I 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.