Jeremiah 6:16 reads, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls.’” In many ways, the upcoming hymnal Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs is a return to the old paths. When the editorial board worked with the older hymns in the Table of Contents, their primary goal was not to innovate, but to restore.
These efforts always began with a study of the hymn as the author originally wrote it. Board member David Maravilla explained, “Editing should begin with what is original, not with what someone else has edited without knowing what the original might be. We wouldn’t be doing our job as editors if we didn’t at least refer to the original.”
In this, the board was motivated by respect for hymn authors and their original intent, even if an author has been dead for hundreds of years. “Our goal was to consider what the author wrote and go with that,” said Maravilla. “People think that because something is public domain, that automatically means, ‘Have at it.’ We didn’t go with that approach.”
Board member Steve Wolfgang asked, “Would preachers who write bulletin articles want someone to take the article, leave their name on it, and make even minor changes? We wouldn’t do that with prose, so why would we do that with hymns?”
In a number of cases, this thought process led the board to return to the original wording of a hymn by reversing later editorial changes. For example, when Isaac Watts wrote, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?”, the last two lines of the third verse originally asked, “Did He devote that sacred head/ For such a worm as I?” “Worm” has since often been replaced with “one”, but Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs uses “worm” instead.
“’Such a worm as I’ is original,” said Maravilla. “It’s also borrowing language from Psalm 22. If Jesus can call Himself a worm, then what are we?”
This same impulse also led the board to include entire verses that have been omitted from recent hymnals. “We restored verses that are good,” said Maravilla. “We restored verses that in some cases are necessary to the meaning of the hymn.”
“Nearer, My God, to Thee” is such a hymn. The hymn, as originally written, retells the story of Jacob’s ladder and applies it to our lives in a moving and scripturally powerful way. However, because these verses have often been left out, this valuable content has often been obscured. Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs restores them, to the benefit of everyone who will use the hymn in worship.
The board also refused to make changes to hymns in cases where the words are doctrinally ambiguous. For instance, in “Amazing Grace”, the hymnal retains the original wording of “The hour I first believed” in the last line of the second verse.
“What’s clearly unscriptural remains a judgment call,” said Maravilla. “Sometimes we don’t know the author’s intent, but it can be sung scripturally.”
In this, the board sought to respect not just the author, but the congregation. “We wanted to put as much control as possible in the hands of the churches,” Wolfgang added. “We’d rather let songleaders and elders make the decision not to use a verse or a hymn than unilaterally make the decision for everyone using the hymnal.”
However, the board felt compelled to make changes to hymn originals in some cases. “In some cases,” said board member Mark Coulson, “We needed to consider doctrinal concerns or archaic language.”
For example, if a verse of a hymn taught something that was clearly unbiblical, said Maravilla, “We left the verse out, but one bad verse didn’t mean we had to trash the whole hymn.”
Likewise, when the board considered older hymns that were unfamiliar to the congregation, they often replaced the archaic “Thee” and “Thou” with “You”. “Changing ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ doesn’t change the meaning or the intent of the author,” said Maravilla. “We only changed if it could be done without changing the meaning at all.” The board members believed that this would increase the longevity of the modernized hymns. However, they did retain “Thee” and “Thou” in hymns that are already familiar to the brotherhood or the larger denominational world.
At times, the board also maintained changes that have become established in the brotherhood. “A lot of times, that’s because that’s the only way we or anyone we know has ever heard [a hymn],” noted Maravilla. “It would be a case where if we went back to the original, it would look like we messed with it.”
The text-editing process was a lengthy one. It began with a broad-based survey of previously published hymnals. “The board checked multiple hymnals from the brethren and standard denominational hymnals,” said Coulson. In the subsequent editorial process, each hymn was read and reviewed at least 15 times.
The end result is a hymnal that is simultaneously useful to today’s brotherhood and faithful to the work of hymnists of the past. “There is value,” said Maravilla, “in knowing where something came from.”