A Modest Proposal For The Development And Publishing Of Rules For Hymns

As part of my general interest in hymns and liturgy [1], and as part of my series of modest proposals [2], and in light of the occasional controversy that results from hymns, I would like to propose the development and public knowledge of a consistent and systematic set of rules and procedures by which hymns (both in music and lyrics) might be measured against and dealt in a batch whenever it is time for a hymnal to be revised or replaced. In a similar manner to how volumes of textbooks often contain errata that are corrected periodically in the main text, so to a hymnal ought not to be static and simply grandfather in old decisions, but ought to be subject to periodic checks, especially when a case arrives that questions the legitimacy of a hymn with regards to its history, its music, or its lyrics. It is far better, in defending a church organization, for the rules that govern which songs are acceptable to sing in praise and worship as part of the weekly Sabbath and annual Holy Day hymn service to be consistent and openly known than to have it be subject to a case-by-case basis that seems arbitrary at times. Additionally, there ought to be at least a few possible solutions so that difficulties can be dealt with in a manner that is peaceful and orderly and as mild as possible.

Let us remember that our hymn service is designed primarily as a way by which the entire body of believers who is attending services can praise God to the best of their abilities in singing (or playing instruments, if they are members of a congregational hymn ensemble) in a public fashion. It is therefore a matter of the utmost seriousness that the hymns we choose serve to honor God. This has not always been the case in the past, where the choice of hymns at times has been more about honoring men than it has been giving honor and praise to our Creator. It is not my intent to comment upon any specific songs which may fall under scrutiny, although no doubt there are others who may be able to find specific examples to the general principles outlined below. I have sought to avoid speaking specifically about songs, because it is my interest that we set fair principles by which particular songs may be judged, rather than seeking to make the issue about particular songs that would run afoul of the fair and consistent standards that we would wish to maintain and that appear to have governed the choice of songs in the main. Let us seek, as best as possible, to both list a fair set of principles by which to judge music and lyrics in a fair fashion in order from the most serious issue to the least serious, and then after that to comment on some possible solutions where a song falls short of the principles elucidated below in order to maintain the overall dignity and propriety of the hymn service.

Part One: Principles

First, let us look at some principles by which hymns appear to be judged on an implicit or private basis, and to make these judgments public. In setting these principles, let us note that there should be an open process, available to the general body of believers, by which questions and concerns may be raised about a hymn according to these principles, after which a process of research (possibly undertaken by the person raising those concerns) would show how a given hymn would fail in its music and lyrics to meet the standards. Additionally, these concerns may be able to address an existing absence of knowledge about the source of a hymn and may correct errors in the citation of a hymn, which has been known to occur in previous volumes of the hymnal.

1. Hymns must proclaim a biblical message untainted by heresy or paganism.

The first and most serious principle is that a hymn must give praise to God that is not tainted by biblical heresy or paganism. The issue of biblical heresy primarily relates to lyrics (since it is impossible for music, strictly speaking, to be heretical). Historically speaking, the Church of God has sought to be vigilant against the inclusion of heretical messages in hymns that would serve to justify or express sentiments involving heretical beliefs about the nature of God or in such questions as eternal salvation or heaven and hell (to give but a few examples), or that point to the birth of Christ occurring in the wrong season. Where such an error is found in the lyrics to a hymn, such an error ought to be able to be addressed and dealt with as soon as possible by suspending the song from hymn service until the error is corrected by an acceptable solution. The same is true of music that is found to spring from a pagan origin, as God does not wish for us to practice the ways of the heathen in our worship, and that includes the hymn service (see, for example, Jeremiah 10:2, Deuteronomy 12:1-14). Where folk music is used as the music of a hymn, that folk music should be investigated to make sure it was not used as part of a justification of heathen or immoral practices.

2. Hymns must proclaim a message that must be universally acceptable as praise to God.

The second principle is that a hymn must be universally applicable and acceptable as a praise to God. Hymns must not be sung in a narrowly nationalistic or political way that either causes offense to a nation or people or that seeks to praise an earthly nation rather than the universal body of believers. Songs should be chosen to express the wide body of voices and styles by which praise is acceptably given to God, and should not be taken as an endorsement of a particular nation or political regime. Song titles should be chosen in such a way as not to express an unwanted and hostile opinion to the constitutional government of a nation. Additionally, neither the music or the lyrics of a hymn should be associated with a particular political regime (as a national anthem, for example), even if they may spring from the folk music of a given place or will have been composed by an artist of a particular national origin and residence. Songs which become entangled with unwanted and unintentional political messages should come under immediate scrutiny so as to correct any potential misinterpretations of the hymn and to avoid causing offense.

3. Hymns should, in general, be able to be sung by a choir in harmony.

The third principal is that a song should be able to allow for the harmonic singing by choir in voices. Most often, one would expect to see hymns arranged in a four-part format that allows for a full vocal harmony. At times this rule may be relaxed (unlike the other two principles) where a song has a descant in addition to the four part harmony, or where a song may only have a three-part harmony, or a two part voice on top of an instrumental bass line that cannot be sung. This particular rule also allows for the existence of lines where one or more voices may stand out relative to other voices but where such variation serves to increase beauty and praise God through a rich and varied arrangement. In general, though, we should expect that the vast majority of hymns should be able to be sung in a four part harmony.

Part Two: Solutions

Where problems exist, there should also be publicly known solutions to these problems. We should seek the most mild and unobtrusive solutions possible to avoid causing offense and to correct errors where they are found by a believer and communicated to the larger body of believers and appropriate authorities within the Church. We should seek first to see whether the most obvious solutions are possible before moving to more drastic solutions that require more extensive correction and labor, but more serious problems will require more serious interventions if the contentions of those who bring concerns or questions about hymns are borne out by a thorough investigation of those concerns.

1. An Exception To The Rule

For the third rule, if it is decided that a particular song is sufficiently beautiful and praiseworthy that it does not need to be written in four-part harmony, an exception may be deemed for that song, which would be performed differently (and sung differently by those who sing harmony) as a result. Let us note that an exception should only be made for the third rule, as the first two rules deal with more serious matters where exceptions are not appropriate.

2. Minor Edits

Where offensive lyrics or titles are found, and require emendation, the minimum amount of change that is necessary to correct the misinterpretation or offense should be undertaken. For example, a single offensive word can be changed, a song can be given a new title that avoids political difficulties while preserving the praiseworthy nature of a song, or an incorrect citation of a hymn (if it was cited in error as being one type of folk song when it came from another country, or where the putative composer plagiarized it from another source) can be edited and corrected upon further research, but where the song as a whole can remain unchanged.

3. Major Edits

A third solution, more drastic than the previous two, is the case where an error is of such a case that it requires more serious correction. In some cases, an entire verse may have to be removed because there are too many mistakes for a minor edit to remove offending lyrics. Additionally, if the music itself is offensive on grounds of heathen origin or political nature, then the first acceptable solution would be to find (or create) an arrangement is not objectionable, which would require the song to be relearned by those who had become accustomed to the previous offensive version.

4. Suspension/Removal

Where objections are raised to a song and found to be supported by the evidence, a song should be suspended from use in the hymn service, and that suspension should be widely proclaimed to the body of believers worldwide within a given organization that has made that determination upon these standards and the evidence of the case. The song is to be suspended from use in the hymn liturgy until it is corrected to bring it in conformance with the standards so that it may be pleasing to God and avoid causing difficulty on the part of believers who would be aware of (and upset by) its defects and would not be able to sing the song with an attitude of praise to God because of their knowledge and the troubles to their conscience as a result of that knowledge. If no solution is seen as possible or practicable to a given problem that is raised, or if it is judged that not enough of the song exists to be worth saving for use in the hymn service, then the song is to be removed (and, if possible, replaced) at the next edition of a hymnal.

[1] See, for example:




[2] See, for example:





About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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