I’m bored with contemporary liberal religious hymnody. (Remember, hymns are the words that we sing, not the music itself.) We have a bunch of 19th century hymns which are pretty good, but which tend to carry the 19th century curses of sentimentality and niceness. We have some singer-songwriter hymns, and some praise-band songs, all of which I find vapid and overly individualistic, and sometimes cloyingly sweet, as if you’re drinking a glass of molasses. I like some of the old African American spirituals, but we religious liberals tend to remove some of the best imagery and the most striking word choices.
Recently, I’ve been reading Isaac Watts’s hymns. I find that I like many of his translations of the psalms in his Psalms of David: his verse is solid and sometimes poetic, his rhymes are fun to sing, and his imagery is often striking. But I don’t like his limitarian, non-Universalist theology one bit, and I don’t like the way he plays fast and loose with the Psalms — e.g., there is absolutely no mention of Jesus in the Psalms, yet Watts is constantly dragging Jesus into his hymns which are supposedly based on the psalms.
Before Watts, there was The Bay Psalm Book, another metrical translation of psalms from the Hebrew Bible, used by many of the 17th and 18th century New England churches that later became Unitarian congregations. In the first edition of this psalter, the translators tried to make as literal a translation as possible. This can make for awkward singing. Yet awkward though it may be, it has a directness and an immediacy that I find refreshing; and it retains all the vivid imagery of the Hebrew Bible psalms.
Scott Wells of the blog Boy in the Bands recently pointed me to Elhanan Winchester’s The Psalms of David. Winchester was a Universalist, so I’m much more comfortable with his theology. His verse is pretty good, too. He has his problems — like Watts he plunks Jesus down in the middle of old Jewish psalms that really have nothing to do with Jesus — but he’s a nice example of what good traditional Universalist hymnody could look like.
On the Unitarian side, there’s the 1865 Hymns of the Spirit by Samuel Longfellow and Samuel Johnson. Some of these hymns are quite good, certainly better than anything written by later Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist hymnodists — we still sing some of these hymns today. These are definitely 19th century hymns, which means a little too sentimental and nice at times, but the verse is pretty good, and some of the images are also pretty good.
I don’t want to resurrect these old hymnals; I’ve been reading them to help me understand what I want in a new hymnody. I have no talent for writing hymns myself, but I know what I wish for in a new liberal religion hymnody. I wish we had hymns that addressed big religious issues like death, grief, illness and healing, ultimate reality, and religious ecstasy. I wish our hymns were in vigorous metrical verse with interesting rhymes and vivid imagery. I wish our hymnodists knew at least some basic theology so they could give us some real intellectual content (Watts was a Doctor of Divinity, and his knowledge of theology made a difference).
Most of the contemporary debate in this area has centered on musical styles. Maybe we should let go of the music for a bit, and focus instead on hymnody — on the words that we sing. Instead of encouraging musicians, maybe it’s time to encourage our poets and hymn writers. Once we have a body of good hymns, then we can work on finding the best composers to set the new hymns to music.