Hymns–Lost in Translation

My last few blogs have been about some favorite hymns and their history. A few more such tales shall be forthcoming, but first I wanted to take a look at some hymns that will not be found in today’s hymn books because, well, times and language change. What might have been sung in all seriousness at one time would have us either giggling or horrified today.

My first selection was written by Jame Rowe (1865-1933). Rowe wrote this hymn to encourage temperance and in 1920 the song was included in the hymnal, “New Perfect Praise for Sunday Schools, Singing-Schools, Revivals, Conventions, and General Use in Christian Work and Work.” (Number 80 if you have this book lying around).  The title of the hymn: “Good-bye, old Booze, Good-bye.” The first line: “We’ve closed your door for evermore.” And the refrain begins: “Good-bye, old Booze, good-bye, We’re glad to see you go.” Try singing that around a campfire some night with your youth group.

Before we leave Mr. Rowe, let me add that he wrote more than 9,000 hymns, poems, recitations, and other works. Probably his most famous and one still included in many hymn books is “Love Lifted Me” which Rowe based on the Biblical story of Peter stepping out of the boat and into thestormy waters.

E. M. Bartlett (1883-1941) also wrote many hymns, co-founded Hartford Music Company and was the founder of the Hartford Music Institute in 1921. One of his hymns only made it into two hymnals and will probably not be added to any in the twenty-first century. Titled: “If Men Go to Hell, Who Cares?” is a good example where punctuation and emphasis on certain words can make such a difference in meaning. The first line begins: “While the world rushes on in its folly and sin,” and the refrain begins, “Who cares, who cares?” Let us assume that Mr. Bartlett wanted to provoke people into caring about the destination of people’s souls, but I don’t think a refrain of “Who cares? Who cares?” would get that message across very well today.

Mr. Bartlett suffered a stroke in 1939 leaving him partially paralyzed and unable to do the traveling and singing he had been doing. It was during this time that he wrote a hymn that he is better remembered for and is still being sung today: “Victory in Jesus.” Mr. Bartlett was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in 1973.

My final selection for hymns lost in translation is by the prolific writer Isaac Watts. Watts deserves a post or two to himself, but for now, it is the hymn, “Charity to the Poor” also known as “Pity to the Afflicted” (1719) which will be highlighted here. The title is harmless enough. It’s the first line which only made it into print for a couple of hymnals before it was changed: “Blest is the man whose bowels move.” For you readers of the King James, you will probably see nothing wrong with this as you are certainly familiar with Paul’s directive to put on “bowels of mercies” (Colossians 3:12). Others, however, (even a couple of hundred years ago) prefer singing about one’s heart rather than one’s bowels, and, consequently, this line was soon changed.

Though I’m enjoying exploring hymns from the past, I also love many of the songs that are written and sung every year. As Robert Morgan says in one of his books about hymn writers (Near to the Heart of God), “When the Bible tells us to sing ‘a new song’ to the Lord, it’s telling us that every generation needs to write its own music. If a time ever comes when the young generation isn’t writing praises to the Lord, Christianity is dead.”

Many times songs can be both old and new. How many versions have you heard of “Amazing Grace”? The lyrics never grow old even as the music may be changed or other verses added, as in “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone).”

I want to leave you with an old hymn which is new to me. Our choir sang it a few weeks ago and before that first practice, I don’t think I’d ever heard it before though it was written in 1890 by Samuel Trevor Francis and has been published in forty-six different hymnals.

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Doxology and the Power of Praise

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a church on a Sunday evening, and we closed the service by singing the doxology. I began singing, almost without thinking, but then I wondered, “When did I learn the doxology, and how did this short song become known as ‘the doxology’?”

I mostly grew up in Baptist churches, graduated from a Methodist college, and frequently visit a nearby Reformed Presbyterian church. In all of these, I have sung the doxology, usually either to begin or end a service. I don’t remember learning it, and assume I picked it up through repetition.

So, who wrote the doxology, where did it come from, and why do so many different denominations include it as a matter of course? And what does doxology mean anyway?

The word doxology comes from the Greek word doxologia meaning a short hymn of praise to God. Different religions have their own doxology hymns, so my search will focus on the doxology I’m familiar with which was written by the Anglican priest, Thomas Ken.

Thomas Ken was ordained in 1662 after obtaining degrees from Oxford. He would eventually serve as chaplain to Princess Mary of York, then royal chaplain to King Charles II before serving James II (who would lock Ken and six other bishops in the Tower of London for refusing to publish the king’s Declaration of Indulgences). Before his royal commissions, however, he spent ten years at Winchester College.

Ken felt it was important for his students to spend time in private worship, so in 1674 he published A Manual of Prayers For the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College. This pamphlet included two long hymns: “Awake, My Soul and with the Sun” and “Glory to Thee, My God, This Night.”  Both these hymns ended with what we now sing as the doxology as their final stanza. The manual remained in private circulation as the hymns could not be sung publicly for fear of “adding to the Word.” In fact, hymns were not officially approved by the Church of England until 1820. Apparently, Ken disagreed with the thought that hymns could be dangerous as he instructed his students to “be sure to sing the Morning and Evening Hymn in your chamber devoutly.”

Skipping ahead almost two hundred years, a story from across the ocean demonstrates the power of praise through the doxology. At Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, (a Confederate prison during the Civil War), a group of new prisoners was marched to the door about ten o’clock one night then left outside until arrangments could be made for them. In the company, was “a young Baptist minister, whose heart almost fainted when he looked on those cold walls and thought of the suffering inside. Tired and weary, he sat down, put his face in his hands, and wept. Just then a lone voice sang out from an upper window. ‘Praise God, from whom all blessings flow’; a dozen joined in the second line, more than a score in the third line, and the words, ‘Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ were sung by nearly all the prisoners. As the song died away on the still night, the young man arose and sang, ‘Prisons would palaces prove, If Jesus dwell with me there.'” (From One Hundred and One Hymn Stories by Carl F. Price)

That the words written by the Englishman Thomas Ken for his students in 1674 ended up on the lips of a group of Americans in the middle of a war in the nineteenth century and are now sung in countless congregations across the world amazes me. How even more remarkable is it that lines which could originally only be sung in private are now known and sung in different denominations throughout the world in public worship and praise.