Posted by: rcottrill | January 29, 2012

About “Old-fashioned” Hymns

hear it occasionally: That folks don’t understand the old hymns any more. Perhaps it’s true, sometimes–though certainly not always. But whose fault is that, if it is true? Should the leadership of the church not make a determined effort to acquaint believers with our great heritage in English hymnody?

What bothers me even more is the leap from the first dubious assertion to a second: That we should therefore abandon the hymn book and stick with contemporary songs in the language of today. The result has been that a growing number of people have lost something precious, the distilled Christian devotion of centuries found in the great hymns of the faith.

So, is it true that the old hymns are incomprehensible to modern believers? Let’s consider Charles Wesley’s great hymn, Jesus, Lover of My Soul as an example.

It was published in 1740. That’s 272 years ago, as I write this. The four stanzas that are commonly used contain 188 words. Almost all of them are words of one or two syllables, and are words still in use. There are four exceptions. Words longer than two syllables. Two of these are still part of our contemporary vocabulary: defenseless, and eternity.

A third longer word used is “unrighteousness.” That, and other forms of the word unrighteous, are used in the Bible 28 times (NKJV). The prefix “un” shows clearly it’s the opposite of “righteous,” a word used in the Bible 540 times, and therefore rather important! Should we not take a moment to explain the word, if necessary?

The fourth exception to the one or two syllable words of Wesley is the word “plenteous,” a more poetic form of the word plentiful. Are we to believe that just because people today are more likely to say “plentiful,” they therefore don’t have the intelligence to grasp the meaning of the other word? That is surely nonsense.

For a defense of the language of our hymns, I encourage you to read the article A New Language that I wrote some time ago.  I’m convinced there are good reasons to continue using our traditional hymns and gospel songs, not only in the services of the church, but in our personal and family devotions.


  1. I’m trying to find the song entitled: “Help Me Find My Place”. Do you know where I might find it?

    Thank you.

    • Checked a few of the books I have here, and other sources. I’m not familiar with the song, but this site has the lyrics, and lists the books where the song is found. Hope that’s a help.

  2. To imply that those who want to sing, or listen to, (or lead) music with more up-to-date accompaniment, and melodies in a church setting [are wrong] is short-sighted. The culture has changed. Why should that not be considered?

    You wouldn’t go to Africa and sing 4 verses of ‘Jesus Lover of My Soul’ (although beautiful, very poetic, and praiseworthy to God) to those you were trying to evangelize. You might sing Jesus Loves the Little Children, But in a melody that coincides with their style of music, and with instruments they could relate to.

    I don’t listen or sing to music from a thousand years ago, and I don’t feel bad about it. I also don’t dress or live that way. I enjoy most of the modern conveniences of this present day. But I do love the Lord with all my heart soul and mind. And I do share the good news of Christ with others. I do serve in a local church and my community. And I do raise my children under the laws, and forgiveness and grace of our Lord Jesus.

    • H-m-m… Well Rhonda, thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s good to hear of your desire to honour the Lord and serve Him. However, I disagree with you on a number of points. I’ll just comment on a couple of them.

      Several things you say indicate you actually have a very limited knowledge of our hymns and how they are being used around the world. I wouldn’t class myself as an “expert,” but having studied the subject for many years, I’ve learned a few things.

      There have been about a million hymns written over the twenty centuries of the Christian era, not counting the Psalms in the Bible (the hymn book of Israel), which dates back another thousand years and more. You say you don’t sing hymns from a thousand years ago, but maybe you have and didn’t know it. If you’ve ever sung some English version of the 23rd Psalm, you have.

      You say I wouldn’t go to Africa and sing Jesus, Lover of My Soul. Actually, yes, I would. I did a very quick check of YouTube to see if I could find Africans singing this hymn, and I found this one. A choir from South Africa does a beautiful job of it.

      The great hymns of the church are sung around the world, in many languages. I’ve had nearly 500,000 visitors to my hymn blog, from about 200 different countries. Almost all comments are positive. Apparently it blesses the lives of many.

      I also keep in touch with the editor of the Cyber Hymnal, which contains over 10,000 hymns. He receives word from groups in countries where meeting for Christian church services is forbidden. They report small groups gathering in secret around a computer, and using his site to sing hymns. He even hears from American prisons, where the Cyber Hymnal is being used.

      Then there’s a site called that shows us over 200,000 hymns, from some 5,648 hymnals. Amazing! And the creators of these three sites (I include my own small contribution) wouldn’t waste the many hours it takes to develop them if no one was interested.

      The great hymns of the church are a doctrinal and devotional treasure that has blessed God’s people for centuries. I encourage you to start exploring, digging deeper. You’ll be greatly enriched if you do. I leave you with a little essay I wrote called My Father and the Olive. God bless.

  3. Excellent article! Thank you for your unusual stance in these modern times. Modern music really lacks the depth found in the good ol’ hymns, written by people who wrote to lift up God instead of self.

    • Thanks for your encouragement. More than half a million visitors to this site overwhelmingly agree with you. God bless.


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