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Holy solemnity

Editing hymns to make them more solemn takes the joy out

Issue: "Parable of the perjurer," Jan. 9, 1999

In the year of our Lord 1593 one William Kethe, an English Puritan songwriter, undertook to set Psalm 100 to music. He worked the words of the Psalm into the rhyming verses of a hymn. Eventually in 1650 it was printed in the Scottish Psalter and soon became known as "Old Hundredth." It is a beautiful arrangement of the message of Psalm 100 and has been loved and sung for 350 years. The opening verse reads: "All people that on earth do dwell, Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice. Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell; Come ye before Him and rejoice."

Today, I recently discovered, that verse has been altered. Someone has been tampering with the text, and in many hymn books the third line now reads, "Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell."

Can you believe it? You hold in your hands what I choose to call a "stealth hymnbook!" That classic hymn of joy, "Old Hundredth," is now inviting us to sing about serving God with fear. The brightness, the mirth, the sunshine of the Lord is deleted.

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It's not hard to imagine what happened. Some musical saint decided that mirth didn't belong in a solemn church service, and selected fear instead as somehow more "seemly." It is quite true that the Bible teaches, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." God-fearing men and women are indeed the hope of humanity. But it is equally "unseemly" to bring fear into a psalm that has blessed millions of believers for hundreds of years with its clear message of joy and gladness.

"Old Hundredth" goes on to say in its third stanza: "O enter then His gates with praise, Approach with joy His courts unto; Praise, laud, and bless His Name always, For it is seemly so to do."

When I interviewed C.S. Lewis in his Cambridge study in 1963, I asked him why his serious writings so often seemed to carry a light touch. He told me, "I write with a light touch because there is a great deal of false reverence about. There is too much solemnity and intensity in dealing with sacred matters, too much speaking in holy tones."

Perhaps that helps to explain why the word mirth was changed to fear. I have examined nine hymnbooks thus far and have found fear substituted in five of them, while mirth is in three older editions, and joy in one. The earliest use of fear I have come across is found in the Pilgrim Hymnal of 1904.

Kethe, the author of the original verses, was a victim of religious persecution under Queen Elizabeth I and was among the hundreds who fled for their lives to Geneva, where they sat under John Calvin's teaching. Kethe's lively 1593 rendition proved popular and went across to America with the Puritans, appearing in Massachusetts Colony in 1640 in the first book to be published in the New World, the Bay Psalm Book. Today it remains a favorite.

The use of the phrase "him serve with mirth" in the original "Old Hundredth" helps to raise a historic question about the dour reputation of the Puritans who settled America. Were they indeed as stern and "puritanical" as they have been made out to be? Kethe certainly knew what mirth was-merriment, laughter, hilarity, lightness of spirit. New studies by Percy Scholes and others have tended to show the Puritans in a much more favorable light. They really did laugh.

Who was it, then, that substituted fear for mirth? He was probably one of a group who still enjoy editing hymns to make them more "appropriate" for congregational use. (In two well-known hymns "pleasures of sin" have been altered to "follies of sin" and "my own worthlessness" to "my unworthiness.") On the whole it's sad to think that faith and joy should be kept at a distance from each other for the sake of decorum and propriety and other high "seemly" reasons. Result: a stealth hymnbook.


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