While this article deals with hymns, it is not the intention of the writer to enter at this time into the present controversy concerning the use of hymns in our church services. There seems to be little question concerning the use of hymns in our schools and homes, at “hymnsings,” for special programs, and on our radio broadcasts.

Let’s begin with a formal definition of “hymn.” Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “hymns” as “an ode or song of praise and adoration; esp. a religious ode or song.” This broad definition includes our “psalms” (better, psalm versifications and paraphrases), so, for our purposes, it is best to use the conventional distinction in which “hymn” means a religious song other than those based on the Psalms. It should also be made clear that “hymn” means text. When referring to the music, we use “hymn tune.”

If one were to ask the question, “Why do we sing hymns?” The most probable answer would be that we sing to praise and glorify God, to thank Him for His great goodness to His people. This lofty ideal should motivate all our singing and speaking. To deviate from it is to walk in error. When hymns become tools to be used in “saving souls” or they are mere entertainment, the signs of the true Church are probably absent.

It is obvious, from the instant objections raised by some to the introduction of hymns in our services, that there are many hymns which are not usable in Protestant Reformed circles. To these people “hymn” has a distressing connotation. When “hymn” reminds them of such horrors as “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” this attitude is easily understood! Perhaps at this point some refining of our definition of “hymns’ is in order. What, then, constitutes a good hymn?

We should insist that all hymns be based on Scripture. This, of course, means that hymns contain doctrine. Not vague generalities acceptable to all who call themselves “Christian.” No, we must have hymns with Protestant Reformed Doctrine. It is sad and strange, but distressingly true, that songs having little or none of this doctrine are often heard in Protestant Reformed gatherings. We hear altogether too much of the religious entertainment that characterizes the fundamentalist movement.

Further, hymns are poems. A good hymn is a good poem. Those who say that there are no acceptable hymns and that we should write our own seem to forget this fact. We need good poems, but, with very few exceptions, the poets are not in evidence . . . We can learn much from the multifarious poetical garbage turned out by the “Tin Pan Alley” of modern fundamentalism.

If we judged hymns, then, on their faithfulness to Scripture, their doctrinal content, and the quality of their poetry, we can weed out many that are completely undesirable. First, there are those that contain error. Sometimes this error is obvious; more often it is not. The Arminian heresy is present in all its subtle forms:

Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast, Let every soul be Jesus’ guest’
You need not one be left behind, For God has bidden all mankind.
C. Wesley

Jesus is pleading; O list to His voice; Hear Him today, hear Him today.
They who believe on His name shall rejoice; Quickly arise and away.
Calling today . . . Jesus is tenderly calling today.
Fanny J. Crosby

Sinners turn, why will ye die? God, the Spirit, asks you why;
He, who all your lives hath strove, Wooed you to embrace His love;
Will you not His grace receive? etc.
C. Wesley

All heresy is not Arminianism. The modernist has his “hymns” too . . .

For Socrates who, phrase by phrase, Talked men to truth, unshrinking,
And left for Plato’s mighty grace To mold our ways of thinking;
For all who wrestled, sane and free, To win the unseen reality,
To God be thanks and glory.
Percy Dearmer

Then there is the hyper-emotional “Gospel song.” This traditional tool of the wandering evangelist is important in obtaining the “decisions for Christ” that are their stock in trade. These songs, supercharged with emotion, usually do not say very much . .

O turn ye, O turn ye, for why will ye die?
When God, in great mercy is coming so nigh:
Now Jesus invites you, the Spirit says “Come”
And angels are waiting to welcome you home.
Rev. Josiah Hopkins

Late, late, so late! And dark the night and chill!
Late, late, so late! But we can enter still
Too late, too late, ye cannot enter now;
Too late, too late, ye cannot enter now.
Alfred Tennyson

Now then, what are we to do? Our hymns must express Protestant Reformed truth. They must be good poetry, free of emotionalism and excessive subjectivity (over-use of “I”, “mine,” “me, etc.). This is a Large order, but it can be filled. Compare the following with the above examples:

Ye that know the Lord is gracious Ye for whom a cornerstone stands
Of God elect and precious, Laid that ye may build thereon,
See that on that sure foundation Ye a living temple raise
Towers that may tell forth salvation Walls that may re-echo praise.

Living stones, by God appointed Each to his allotted place,
King and priests, by God anointed, Shall ye not declare His grace?
Ye, a royal generation, Tell the tidings of your birth,
Tidings of a new creation To an old and weary earth.
C. A. Alington

The people that in darkness sat A glorious light have seen;
The light has shined on them who long In shades of death have been.

For thou their burden dost remove And break the tyrant’s rod
As in the day when Midian fell Before the sword of God.

For unto us a child is born To us a son is given
And on his shoulder rests All power in earth and heaven.

His name shall be the Prince of Peace The Everlasting Lord
The Wonderful, The Counsellor, The God by all adored.

Father, long before creation Thou hadst chosen us in love;
And that love, so deep, so moving, Draws us close to Christ above.
Still it keeps us, still it keeps us, Firmly fixed in Christ alone.
Though the world may change its fashion, Yet our God is e’er the same;
His compassion and His Covenant Through all ages will remain.
God’s own children, God’s own children, Must forever praise His name.
Chinese: anon. Translated by F. P. Jones

Of the Father’s love begotten, Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending, He,
Of the things that are, that have been, And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.
Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413)

These, and the many hymns like them are not found in a single hymnal. One must hunt through many books to find them. Often a hymnal will not contain a single worthwhile hymn: occasionally, there are several. They are worth searching out, however, and when they are found they are worth singing wherever and whenever we can.

Jesus live! Our hearts know well Naught from us His love shall sever;
Life nor death nor power of hell Tear us from his keeping ever. Alleluia
C. F. Gellert

In our last article, we tried to show how worldly music has made its way into the church. We found that there were not only corrupt texts, but also corrupt tunes. Most of these can be attributed to the Arminian so-called “Evangelistic” movement of the late nineteenth century. This, in turn, gave rise to the “fundamentalism” of today from which comes most of the musical trash.

In examining this problem in our own circles, let us determine where music is used. First, of course, is the church service. There, in addition to Psalm-singing, we have instrumental preludes and postludes, played on the organ or piano. Second, we find much music in the special meetings, such as societies, catechetical classes, hymn-sings, etc. Third, music has an important place in our schools and, finally, in our homes.

First, then, and of primary importance, is the church service. The singing of psalms does not present any great difficulties, even though there are many poor tunes in our Psalter. The ministers carefully choose their texts, and, in addition, there is a Psalter Revision Committee working on both texts and tunes. The instrumental prelude and postlude, however, do present a problem. We might ask, “Why the prelude, and of what value is it?” Answering, the prelude should be such that it indirectly promotes a reverent and prayerful attitude in the hearts of God’s people. The music should be solemn, quiet, and unobtrusive. Music with excessively loud or rhythmic passages, and hymns having weak or objectionable texts, should be avoided.  It is practically impossible to separate the text of a familiar hymn or chorus from its tune. Yet we sometimes hear songs with decidedly un-Protestant Reformed texts played as preludes. To one knowing the text, this is a great distraction. Postludes almost always should be jubilant and should serve to remind the child of God that he has just been fed with the Word of the Living God. The same precautions as to music having a text should be observed. Much organ music is available that, although not specifically sacred, can easily and advantageously be used in our churches.

At special meetings in our churches, psalms for the most part are sung. There are exceptions, though, and it is with these exceptions that we are concerned. Hymn-singing in general is certainly not to be condemned. Hundreds of hymns, which are both textually and musically sound, can be found. Why is it then, that we so often hear these overly-sentimental ballads so misleadingly called “Gospel” songs? (“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses,” “Oh why not say Yes to the Saviour tonight, He’s tenderly pleading with thee,” “He holds my hand,” etc.) Why can’t it be that we, who so jealously fight to preserve our doctrine, also fight to remove all worldly traces from something so important as our church music. It is true that most sound hymns cannot compare favorably to the average run of “Gospel” songs in toe-tapping, rhythmic appeal. But, should the appeal be to the feet or the heart?

Finally, in our schools and homes, teachers and parents should do all within their power to cultivate in the children a love and understanding of good music – particularly good, sacred music. Questionable collections of “Gospel” songs and hymns should be avoided. Paper-bound collections such as “Favorites” fall into this category. What little good music they may contain is far outweighed by the junk. Children should be made familiar with such works as “The Messiah,” “The Elijah,” and perhaps even the “Passion According to St. Matthew” of J. S. Bach and similar works.

In concluding this article, we wish that all music heard in the Prof. Ref. Churches might express the truth as clearly as this thirteenth-century hymn,

“Of the Father’s love begotten,

Ere the worlds began to be,

He is Alpha and Omega,

He, the source, the ending He

Of the things that are, that have been

And that future years shall see,

Evermore and evermore.

Christ to thee with God the Father

And, O Holy Ghost, to thee

Hymn and psalm and high thanksgiving

And unwearied praises be,

Honor, glory, and dominion,

And eternal victory,

Evermore and evermore! Amen.”

The topic, “Church Music,” is necessarily a broad one. Just a few of the things that might be included are discussion and criticism of hymn singing, psalm singing, texts, music, choirs, instrumental music, etc. We also might enter the history of music as it is applicable to the church. It is our purpose, however, to limit our discussion to include only the actual music itself, its relation to the text, and its contribution to the church service. In order that the reader may more easily understand, we begin with a brief history.

The problem of what to use for tunes has existed throughout the history of the New Testament Church. The “popular” music of the day has offered an immediate, though seldom satisfactory, solution to this problem.

The reader can easily imagine the commotion that would be created if we were to set the words of Psalm twenty-three to one of the latest, jazziest, and regrettably well-known hit tunes. Does this sound a bit far-fetched? Nevertheless, it has happened! The Roman Catholic Church

(c. 1500) found that its liturgies were corrupted not only by the use of the popular tunes, but, in some instances, the words were included. One might have heard the basses singing a “Credo in Unum Deum” (I believe in One God), while at the same time the tenors were singing a rowdy love song. The composer Palestrina helped in cleaning up this and other abuses. He also composed much music, some of which is still extensively used – even in Protestant Churches.

The Reformers, too, were faced with this same problem. The congregation was to sing, but what? Luther, a fine musician, arranged and composed many tunes (A Mighty Fortress, The Lord’s Prayer). Calvin was not so gifted, but his ideas were realized in the Genevan Psalter through the remarkable talents of men like Claude Goudimel and Louis Bourgeois. The Genevan Psalter tunes are the ones used today in many European Reformed Churches and they are found (greatly altered) in the back of our Psalter.

As years passed, thousands of fine tunes were composed and it almost seemed as if the problem were solved, but…

The church suddenly found itself in the age of the “Evangelist,” who, intent on “winning the world for Christ,” (and often as much money and publicity as possible for himself), would seemingly stop at nothing to attract worldly crowds to his meetings. These Arminian super-salesmen soon learned that the closer their music was to that of the world, the more people they could attract. Consequently, it was made livelier and rowdier; toe-tapping dance rhythms were introduced, and soon it was difficult to tell whether one was in church or in the tavern across the street. This music, with its overly sentimental words, soon found its way into the hymnals of even the conservative churches under the misleading name, “Gospel Songs.”

Thus, churches today are faced with an ever-growing assortment of so-called hymns which present in their texts a watered-down theology offering a universal Saviour with a highly conditional theology. The dance hall element is continuing to grow more prominent. It has progressed to the point where professional players of popular music have expressed their admiration of so-called Christian musicians. Some of these are even proud of having been offered jobs in “name” dance bands.

“But,” you ask, “What has this to do with us? Surely our policy of prohibiting the use of hymns in our service has prevented such a situation from occurring in our midst! We aren’t faced with this problem…are we?”

The answer is that we most certainly are! Even our Psalter contains much musical “junk.” Tunes borrowed from the Fundamentalists and even from the world have been adorned with the words of psalms. This, however, is realized by the ministers and, it is hoped, by the Psalter Revision Committee.

As for music in our circles outside of the church services; how many times have we heard young people, say, at a hymn sing, render a special number drawn directly from the cesspool of Arminian Fundamentalism? In how many homes does a copy of “so and so’s Favorite Gospel Songs” occupy a prominent place on the piano? How often do we hear organists trying to imitate the style of the roller rink? And how often do they draw from the cesspool for their solos? The answer, of course, is that such is not always the case, but that it does happen quite often.

In our next article (D.V.), we hope to cover the problem more specifically and to discuss what can be done in the Protestant Reformed Churches to utilize music more fully in the praise of His Name.

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