Renovating a Gospel Hymn

Fanny Crosby, Ira Sankey, P. P. Bliss—names now fading even to older Christians, but once familiar as composers of the so-called “gospel hymn”.  Composed for mass production and quick consumption, these hymns from the late 1800s often lack theological substance.  At times, the distinct impression is given that a little ditty and chorus jingle were composed first, with verses added later as fill-in, having poetry more fit for greeting cards than for worship.  There are exceptions, but as a rule, the gospel hymns were meant to drive home one point, often at the end of an evangelistic sermon, with a tune and word repetition that required no prior hearing and yet lingered in one’s mind when the meeting was done.  Truly, for its aim, the gospel hymn succeeded.

What use are these gospel hymns today? In words, they are weak; in style, often stilted.  Can the mothballs be blown off and luster restored?

According to the Psalms and the prophets, good material should be reused and revamped for a new context.  Based on this precedence, we should renovate the best and leave the rest.  How?

Two options present themselves.  First and most commonly done, we could take the old words and match them to a new tune.  Thankfully, this is being successfully done today—though often to older and better lyrics than the gospel hymns—but it requires quite some skill in music, which I personally lack (though Martin Luther would chide me for this lack).

Second, it is also possible to take some quality choruses—the strength of the gospel hymn—and put better verses to them.  The result still sounds old, even if played with some gusto, but to a more traditional congregation, who enjoys these hymns and knows them well (too well to grab their attention!), the new words provoke new thoughts about God without taxing their musical skills.

As an example, last Sunday we sang this renovation of P. P. Bliss’s gospel hymn “The Light of the World Is Jesus”:

The whole world was bound in the darkness of sin;

The Light of the world is Jesus;

Like sunrise at morning His glory broke in,

The Light of the world is Jesus.

Chorus:

Come to the Light, so bright and so free;

Strongly the Light did shine upon me;

Once I was blind, but now I can see;

The Light of the world is Jesus.

Born blind, we find hope in God’s powerful Son,

The Light of the world is Jesus;

He bids us to wash in the pool of “Sent One”,

The Light of the world is Jesus.

We walk in the Sun that dispels every doubt,

The Light of the world is Jesus;

No darkness within, and no stumbling without,

The Light of the world is Jesus.

In heaven the lights of this world are not known,

The Light of the world is Jesus;

The light is the Lamb and the One on the throne;

The Light of the world is Jesus.

Several changes have been made.  In the chorus, the word “sweetly” is replaced with “strongly”, as a word better befitting God’s new creation; the chorus also dropped the archaic “thee” and thus needed a new rhyme (“free”).  Sometimes in old hymns, the rhyming is too tied to “thee” and “thou” to allow such a change, but here it was easy.

In the verses, Bliss’s basic pattern was kept in place: historical light (past), personal light, personal light, historical light (future), but the personal verses were kept testimonial throughout.  In verse one, “lost” was replaced with “bound” (see Isaiah 49:9), to make the darkness due to prison, and the noonday sunlight was replaced with the morning sunrise, to match the touching image of Zacharias’ prayer (Luke 1:78-79).  The second and third verses were switched, with the theology of John 9 and the pool of Siloam (meaning “Sent One”) used first, and the great truth of John 8:12 used second, combined with 1 John 2:10.  The original text sounded too conditional for such a great fact.  (Note: According to John 9:4-5, the “light of the world” is a phrase for the sun, which makes a neat play on words with “Son”.  Also, quotation marks are now added to “Sent One” to show that it is a title for the pool.)  Finally, the last verse has a better rhyme and also a subtle hint that all human light shall be nullified in the infinite light to come.

Granted, this is still a gospel hymn.  It cannot be used often, but for one-time use in a service focusing on the Light of the World, it can blend in well with some contemporary music, and leave a message for the soul to feed upon.

If you have found this exercise in hymn renovation helpful, please let me know.  It would be a pleasure to provide more examples and better examples.  There is still gold in “them thar’ hills”!


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