What Happened to the Hymn Writers?

I will freely admit this, as one of the “younger” generation :) — the hymnody (referring to the texts, not the music) of the 20th century has been significantly lacking.  Why is this?  And why did the mid to late 20th century explode with rather shallow “contemporary Christian” songs?

This is primarily conjecture and a sort of historical probing; I have not done a lot of research here.  I’m not even sure I should post, at this point… but it helps me sort out my thoughts and poke holes in my ideas, find areas needing research, etc. :)

My inclination is that it is not because of the music styles of the day.  First, let’s take a few examples from history and take a look at some progressions based on popular songs from a few time periods.

Pre-18th Century

This coincides with the Baroque period of music (although the 16th century was before Baroque, but things were moving in that direction already).  Luther wrote many hymns; for example, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.  While this was actually translated, at least our translation, in the mid 19th century, the text (and tune) was written in the 16th century.

Another example would be O Sacred Head, Now Wounded; the text was significantly older (attributed to Bernand of Clairvaux in 1153), but translated in the 17th century.  The tune came from a sacred classical work, and was harmonized by J. S. Bach.

18th Century

There appears to have been a significant rise in hymnody from English speaking countries in the 18th century – the Wesleys, Newton, Watts, Cowper, etc.  From the songs that most of us still know from this time period (And Can It Be, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Amazing Grace…), I think we can still see that the contemporary hymn writers of the day were still fairly deep thinkers, grounded in their theology (even if we disagree with some of it, such as with the Wesleys).  The music appears to have remained fairly complex harmonically, though not quite to the extent of what was common in Baroque compositions (rather complex and quick-moving harmony), perhaps more similar to something like Mozart, who was indeed a contemporary of many of these writers.  In other words, the Classical music period seems to have affected the music hymns were set to during this time.

19th Century

This time period saw what I see as a significant change in hymnody.  Some of the modern hymn writers of the day were Bliss, Crosby, and Sankey.  The music style seems to have become decidedly more folk-like and simple (perhaps influenced by Negro spirituals?); think of songs such as Blessed Assurance, Nothing but the Blood of Jesus, and A Shelter in the Time of Storm.  Many of Crosby’s hymns are, I think, of a much more personal nature and of less “deep” thought than something by Luther or Wesley.  Please note that this does not mean I think they are worth less.  The measure of a “good hymn” is not a simple as a measure of how deep it is, nor how personal it is.  :)

20th Century

We now get to the 20th century.  I see a progression from something like A Mighty Fortress Is Our God to something like A Shelter in the Time of Storm – both textually and musically, in fact.  When we get to the 20th century, it seems there’s a lack of songs written with the same depth of meaning as the 16th to 18th centuries.

Here is where I find another lack of something rather interesting; there seems to be no crying out for modern hymn writers.  We seem to have a sudden lack of theologically rooted, deep-thinking hymn writers.  We are suddenly lacking solid hymns written in the modern language.  At best, we seem to primarily have “revival” sorts of hymns (such as Sankey), and they seem to be written more by the musicians and less by the theologians.

Theologians.  An interesting thought here; theology books continued throughout the 20th century.  Tozer, off the top of my head, was a 20th century writer.  Writing books of theology was still deemed important; why was writing hymns of theology not?

Fast forward now to the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  For some branches of evangelical Christianity, there’s been a bit of a vacuum of modern hymns.  There has been a void, and there hasn’t seemed to be a demand for new songs; churches seemed to be okay with doing the “traditional”/”old” songs, forgetting that those “great hymns of the faith” were at one time modern songs, too.  Is it any wonder that shallow songs written to modern music style/harmony came around, then?  Shallow, because they were written by musicians and not theologians or pastors, perhaps.

So, the Question Is…

To me, the question isn’t “why don’t people want to sing the old hymns?”  To me, the question is “why didn’t we encourage people to continue writing good hymns?”  Some groups did, and in some hymnals (e.g., the Trinity Hymnal), you find good, thoughtful hymns (with slightly more modern melodies, sometimes oddly modern to me :) ) that were written shortly before the hymnal was published.

I can’t blame someone for wanting hymns written in their modern language style and set to music of their time.  People have done this for a long time.  The music older hymns were set to tend to reflect what was going on in either classical or folk music at the time, whether that was complex harmony, simple harmony, folk styles, or what.  They also tended to reflect the language of the time.

Old/traditional hymns are good, just as old/traditional theologians are good.  However, it seems inconsistent to encourage the writing of theology books, devotional books, etc. (MacArthur, Spurgeon, Tozer, etc.) while not encouraging the writing of new hymns.  I think this inconsistency/lack of perceived importance this has influenced who writes modern songs and what content goes into those songs.

So there you have it.  Rather than encouraging people to think that all the good hymns have already been written and we should just sing pre-20th-century music, let’s encourage people to write good new hymns that help us think afresh about God.

Oh, and by the way, lest someone young reads this and goes “yeah! it’s all the older generations’ fault!” … hardly!  There is no excuse for bad lyrics.  Some of those contemporary “Christian” songs are pretty horrible; let’s not defend bad lyrics, regardless of music style. :)  Does it appear that tradition perhaps hampered hymn-writing?  I think so.  But that doesn’t mean there’s any excuse for writing bad, shallow, empty lyrics, either.

And let’s be consistent in how we evaluate songs.  Does the song sound old?  Don’t automatically assume it’s hard to understand or “old and stuffy.”  Maybe we need to learn to think more.  Does it sound new?  Don’t automatically assume it’s a 7-11 song.  Repetition is hardly a 20th century problem 😉

That same amazing love, amazing grace, and wondrous (as in, causing wonder) cross should motivate us to write songs that glorify Christ in the same way it motivated them to write songs.  :)

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2 Responses to What Happened to the Hymn Writers?

  1. Aren’t you familiar with Stuart Townend’s stuff? In Christ Alone, How Deep the Father’s Love and similar are going to be the ‘classic hymnal’ of our era, I suspect. And Kendrick and Redman are moving that way, the newest Matt Redman stuff is starting to have serious depth. And for that matter, even Here I am to Worship has some pretty clear theology expressed in it.

  2. yes, I am familiar with them. It seems there’s a bit of a resurgence amongst some Reformed groups in writing hymns … but it doesn’t seem like that really happened for most of the 20th century. :)

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