Writing Hymns

I thought of writing hymns for several years before I started writing in 2006 (so far only the words). My motivation for writing hymns is to increase the number of well-written hymns. I think hymns should be held to a high standard. The book Common Hymnsense by Madeleine Forell Marshall is an eye-opener on the poor literary quality of many hymns. Vague or sentimental theology is also a problem for hymns.

The article What Makes a Good Hymn Text? by Timothy Dudley-Smith quotes Ruskin who described Victorian hymnody as “half paralytic, half profane, consisting partly of the experience of what the singers never in their lives felt or attempted to feel, and partly in the address of prayer to God which nothing could more disagreeably astonish them than his attending to”.

A good hymn should make religious words more concrete, more experiential, more the hearer’s own. Hymns are a genre of poetry and contrary to some accounts of “poetic license”, they should make good sense. It’s just that the sense of a poem is not a mere literal sense but also the working together of allusions and suggestions.

Timothy Dudley-Smith lists several characteristics of a good hymn:

  1. It must be true to divine revelation in Scripture.
  2. It must be true to the generality of Christian experience.
  3. It must spring from some ‘artistic impression’ – some inner vision.
  4. It must achieve some standard of ‘technical merit’ – that is, of execution.

I would add that hymns should emphasize an affirmation of faith rather than the woes of this life. Too many hymns wallow in the not-yet rather than confidently assert the is-now-and-will-be-forever.

New Hymns

God Created Earth and Heaven

Many hymns mention the creation but I could not find one that related the creation story of Genesis so I chose this as my first subject. Writing it proved to be enlightening about the nuances of Genesis – there is more subtlety there than first appears. The hymn turned out to be long, particularly by modern standards. I started with a stanza for each day but so much happened on the sixth day it required two. Then I realized as a Christian hymn it needed a final stanza on the new creation, which meant a stanza on the Fall, too. I thought I was done until I realized it should have a beginning stanza to set the stage as the first two verses of Genesis do.

The meter is which is not common but is used with several Lutheran hymns. I suggest the majestic tune Der Am Kreuz, which accompanies “On My Heart Imprint Thine Image” and is available in a Lutheran hymnal or in “The Hymn Fake Book” (chords and melody) published by Hal Leonard Corp. More common tunes that are 87.87 D such as Harwell may be adapted by repeating the last note.

A recording of the hymn preceded by a reading from Genesis is here.

The Lord is my Shepherd who Takes Care of Me

This is a new hymn based on Psalm 23.

Revised Hymns and Carols

Many hymns and carols have been altered over the years, although it’s usually not acknowledged. It can be difficult to determine the original text. There are various reasons for revising hymns, some good and some not so good. Some stanzas are simply omitted (they had more time or patience in the old days). Words that have become archaic or old-fashioned are replaced by modern terms. “Thee” and “Thou” are often retained but sometimes replaced by “You” and “You”. More recently, genders have been eliminated or sometimes added, mostly to make hymns politically correct.

Carols seem less likely to be revised in order to keep their traditional feel. But if they lack clarity or singability, they should be modified. A few judicious changes can go a long way toward improving a hymn theologically, literarily, or musically.

I would not touch a classic hymn or carol from ancient times or written by a great writer such as Isaac Watts but there are many others that need revision because they are poorly written. Our respect for tradition should not undermine the clarity of truth that should be our greater interest. The church deserves better.

Older hymns with “Thees” and “Thous” do not necessarily need updating since they still sound natural to many contemporary ears. However, when there are old verb inflections (e.g., “givest”), they sound stilted. There may be other reasons to revise an old hymn, and the old language may be replaced at that time.

Note: I’ve adopted the Free Praise License concerning copyright and use of the hymns and carols I write or revise.

Revised Hymns and Carols

A Virgin Unspotted (carol)

Come Thou Font of Every Blessing

Fairest Lord Jesus

God Bless Our Native Land

In the Cross of Christ I Glory

My Hope is Built (with Commentary)

This Rose is Ever Blooming

What a Friend We Have in Jesus

Favorite Hymn Lyrics

Madeleine Forell Marshall points out how good the hymns of Isaac Watts are. Here are some hymns I think are well written.

All Creatures of Our God and King – Francis of Assisi
For All the Saints – William W. How
I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say – Horatius Bonar
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty – Joachim Neander
Ye watchers and ye holy ones – John A. L. Riley

Some of these hymns were harmonized by Ralph Vaughan Williams in The English Hymnal, 1906.