Songs God wants to hear: modernising older hymns

[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]

So ~ has your Church discovered the joy and the maturing ministry of Contemporary Hymns? That was what we punted in the May Worship Column. This month we will find ways of RECYCLING THE OLDER HYMNS IN A MORE CONTEMPORARY STYLE.

Criteria that mark a Hymn as Modern and Contemporary are: Language, Subject-matter and Music-style. If we are adapting an existing, older Hymn then we can’t interfere much with the Subject-matter. That is a ‘given’, and it is to convey this truth that prompts us to recycle it for the new generation: We want them to learn and grow by digesting the teachings and admonitions which grabbed the previous generations. So we must retain the Subject-matter of the older hymns.

But we may update the Language and update the Music. There we have room to contemporarise.

The unchanging Subject-matter is extremely important. This is the heritage passed down to us, a heritage that is rich in Content, Theology, Biblical Allusion, Meaning and Imagery. This heritage has earned the Hymn a longevity status based on merit. But over the past 30 years or so this heritage has been squandered through neglect.

As in the Natural world, some species of Hymn have become extinct. Like the Dodo-bird of Mauritius, some great hymns no longer exist. I have a collection of hundreds of hymns by Isaac Watts 1674-1748 in a publication from the early 1800s. Here is one of them, not found in any of the 70+ hymnbooks on my shelves. The Subject-matter alone is sure to jolt the congregation with the Word of God they sing to one another. Watts’ poetic imagery adds to its power.

This isn’t your average Sunday Service Song. It moved me to update the Language and choose the Tune “Hamburg” (

Of course, the Subject-matter is not popular today, because it doesn’t generate the fuzzy-warm feelings which most pampered Christians want in their ‘Praise and Worship’. Most people don’t want to hear God’s Word addressing themes of Death and Eternal Destiny. But isn’t that all the more reason to sing it? Aren’t we committed to singing the songs GOD wants to hear? And if it’s in the Bible, shouldn’t we sing it, and preach it?



In vain the wealthy mortals toil,
and heap their shining dust in vain,
Look down and scorn the humble poor,
And boast their lofty hills of gain.Their golden cordials cannot ease
Their pained hearts or aching heads,
Nor fright, nor bribe approaching death
From glittering roofs and downy beds.


The lingering, the unwilling soul
The dismal summons must obey,
And bid a long, a sad farewell
To the pale lump of lifeless clay.


Thence they are huddled to the grave,
Where kings and slaves have equal thrones;
Their bones without distinction lie
Amongst the heap of meaner bones.

Words: Isaac Watts
Metre: LM (8888)

See how the wealthy mortals toil,
and heap their shining dust in vain,
look down and scorn the humble poor,
and boast their lofty hills of gain.Expensive potions cannot ease
their painful hearts or aching heads,
nor scare, nor bribe approaching death
from glittering homes and comfy beds.


The lingering and unwilling soul
death’s dismal summons must obey,
and bid a long and sad farewell
to its pale lump of lifeless clay.


Thence they are huddled to the grave
where kings and slaves have equal thrones.
Their skeletons together lie
amongst the heap of common bones.

Words: Isaac Watts Hymn 24
Ps 49:6,9 Eccles 8:8 Job 3:14,15
modernised Hugh G Wetmore © 2011
5th verse added: Luke 18:18-30 th
Metre: 8888 Tunes: Hamburg CD 3.8; O Waly Waly CD 3.9

Other songs are on the Endangered Species List. They are in the printed Hymn-books, but who sings from printed Hymn-books any more? We sing off the wall. Projected Songs. And how many HYMNS are in the Projectionist’s repertoire? Check through your church’s song-bank, and you are likely to find mostly Contemporary Worship Songs … with a few hymns – Amazing Grace, Blessed Assurance and Great is Thy Faithfulness and What a Friend we have in Jesus. Good hymns, yes, but all from the Comfort stable. In fact, Watts’ hymn is so macabre that I was prompted to add a final verse of Hope! “If they had heard the call of Christ to give up all and follow Him, their destiny would have been changed, and paradise welcome them in.”

Jubilate (www. specialises in updating the language of classic hymns, and many of these are found in “Hymns for Today’s Church”. Such as …


My God, I love thee not because
I hope for heav’n thereby,
nor yet because who love thee not
are lost eternally.Thou, O my Jesus, thou didst me
upon the cross embrace;
for me didst bear the nails and spear,
and manifold disgrace.


And griefs and torments numberless,
and sweat of agony;
yea, death itself – and all for me
who wast thine enemy.


Then why, O bless-ed Jesu Christ,
should I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heav’n,
nor of escaping hell.


Not from the hope of gaining aught,
not seeking a reward;
but as thyself hast lov-ed me,
O ever-loving Lord


So would I love thee, dearest Lord,
and in thy praise will sing;
solely because thou art my God,
and my most loving King.

Words: from the Latin, 17 century. th Translated Edward Caswall (1814-1878) Metre: C.M. (8686) Tune: St Francis Xavier (John Stainer 1840-1901) [Hymns Old & New 344]

My God, I love you; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
Nor yet because if I do not
I shall forever die.But you, Lord Jesus,
on the cross once suffered in my place;
for me you bore the nails and spear,
the darkness and disgrace:


And griefs and torments numberless
and sweat of agony,
and even death itself, for one
who was your enemy.


Then why, O Saviour Jesus Christ,
should I not love you well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven
nor of escaping hell.


Not with the thought of seeking gain
nor working for reward,
but as you gave yourself for me,
O ever-loving Lord.


So now I love you, and will love,
and in your praise will sing,
solely because you are my God
and my eternal King.

from the Latin (17 century) th E Caswall (1814-1878) © in this version Jubilate Hymns Metre: C.M. (8686) Tune: St Francis Xavier (John Stainer 1840-1901) [Hymns for Today’s Church 479]

There are some purists who protest any “meddling” with the time-honoured traditional words. To these we say: Many older hymns have already been modified. “Hark the Herald angels sing” was originally written by Wesley in 1739 as “Hark how all the welkin rings Glory to the King of kings”. Also, most of the Church has adapted well to the modernised language of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible ~ why must our Hymns not then be open to modernisation as well? All in the interests of clearly communicating God’s eternal Word to the current generation.

For that is the goal of “singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs TO ONE ANOTHER” (Col 3:16). The message of the song must come through clearly to the current generation who are singing to each other in church. Those who have not been schooled in the Christianese lingo of yesteryear would be puzzled by the all-time favourite:

When peace, like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrow, like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot,
Thou has taught me to know,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

It is well …. with my soul ….
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, if trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin – oh, the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin – not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross: And I bear it not more:
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live!
If Jordan above me shall roll.
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But Lord, ‘tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
the sky, not the grave, is our goal:
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope! Blessed rest of my soul.

Words: Horatio G Spafford
Tune: P P Bliss [Sankey’s Sacred Songs & Solos 901]

What are “billows”? “Buffet” is better known as a financial guru. “Estate” is what a deceased person leaves, or a secure townhouse development. Why should the repeated mention of “my sin” be “a glorious thought”? What does “Jordan rolling above me” mean? “Trump”, the USA Billionaire and presidential hopeful, is not very angelic! Few think of it as a “trumpet”.

The modernised version below does not tamper at all with the meaning of Spafford’s original hymn. I hope that it will make the words understandable to all, and extend the blessing of this glorious hymn to subsequent generations, and to many for whom English is not their home language.

When peace like a river flows calmly on my way,
or sorrows like sea-breakers roll,
whatever will happen, You’ve taught me to say:
“It is well, it is well with my soul”.

It is well … with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should tempt me,
and trials should come,
let this blest assurance control:
that Jesus has noticed my weak, helpless state
and has shed His own blood for my soul.

Distressed by my sin, I am grateful for this:
that all of my sin, yes, the whole
is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

From now on I’ll live all my life for my Lord!
So, when Jordan’s death-waters roll,
I’ll have no regrets, for in death as in life
You will whisper Your peace to my soul.

We wait for the coming of Jesus our Lord:
the sky, not the grave, is our goal,
the trumpet shall sound, and the Lord shall descend:
Blessed hope! blessed rest for my soul.

Words: Horatio P Spafford (1828-1888) modernised and clarified by H G Wetmore © 2008 Tune: Ville du Havre by P P Bliss CD 12.13 [Lyrics to lift your Life 31f]

The MUSIC-STYLE can also be re-cycled into a more contemporary idiom. In two ways: either by jazzing it up/syncopating it, or by choosing another, more modern, Tune.

To re-beat the standard hymn-tune to another rhythm calls for a rare musical skill. I remember Noel Tredinnik, a well-known musician from All Souls Church in London, extemporarily changing the sound of well-known hymns in a way that got a staid traditional choir impulsively swinging along. So, if there’s someone in your church who can do it, go ahead!

The other option is to “Mix and Match” the hymn-lyrics to a more contemporary tune. The above hymn “My God, I love You” is written to the Common Metre (C.M.) of Four lines, with 8 syllables in the first and third, and 6 in the second and fourth. Many Tunes are written to this Metre, the most well-known being “Amazing Grace”. Some others too can be quite snazzy … “Martyrdom”, despite its gloomy Tune-name, has a easy-moving waltz-beat that fits these words. Usually, Lyrics of the same metre fit well with Tunes of that same metre.

Are you are Worship Leader? Make sure you use HYMNS, Old, New and Recycled, in your weekly Worship List.
Are you a Pastor or one of the singing congregation? Encourage the use of HYMNS in your Worship Service.
God will be pleased! He has prescribed HYMNS to be sung, for He knows these are excellent means of embedding the Word of Christ into our hearts and memories. Those who include a well-chosen selection of HYMNS will grow in Christ-like maturity. Christians who are thus equipped in truth and love are likely to grow up into Christ, and avoid being tossed around by every wind of false teaching.

In next month’s column some of the top Contemporary Worship Songwriters show how they have recycled Old Hymns in New Ways. Fascinating!

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