‘Battle Hymn,’ ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ Reprieved : Methodist Panel Retreats on Songs

Times Religion Writer

Revising a church hymnal is a sure way to orchestrate dissonance, a national Methodist editing committee has found out.

“Onward Christian Soldiers,” with its marching beat and exhortation to battle for Jesus, was considered too militaristic so the committee voted it out, along with another hymn that refers to warfare, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

But, in a crescendo of protest, thousands of militant church members who wanted the longtime favorites included in a new songbook browbeat the committee last week into voting the hymns back in.


The hymnal editor said the controversy was the largest ever to rattle the rafters of the 9.1-million-member United Methodist Church.

“The sheer volume of response to this issue was making it impossible for the committee to go on with its work,” the Rev. Carlton R. Young said. In addition, 12 regional conferences of the church took formal action last month calling for restoration of the hymns.

But militarism was not the only culprit that committee members had their eye on while scanning hymns for the new book. Special-interest groups have sung out for their causes as well.

“Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” will be changed because they are too sexist. “Faith of Our Fathers” is not cut, but a footnote will suggest that martyrs , mothers or ancestors may be substituted for fathers .

Native American Objections

The Methodist committee heard objections from Native Americans about the “Pilgrim feet” in “America the Beautiful” trampling Indian rights.

And the speech-impaired found fault with the line “when failing lips grow dumb” in the hymn “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

The Methodists are only the most recent of a number of denominations, including the Episcopal, Lutheran, Christian Reformed and Churches of Christ, whose hymn committees have discovered there is more to revising a hymnal than meets the ear.


While some churches rarely, if ever, adopt a new hymnal, many revise existing hymnbooks about every 20 years. The hymnal revision process may require anywhere from three to 25 years, depending on the speed of the committee and the number of songs that it is considering.

The Churches of Christ in February adopted its first completely revised hymnal in a half-century, aiming the songbook at a more “yuppie” audience by eliminating hymns with strong rural images. Thus, “Bringing in the Sheaves” is out.

“We are a city people; we need city hymns,” music editor Jack Boyd explained.

The Episcopalians’ “The Hymnal 1982,” which has sold a million copies in the six months since its publication, eliminates male imagery of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, replacing it with gender-free terms such as Creator , Redeemer and Comforter . While “Rise Up, O Men of God” has been retained, it is altered to read “Rise Up, Ye Saints of God.”

“Many feel we didn’t go far enough with inclusive language; many felt we went too far. But we didn’t change the words of the great poets,” said Carol Foster, a member of the Episcopal Standing Commission on Church Music and director of music at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

Diversity within a denomination increases the probability of discord over hymnal revision.

A poll conducted late last year by the United Methodist Church--arguably the nation’s most diverse Protestant denomination--ranked “How Great Thou Art” and “The Old Rugged Cross” as all-time favorites. But the same two hymns also topped the most-hated list.

The composition of hymns in most modern hymnals dates from hundreds of years ago to the last several decades, but many were written during the late 1800s and early part of this century.


“Your ditty may be someone else’s favorite,” noted Marjorie Tuell of Glendale, who chairs the Text Subcommittee of the Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee and is the wife of Methodist Bishop Jack Tuell of the California-Pacific Conference.

“Hymns are either dearly loved or badly hated,” she said.

The committee’s intended deletion of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and all but the chorus of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” from the proposed 1990 Methodist hymnal touched off such a cacophony that the committee called a special meeting in Nashville, Tenn., last Wednesday to tone down the uproar in the church.

Committee Reverses Itself

Barraged by countless telephone protests that jammed office phones for 10 days and by 8,000 letters--only 40 of them supporting the May 17 decision to drop the songs--the 25-member committee reversed itself, recommending that the songs be reinstated.

The vote to restore “Onward Christian Soldiers” was 21 to 3; “Battle Hymn,” also known as “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” was voted back in by a 19-4 vote with one abstention. The song first appeared in the Methodist hymnal of 1966. The committee chair votes only to break a tie.

After the committee originally decided to omit the songs, protesters denounced its members as anti-American, “soft-headed,” and communist, Young said.

The Hymnal Revision Committee, established in 1984 by the church’s General Conference, is charged with developing the new hymnal to replace one last revised in 1966. The new book is to represent the entire denomination through music and liturgy. The General Conference asked the committee to pay particular attention to language considered incompatible with church beliefs and practices, while “respecting” language of “traditional works.”


The committee’s recommendations on hymnbook content are subject to approval by the church’s national governing conference in 1988.

In the 10-8 May decision to delete the two hymns, committee members had said that the songs employ “unrelenting use of military images” incompatible with the church’s stand for peace. The songs are not biblically balanced and call for the church to be an army of zealots, stamping out undefined evil, the committee added.

But at the second vote, committee member Mary Brooke Casad of Valley View, Tex., an author of children’s books, conceded that “ ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ has meaning to very many of our members” and reversed her previous vote against it.

In restoring “Onward Christian Soldiers,” committee members voted to include an additional stanza in the song that they said helps to clarify that Satan is the enemy that Jesus is leading the marchers against, rather than an unspecified “vague foe.”

The Rev. Ronald P. Patterson, vice president of the United Methodist Publishing House, which is paying to develop the new hymnal, said he still voted to oppose including “Onward Christian Soldiers” and that his 19-year-old son, a conscientious objector to military service, told him: “If you vote for this, then you’re voting against everything you’ve taught me about Christ.”

‘No Image of “Warrior Christ”’

The Rev. Beryl Ingram-Ward of Bellevue, Wash., who according to the Methodist News Service also voted against the marching-style hymns last Wednesday, said biblical scholars had told her that there was “no image of a ‘warrior Christ’ in the Scriptures.”


Despite the public battle, the committee has not thrown out all hymns that refer to “soldiers,” “blood,” “war” or “battle.”

Such hymns as Isaac Watts’ “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” and Charles Wesley’s “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” are destined for the new book, Young said.

“There are times when the terminology of battle is appropriate,” commented the Rev. Joe Hale, general secretary of the World Methodist Council in Lake Junaluska, N.C. “To acknowledge that a state of war exists is not the same as to glorify war. To resist, for example, the evils of racism, injustice, to wage war on poverty and exploitation--these are either fought, or, by default, left unchallenged and forfeited.”

Although “Onward Christian Soldiers” is in the new Episcopal hymnal and will be in the just-approved Christian Reformed Church hymnbook, the latter denomination dropped another song because it reminded some members of Nazi Germany.

Removed from the retooled hymnal is “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” which has the same melody as “Deutschland Uber Alles,” the German national anthem during World War II, and “God Preserve Our Gracious Emperor,” the anthem for Austria long before World War I toppled the dynasty. The words were changed after World War I; the tune was written in 1797 by Joseph Haydn.

“I can’t stand this tune,” said Jan Lok of British Columbia, a delegate at the church’s annual synod last month in Grand Rapids, Mich. “I was in a concentration camp twice. It makes me think of Hitler’s marching army.”


For Methodists, next to the flap over militarism, changes to eliminate exclusively male images have generated the most friction, as “God of Our Fathers” becomes “God of the Ages,” and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” is changed to “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice.”

But unlike the extreme gender-bending efforts of some church groups in recent years, the new Methodist hymnal will not tamper with familiar references to God or Jesus, such as Father , King , Lord or Son .

No Changes in ‘God Talk’

There will be no changes in “God talk,” Young, the hymnal editor, said in a telephone interview. “Traditional Trinitarian language is kept intact.”

Obtaining copyright permissions can be a stumbling block to including some hymns in new songbooks.

Everett L. Zabriskie, who chased down copyright permissions for 380 hymns included in the new (1985) Reformed Church in America hymnbook, said the church left out the beloved “How Great Thou Art” because “the royalty on the harmonizations was too great.”

Instead, the 624-hymn volume, uniquely arranged to correspond sequentially with Scripture themes from Genesis through Revelation, contains a very similar hymn, “O Mighty God,” composed by the late Erik Routley, a world-renowned hymnody expert and the hymnal’s editor.

But Fred Bock, who independently published a popular nondenominational songbook, “Hymns for the Family of God,” said he paid top royalty fees to reprint the melody of “How Great Thou Art,” which is based on a Russian folk song.


“No hymnbook would be complete without it,” Bock said.

Bock’s book, which has sold 2 million copies since 1974, is a major competitor to official Presbyterian, Methodist and Southern Baptist hymnals, especially in evangelically oriented congregations. (Local churches are usually free to select what hymnals they will use.)

Bock, minister of music at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, said he is more concerned about what hymns people in the pews like than he is about the musical tastes of “the organist crowd playing Bach chorales.”

Nor does he think C. Austin Miles’ sentimental hymn “In the Garden” should be excluded from modern hymnals, as did the Reformed Church in America hymn committee.

The Church Herald, the church’s official magazine, asked its clergy last year to pick the best and worst hymns. Miles’ 1912 classic topped more bad lists than any other hymn.

‘I-Me-Myself Version’

“America’s all-time religious favorite, ‘In the Garden,’ has done the worst in fostering the I-me-myself version of Protestantism in our country,” the Rev. Joseph Holbrook Jr. of the Reformed Church of Westwood, N.J., said in the survey.

The hymn is not in the new Reformed Church hymnal, “Rejoice in the Lord,” because the words do not match any event described in Scripture, Zabriskie said.


But Bock, who is releasing a new hymnbook, “Worship His Majesty,” late this year, defended the hymn’s biblical integrity, citing Genesis 3:8 and John 20:10-18 and “emotional intimacy”:

“Those who don’t like ‘In the Garden’ probably don’t like the sentimentality of any 1912 songs. It was in the musical style and popular appeal of the day--’Bird in a Gilded Cage,’ ‘Grand Old Flag’. . . .

“Most people know what they like and want. A hymnal committee gets together and a little old lady asks, ‘Is “Come to the Church in the Wildwood” in it?’ If not, she doesn’t want the book. . . . Don’t change the words or tune of those songs that people already know and love; write new ones.”

Unitarian Universalist Thomas L. Carroll of Lincoln, Neb., noting that his denomination has launched a five-year plan to develop a new hymnal, wrote: “Those who find themselves emotionally disturbed by singing or speaking the words written in good faith in another time and place (should) feel free to make whatever oral changes they wish. But let the written word stand in fidelity to the original text for those who believe that our task is to preserve the integrity of the heritage we have been left.”

But Lenard Berglund, an employee of Augsburg Publishing House in Los Angeles, a regional arm of the American Lutheran Church, said that “after initial rough spots,” most people will accept a new hymnal, despite significant changes.

Precedent for Tinkering

In the Methodist heritage, at least, there is ample precedent for tinkering with texts, even though church founder John Wesley became a wanted criminal for doing it.


“When John Wesley was in Georgia,” said hymn editor Young, “the grand jury had true bills out on him. He had to skip the country because he had violated laws against changing the texts of church hymns.

“Wesley hacked off the first stanza of ‘Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne’ in his 1737 ‘Collection of Psalms and Hymns,’ and he . . . also introduced songs based on poems by then-contemporary Christians, an act that was unlawful without special permission from church and state officials until 1828.”


ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS The Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee added a second stanza to clarify the nature of the enemy. The lyrics:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war. With the cross of Jesus going on before: Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; Forward into battle, see His banners go. CHORUS:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war. With the cross of Jesus going on before. THE NEW STANZA:

At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee; On then, Christian soldiers, On to victory! Hell’s foundations quiver At the shout of praise; Brothers, lift your voices, Loud your anthems raise.

BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC The Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee restored the stanzas after earlier deleting all but the chorus.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword, His truth is marching on. CHORUS:

Glory! glory! Hallelujah! Glory! glory! Hallelujah! Glory! glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on!


IN THE GARDEN It was voted the worst hymn by Reformed Church in America clergy and excluded by the church’s hymn committee.

I come to the garden alone, While the dew is still on the roses; And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, The Son of God discloses. CHORUS:

And He walks with me, and He talks with me, And He tells me I am His own; And the joy we share as we tarry there, None other has ever known.