deprived of an important Scriptural tool for growth–teaching and admonishing one another. Instead we emote with one another. This is one reason for the weakness of contemporary Christianity: vacuous music.

While this change is to be lamented for many reasons, one is the fact that it cuts the church off from its history. Undoubtedly, there is some fine music being written now. But we have a long history of God-honoring song, all of which ought to be at the service of Christ’s congregations. One of the great but often forgotten jewels of our Baptist heritage is William Gadsby’s wonderful collection of hymns.

Now I know that some of Gadsby’s lyrics are far too introspective and unworthy of inclusion in public worship. There is no disagreement with that. But given this caution, there is a wealth, a depth of truth and spiritual insight in many of the hymns he collected and published which goes far beyond almost anything being written today. And yet Gadsby’s hymnal is forgotten and neglected. It is like a beautiful diamond mine, once quarried in the past but now ignored even by its rightful owners.

Several months ago, IRBS Fellow Crawford Gribben pointed to some new settings for older music–the Gadsby Project. I recently ordered several of the CD’s, and have found them to be very enjoyable. It is fascinating to hear the songs of Gadsby’s Hymnal put to new tunes and settings. The style is sort-of Gadsby meets O Brother Where Art Thou–Reformed hymns set to American roots music. But some of the settings are very effective and bring the profound realities of these hymns to a new generation of listeners.

I only have two quibbles (one must always have quibbles!): first, some of the male singers sound as if they are recovering from a cold. I know that this is the style today, but it is annoying. If you have a nice voice, use it! You don’t have to imitate Eddie Vedder and his followers. Secondly, and more importantly, there are occassional changes to the lyrics which alter the sense intended by the author. Now, lest you fret over this comment. let me say this: I do think it’s appropriate to correct imprecise doctrine in hymn texts. That’s not the issue here. Rather it is changes that mask the story intended by the hymnwriter.

Let me give an example. My favorite hymn is Thomas Kelly’s Look Ye Saints the Sight is Glorious. It is included on the This Breaks My Heart of Stone CD. The new musical setting is very nice–I like it a lot (even though I also love the traditional tune Coronae). But a significant change is made to the first stanza, and I don’t understand why. Thomas Kelly wrote

Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious,

See the man of Sorrows now;

From the fight returned victorious, every knee to him shall bow.

Crown him! Crown him! Crowns become the Victor’s brow.

In the new collection, the words are altered to

Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious,

See the exalted savior now;

From the fight returned victorious, every knee to him shall bow.

Crown him! Crown him! Crowns become the Victor’s brow.

This alteration very much transforms the sense of the verse. Kelly wanted the singer to contemplate the enormous contrast between the Man of Sorrows, alone, seemingly weak and defeated on his way to the cross, emerging from the battle as the great triumphant Lord. It is a wonderful contrast between Christ’s state of humiliation (without which there is no salvation) and the present triumph of his state of exaltation. The alteration doesn’t affect the doctrine of the hymn–who could complain about a call to contemplate the exalted savior?–but it does affect the intended portrait so beautifully penned by Thomas Kelly. I am confused by this change.

These quibbles aside, this is really an important project. One wonders what might be done with the hymns of Paul Gerhardt (in their wonderful renderings by Catherine Winkworth) or Augustus Toplady, or, some of the ancient texts of the church by Ambrose or Bernard. I hope this project continues. We need the hymnody of the entire church, past and present.

Topics: Baptist History, Calvinism, Church, Crawford Gribben, Law and Gospel, Means of Grace, Pastoral Ministry, Regulative Principle of Worship, Worship | Comments Off

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