Earlier today I received a question from one of my frequent readers, and the question reads as follows:
I am aware that this may be considered a trivial matter but also a very serious matter. Why do you suppose we sing songs to praise God that have had a dirty or potentially dirty past? How do you think God feels about this and how should we feel about this? And do you think this is a worthwhile questions to ponder and why?
This is a subject I have long pondered about. I have written in defense of maligned instruments  and genres  and commented on the output of particular artists whose musical tastes were strongly influenced by gnostic religion , and also commented on popular hymns with troublesome histories , but like most people I have never written out my thoughts on rules or principles on what would make a given hymn acceptable to God or not. This is delicate ground, and we must consider several different elements of this question in order to determine principles that would help us to be consistent in the way that we consider sacred music, rather than deciding such matters on an ad hoc basis based on our own personal (and often unreliable) feelings. Determining consistent principles by which to examine works for their appropriateness to serve God based on biblical principles is a more sound way of going about answering such a question. The following thoughts are based on the assumption that we must seek the will of God through His expressed will to us in scripture, without considering our own thoughts and biases to be evidence of His own will.
First, let us seek to examine what would be meant about a song that has a dirty or problematic past. Such a subject is easier to deal with if we can think of some examples. There are three hymns, at least, that draw a significant amount of criticism for their origin in our church’s hymnal, and these hymns draw criticism for two reasons, a fourth hymn draws criticism for a similar reason to one of the other ones. For the purposes of discussion then, let us talk about these songs:
Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken
The Battle Hymn Of The Republic
Come, Ye Thankful People Come
Let All Things Now Living
The objections raised to these songs follow along two lines. The music for “Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken,” which I have written about at length , was originally written for the birthday of Holy Roman Emperor Francis II . The song itself has had a lengthy history as a nationalist German ode, which is at odds with the meaning of Psalm 87 and its anti-nationalistic tones, instead pointing out how all believers are citizens of Jerusalem, regardless of their ethnic origin. Similar objections have been raised to “The Battle Hymn of The Republic , which took the music from “John Brown’s Body” and made a song comparing the judgment against slavery in the American Civil War to the final judgment of the wicked. Those foreign nations which are not republics, but are rather constitutional monarchies, can find the title of the song to be politically seditious, and that can be very troublesome. In both of these cases, though, a song may be problematic because of its specific nationalistic origin, which makes it inappropriate for others to honor God through that song because its particular tune overwhelms its potentially universal appeal.
The other two tunes are problematic because of the potential pagan origin of their tunes. “Let All Things Now Living” comes from a Welsh folk song known as The Ash Grove . Although the song was first published in the early 1800’s, it has been frequently used as a Christmas anthem and the Ash tree itself has symbolism in Norse religion with the tree of life . Likewise, the music for “Come, Ye Thankful People Come” also has some questionable links with pagan mythology. The problem in this case comes with the reference to “Harvest Home,” which is a pagan festival of ingathering, a counterfeit to the Feast of Tabernacles , while the hymn itself appears to have been written for Thanksgiving. In this case, one runs against the painful difficulty of dealing with the potential of pagan influence when it comes to hymns dedicated to do.
With that, I would like to end this first part of answering the question. We have seen that there are basic fundamental principles behind why certain songs are seen to be problematic or troublesome, and that this is a question that is worth wrestling with. Rather than dealing with such matters on a case by case basis, let us seek to uncover some biblical principles that will allow us to have a ready response whenever problems of this kind occur, as it is easier to deal with difficulties when we have principles in mind to govern our behavior than it is to act inconsistently in the absence of having firm standards in mind from the beginning.
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