Thank God Christians sing the same hymns — mostly

Curtis K. Shelburne

It was none other than the venerable Charles Wesley, writer of hundreds of grand hymns, who in the introduction to one of his hymnals pronounced stern words against anyone who would mess with the words (and thus the theology, not to mention the beauty) of his hymns. He had little use for the folks he derisively referred to as “hymn-tinkerers.”

During most of my growing up years, my home church (and most others of our brand) used a hymnal that contained 666 songs. (Hmm. I wonder if the number is significant?) I later learned that 130 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 who I am happy to claim) referred to the hymnal as Sacrilegious Selections. Uncle Kline was an English professor and much of the tinkering grated on his ears. He also loved the Gospel and hated the way much of the tinkering gutted it.

While Christ’s people have often made a mess of recognizing the unity for which the Lord prayed (see John 17) and gave his life, at least we’ve shared most of the same hymns in common. Thank God, nobody I know of has undertaken to be sure the hymn writers were “our” folks lest we sing anything written by, say, a sorry ol’ Baptist. Baptists and Church of Christ folks, Assembly of God folks and Presbyterian folks, all sing mostly the same songs with mostly the same words to praise exactly the same Lord.

I’ve got verse upon verse of those words in my head, but I keep discovering that the hymn-tinkerer of my youth has affected me more than I like to think.

I’m ticked, but not all that surprised, when I sing the original version and find out yet again that he replaced references to harps, lyres, zithers, stringed, or other instruments so that our end of heaven is sanitized of such. I think he will be surprised at what he hears in Glory.

But what I really hate are the subtle little abominations that cut at the heart of Christ’s cross and make light of his sacrifice. 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 salvation 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 you trust in your power to obey, you are not trusting in Christ and his blood. The cross didn’t have to happen. And grace suddenly becomes pretty much the same kind of deal you can get almost anywhere and not very amazing at all.