A new liberal religious hymnody

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.

10 thoughts on “A new liberal religious hymnody

  1. Philocrites

    I studied the development of 20th-century Unitarian hymnody, and noticed that it often took the nudging of a hymnal editor—Henry Wilder Foote especially—to get new hymns written. Foote’s papers include letters to ministers like John Haynes Holmes (way back in the ’10s) urging him to write; Holmes went on to become one of the best-known Unitarian hymn writers in the first half of the 20th century, although we’ve now almost entirely forgotten that aspect of his ministry because of his fondness for the word “brotherhood.” Foote also urged Vincent Silliman to write (one result was “Morning So Fair to See”), and Foote’s papers clearly show how difficult it was to find an adequate number of high quality humanist hymns for the 1937 “Hymns of the Spirit.”

    My point is that, apart from a call for new writing that holds some promise of publication, very few would-be hymn writers are going to dive in. (My bias: My senior paper at HDS was a project in contemporary hymn writing, but I stopped investing much energy in it when the “Singing the Journey” project explicitly opted not to include conventional hymn texts or tunes.) It would be wonderful to see someone convene a group dedicated to this spiritual, theological, and liturgical practice.

    P.S. My hymns aspired to the qualities you’re looking for, but aspiration and achievement are different things entirely. Nonetheless, here are seven of them.

  2. Dan

    Philocrites @ 3 — I had forgotten that you worked on that project; thanks for reminding me.

    As for hymnodists needing the nudging of a good editor, there are exceptions. Norbert Capek wrote tons of Unitarian hymns in the early 20th C. for use in his own church (he even wrote the tunes, and did four-part harmonies for them) — unfortunately, they’re not in English. I suppose the exceptions prove the rule.

    I’m also aware that you are a pretty good editor, with obvious interest in and knowledge of hymnody, and I begin to wonder how we could get you to be that nudging editor….

    Bill @ 4 — I like sentimentality and niceness. But to sit down and read through the entire 1865 Hymns of the Spirit, as I’m in the process of doing right now, makes me realize that the 19th century hymnodists like sentimentality and niceness far more than I do. It gets a little cloying. By contrast, Isaac Watts never gets cloying (at least, not for me).

  3. Amy

    You need a nudge from an editor (i.e., hope of publication), good editing once you’ve written a draft, and money. Who’s paying UUs to write hymns nowadays?

  4. Dan

    Amy @ 6– Philocrites’ approach, above, is interesting — submitting hymns in partial fulfillment of a theological degree. You get editing from your professors, some of your fellow students use your hymns in their congregations, and … um, OK, well he didn’t get paid. In fact, he had to pay tuition to make all this happen. Sigh. I guess you’re completely right.

  5. VB

    If you all with MDivs and a demonstrated flair for putting deep thoughts into compelling language will write some lyrics, I’ll put them to music, or shop them around to the UUMN, where there are lots of composers of every stripe. There are few who can do both well, so specialization should work well here.

    Publishing? We’re in the 21st century. There are programs that let you typeset a page of music in under an hour. You retain the copyright and put a PDF on uua.org. Put a note out to the UUMN and if it’s good, people all over the country will be singing it this time next year.

    Ask for donations on the honor system. You didn’t expect to get rich from this, did you? Then forget about licensing and make it public domain from the start.

    The main thing is, if you have ideas and poetic style (you know who you are), get writing. Let’s get some new music out there!

  6. VB

    On further thought, less is more. Too many UU ministers (you know who you are) pack a master’s thesis into a 20-minute sermon and their congregations come out thinking “Wow, that was deep. But it was so complicated, I couldn’t make any sense out of it.”

    With music, the problem is worse. Since it is engaging more of the brain to process, music can slow down comprehension of complex expressions. If you pack a master’s thesis into a three-minute hymn, you’re just going to befuddle people. That’s (a major) part of the problem with contemporary UU hymnody, in my opinion.

    So, if you’re going to take up my challenge above, please remember to find a simple thought and express it in an engaging but straightforward way.

    Hymn No. 31 in SLT is one of my favorite negative examples. If you just read the words, at your own comfortable pace, they seem to encompass the whole breadth of UU theology. When you try to sing them, each phrase becomes a sticking point that you want to ponder for just a couple of seconds, by which time the song has moved on to several other concepts.

    So, that’s one end of the complexity spectrum. Please stay well away from that extreme.

    At the other end is what some folks call “seven-eleven songs”: seven words repeated eleven times. I understand the complaint; a lot of Christian pop falls into this category, and it gives contemporary religious music an undeservedly bad name. But my feeling is that, if the seven words have theological weight, there’s nothing wrong with repeating them. This could be considered a mantra in some traditions.

    I used Björk’s “All Is Full Of Love” as a meditation song a couple of weeks ago and it was very well received. There are a few more than seven words, but just a couple of simple concepts, then repeating the phrase “all is full of love” at a sedate tempo. I thought it worked very well; personally, I was moved to tears by it (and I have heard it many, many times in non-worship contexts).

    Anyway, write what you know. But please keep in mind that one simple concept, clearly expressed, it plenty for a great song. “Amazing Grace” is a pretty simple idea, isn’t it?

  7. PeaceBang

    Thank you for this. I was wondering why so many of the new songs turn me off and now I know what it is: molasses. I feel incredibly uncomfortable with those “we’re so great and we’re the People God Has Been Waiting For” type songs. We are? I’d rather sing about what God is doing, or just something with a little dignity to it. Fer cryin’ out loud.

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