Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”
The great period of English hymnody was the Eighteenth Century during the First Great Awakening. The four greatest hymn writers were Isaac Watts, John Newton, William Cowper, and Charles Wesley. The people trying to write worship music today could learn a few things from those guys. Think about the fact that Watts was also the author of a widely used logic textbook and Cowper an accomplished poet who would show up in English literature even if he had not written a single hymn. That might tell you something about our current difficulties.
Newton, Cowper, Wesley, Watts
Worked within their garden plots;
Domesticated by their toil
Exotic plants in English soil:
Pungent spices, soothing balms,
Cadences of David’s psalms;
Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme,
Words of God in English rhyme.
Weeded, hoed, the Garden bears
But few of thistles, thorns, or tares–
Rather, carrots, beans, and maize,
Solid sustenance of praise;
Waving grain and curling vine,
Wheat for bread and grapes for wine;
‘Most every plant beneath the sun–
But leeks and garlic grew they none.
Much sand now through the glass has spilled;
They lie beneath the ground they tilled.
But still the seeds they sowed abide
And thrive, transplanted far and wide:
Where e’er a congregation sings,
Anew from earth their produce springs.
Such honor still their Lord allots
To Newton, Cowper, Wesley, Watts.
Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!
Donald T. Williams, PhD
One of the places where Christian writers are most exposed to the world is in hymns–songs used in worship that (at least in the past) had poems as their texts. Can you imagine an age in which “worship songs” were thought worth reading apart from their music? Should Christian writers be contributing to the church’s worship music today? How? Are there principles that apply to art in general–whether music or writing–that ought to be brought to bear in this area?
How should we approach the “Worship Wars” as writers who are also pastors, ministers of music, and lay persons? We must first realize that the question is not whether music is old or new but whether it is good. We cannot discern the best contemporary worship music without knowing those marks of excellence that made the best of the past stand out. Biblical truth, theological profundity, poetic richness, musical beauty, and the fitting of music to text in ways that enhance rather than distort meaning, are the marks of excellence in any age. They are not arbitrary, but derived from biblical teaching about the nature of worship and an understanding of the nature of music.
Protestant hymnody has always insisted on Biblical Truth. The earliest congregational songs for Reformation churches were paraphrased Scripture texts. The metrical Psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins (1549) was the most popular book in Elizabethan England. By the Eighteenth Century, writers like Watts, Cowper, Newton, and the Wesleys felt free to compose words of praise that were not strict paraphrases of Scripture. But they still felt obligated to ensure that their words were Scriptural. Often hymns were printed with the biblical references that justified their content appended to every verse.
Theological Profundity also marks the best of past hymnody. Even simple folk praised a majestically transcendent God with a graciously incarnated Son who saved them by grace through faith. The best texts not only lifted them up in worship but also helped them interpret their own religious experiences in biblically sound ways. So we sing to One who is “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, / In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” We give our “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” Has anyone ever applied the specifics of the atonement to the experience of conversion better than Charles Wesley in “And Can it Be?”
Poetic Richness is a virtue that must be pursued carefully, because a text that is too allusive can be confusing for average people and thus hinder rather than enrich worship. Nevertheless, appropriate kinds of literary excellence have a role. Examples include gems like the use of the questions in “What Child is this?” to capture the wonder of the incarnation, the appropriate military metaphors in that great meditation on spiritual warfare, “A Mighty Fortress,” or the choice of a simple, evocative word like “wretch” in “Amazing Grace.” Little touches that make a text more intellectually suggestive or emotionally powerful without making it unnecessarily difficult will show up in hymns that survive the test of time, while texts that are just rhymed prose with tunes attached are more forgettable.
Musical Beauty might be thought to be in the ear of the hearer. To a certain extent, it is. Nevertheless, there are contours, structures, and cadences that make for a sing-able melody and harmonic felicities that can make that melody more memorable or even haunting. Think of how Slane (“Be Thou my Vision”) rises and falls like an ocean wave, the gently rolling ABA structure of Ebenezer (“Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”), the men’s voices in Diadem (the “complicated” version of “All Hail the Power”) punctuating the flowing women’s line in the chorus, or the inner parts moving against the still melody in the third measure of Nicaea (“Holy, Holy, Holy”).
A good Fit between the Words and their Musical Setting is essential to great worship music even when text and tune are both excellent in themselves. The most egregious violation of this principle may be A. B. Simpson’s “A Missionary Cry”: “A hundred thousand souls a day / Are marching one by one away. / They’re passing to their doom.” If ever there was content demanding a minor key and a dirge-like tempo . . . but this song is set to a completely inappropriate snappy march tune! Examples of good fit are the meditative, plainsong-derived melodies of Picardy in the contemplative “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” and Divinum Mysterium in “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” or the sprightly, joyous rhythms of Ariel in “Oh Could I Speak the Matchless Worth.”
CONCLUSION: Biblical truth, theological profundity, poetic richness, musical beauty, and appropriate fitness are not matters of style. They are the marks of excellence for worship music in any age, but only knowledge of musical history can tell us this. Only musicians who are classically and historically (as well as biblically and theologically) trained are poised to guide the church in judicious appropriation of the best new music as a supplement to her rich musical heritage. And only writers who are so trained are poised to provide the texts to that music.
Every hymn in the hymnbook was contemporary when it was written. Some of their authors crop up more often than others because their work manifested truth, profundity, richness, beauty, and fitness more powerfully and reliably. The church should still cling to their work, both for its intrinsic merit and because only an informed familiarity with that merit can help us discern and propagate the best “new songs” being written today.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, teaches at Toccoa Falls College and sings Baritone with the Toccoa Falls Singing Men.
Check out Dr. Williams’ books at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/! Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections on Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lantern Hollow, 2012). Each is $15.00 + shipping.