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Opinion: It’s time to decolonize the hymnal

For church-goers in the United States, services on patriotic holidays may end with an “America hymn,” one of those patriotic songs that somehow made its way into the hymnal like “God Bless America.”

Patriotic hymnody

But why do we sing these songs in worship? The Kingdom of God transcends our borders and even the world itself.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

John 18:36

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Revelation 7:9

In an age of increased honesty about societal injustice I believe that it is inappropriate to sing American patriotic songs in Christian worship. American Christianity and American nationalism have become dangerously intertwined, even in our sacred music.

Consider the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was inspired by the American Civil War:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

Alluding to Biblical imagery in the book of Revelation, the phrasing of this hymn is easily misused to rationalize violence in pursuit of “truth”.  The words “His truth is marching on” and the rousing refrain that follows (“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”) could be used to wield the wrath of God as a justification for terrible evil, despite Jesus’s warnings about judging others (Matthew 7:1-5, John 8:1-11).

Many denominational hymnals contain overtly American and even nationalistic material. For example, the United Methodist Church has half of its membership outside of the United States but the United Methodist Hymnal contains songs such as “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Why is it that the hymnal for a global denomination has included explicitly American patriotic songs?  

Somewhat less overt patriotism is found in hymns with militaristic imagery, such as “God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand” and “Faith of our Fathers,” which can both be used to conflate American military power with Christian freedom. For example, the line “In this free land with thee our lot is cast” in “God of the Ages…” describes America’s entanglement with God while praising political freedom. This text would be problematic for the Apostle Paul, who, prior to being brutally killed by a corrupt empire, explained that Christian freedom is about liberation from sin and death by the spirit of Christ.

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death … For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Romans 8:2, 6

Hence, using hymns to justify American political interventions (“From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence”) or to proclaim the United States as “sovereign,” can undermine the freedom that flows from the Christian Gospel. Furthermore, claims that America is divinely led, infallible or “chosen” mirror the attitudes of Hebrew priests before the fall of the temple in the sixth century BC.

A harsh reality of human history and American history is that God has been invoked to justify nationalistic evils such as death of thousands of indigenous people under the banner of “manifest destiny”. Other faith-fueled atrocities include America’s “original sin” of slavery which has yet to be atoned. Public consciousness has not come to realize that “free societies” are usually built at the expense of the poor and marginalized, which the Bible consistently denounces1:

Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by iniquity!

Habakkuk 2:12

This is not Christian freedom. This injustice under the guise of nationalistic freedom.

In the beginning, Christianity was distinctly anti-empire.  The statement “Jesus is Lord” (kyrios Iesous) was a first-century threat to the lordship of Cesear, who is codified by the “number of the beast” in Revelation 13. The Jesus-following communities were seen as a danger to a powerful social and religious order so Rome was determined to use military power to end them just as they tried to end Jesus. The martyring of the early church was so profound that early Christians became the archetype of an oppressed people. With this backdrop, giving praise to a government or empire in worship disrespects God’s justice, especially when the empire hides behind quasi-religious notions of freedom.

Rather than singing about national pride, let’s sing about God’s justice and God’s concern for all of creation—humans, the earth and the entire cosmos.

For the word of the Lord is upright,
    and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
   the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord

Psalm 33:4-5

Let’s sing about God’s acts of redemption, unity and compassion that repair breaches in our relationships and communities.  To start, songwriter Audrey Assad has crafted an alternative to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which begins

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord
You are speaking truth to power
You are laying down our swords
Replanting every vineyard 
Til a brand new wine is poured
Your peace will make us one.

1 See Isaiah 10:1-5, Psalm 37:14-15, Proverbs 29:7, Luke 16:19-25, Acts 5:1-6, among many other passages.

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Harmonic Moments: The “AURELIA Chord”

In music history there’s a famous collection of notes known as the “Tristan chord,” found in the opening of the opera Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner. Properly the Tristan chord contains the notes F, B, D# and G#, shown in red below.

Opening to Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)

These notes simply form a half-diminished seventh chord in third inversion, but Wagner’s novel use of it has led to extensive musical analysis. The chord is usually associated with a sense of dread and is parodied in other classical music.

For me, there is a particular chord in hymnody that I jokingly call the “AURELIA chord”. Near the end of “The Church is One Foundation” there is a IVmaj9 chord on the word “bought” at the end of the first verse. It resolves to a ii6 chord, beginning an extended pre-dominant section.

The ending of “The Church is One Foundation”, showing the “AURELIA chord”

The name of the tune commonly “The Church is One Foundation” is AURELIA, written by Samuel Wesley, grandson of the great Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley. (The name AURELIA comes from the Latin “aurum” for “gold” in reference to “Jerusalem the Golden,” the original text for the tune.) While the standard harmonization of AURELIA contains its share of seventh chords, this is the only ninth chord in the tune. Major ninth chord are rare in 19th century hymnody. In particular, difficult to express a ninth chord since the chord in 4-part harmony because it must contain first, third, seventh and ninth scale degrees (only the fifth may be omitted to retain the chord quality).

Unlike the “Tristan chord”, the “AURELIA chord” does not instill dread, but a sense of anticipation. In particular, the voicing of the chord gives the melody line the seventh of the chord, creating a dissonance with bass note two octaves below. This feeling is not fully resolved until beat 4, with a IV chord, which leads to a ii7 chord, further delaying the inevitable V chord.

This chord is one my favorite harmonic surprises in hymnody. The subtle nature of major ninth chord offers a gentle moment of contemplation in an otherwise stately hymn.

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Here are all 14 verses to “When Morning Gilds the Skies”

From “The Parochial Hymn Book” (1881)

The German hymn “Beim frühen Morgenlicht” (Katholisches Gesanglruch, 1828) appears in English translation as early as 1843 in a children’s hymnal published by the still-extant Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. While the original text contains 14 stanzas, Edward Caswell’s translation contains just six, which form the basis for renderings of “When Morning Gilds the Skies” in the modern hymnals.

However, all 14 verses of the hymn have been translated into English, perhaps by Caswell. Following the ordering of The Crown Hymn Book (1862), the complete text of “When Morning Gilds the Skies” (“May Jesus Christ Be Praised”) is given below. Common textual variants found in recent hymnals are given in brackets.

When morning gilds the skies my heart awaking cries:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Alike at work and prayer, to Jesus I repair:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!

The sacred minster bell, it peals o’er hill and dell,
[Whene’er the sweet church bell peals over hill and dell]
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
O hark to what it sings, as joyously it rings,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
To Thee, my God above, I cry with glowing love;
      May Jesus Christ be praised
The fairest [a] graces spring, in hearts that ever sing,
      May Jesus Christ be praised
My tongue shall never tire of chanting with the choir,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
This song of sacred joy, it never seems to cloy,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
When sleep her balm denies, my silent spirit sighs,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
When evil thoughts molest, with this I shield my breast,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Does sadness fill my mind? A solace here I find,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Or fades my earthly bliss? My comfort still is this,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Though burst my heart in twain, still this shall be my strain;
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
When you begin the day, O never fail to say,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
And at your work rejoice, to sing with heart and voice,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Be this at meals your grace, in every time and place;
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Be this, when day is past, of all your [our] thoughts the last
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
In want and bitter pain, none ever said in vain:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Should guild your spirit wring, remember Christ, your King
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
The night becomes as day when from the heart we say:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
In heaven’s eternal bliss the loveliest strain is this,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
The powers of darkness fear when this sweet chant they hear:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
To God, the Word, on high, the host of angels cry,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Let mortals [b] too, upraise their voice in hymns of praise,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Let all the earth around ring joyous with the sound:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
[Let earth’s wide circle round, in joyful notes resound]
In heaven’s eternal bliss the loveliest strain is this:
     May Jesus Christ be praised! [c]
Be this, while life is mine, my canticle divine:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Sing this eternal song through all the ages long:
[Be this the eternal song through all the ages long]
      May Jesus Christ be praised!

[a] early sources sometimes use “purest”
[b] early sources use “children”
[c] in many modern hymnals the line “Let air [earth] and sea and sky from depth to height reply” is used somewhere in the second-to-last stanza

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History: “There is a Happy Land”

In hymnody, “There is a Happy Land” might be considered a one-hit wonder. While unknown to most modern church-goers, the hymn one of the most popular nineteenth century hymns in American and British Sunday schools.  

“The Happy Land” in David’s Harp‎ (1842). From

School teacher Andrew Young (1807-1889) wrote “The Happy Land” in 1838. Young was a teacher and then a headmaster in Edinburgh and St. Fife, Scotland. As a poet he wrote hymn texts for Sunday school students, some of which reached wider audiences. Young (1876) recalls spending time with friends when he heard woman playing an “Indian air” at the piano, which he says “charmed me exceedingly” (vi). The tune stuck with him and soon after he the wrote three rhyming stanzas of “The Happy Land” in the middle of the night.

There is still some confusion regarding the origin of the tune that Young heard, now called Happy Land. Young claims that he heard the tune as part of a piano piece called the “Siege of Dehli,” but this music reflects on an event in 1857, almost 20 years after he heard the tine. Griffiths (1904) suggests that there may have been another piece of music written about Dehli in the early nineteenth century, with similar melodic ideas (p. 41). Alternatively, modern hymnology suggests that the tune was written by Robert Archibald Smith with the words “I have come from a happy land”, different than Young’s text (Cokrell, 2011). Early twentieth century American sheet music for this song attributes to a “Hindostan [Indian] air.”

Despite being membered only for “There is a Happy Land”, Young was a prolific poet and frequently contributor to poetry journals. Julian (1892) writes that “his poems entitle him to rank in the first order of Scottish minor poets.”  Young’s book The Scottish Highlands and other Poems (1876) contains many beautiful hymn texts and poems.

Fortunately, Young was able to watch his famous hymn spread around the world through the work of Presbyterian missionaries such as Jon Ingills (Julian 1892). The song was first popularized by Rev. James Fall in his Sacred Song Book (1843) and after a few decades, it appeared in hundreds of hymnals in America and the UK and in translation by members of the London Missionary Society (L. M. S). Griffiths (1904) writes:

Of all the Sunday School hymns which attained world-wide popularity, there is perhaps not one that is more generally liked than that of the commencing ‘There is a happy land.’ From our earliest childhood, and the singing of it brings back vividly all the hallowed associations of that happy time… (41).

Butterworth and Brown (1906) give further praise: “his little carol had become one of the universal hymns”.  In gratitude for the using the hymn Young (1876) writes that “the anecdotes which have reached me of the blessing it has proved to both young and old, in many lands, have been to me a source of the highest gratification and thankfulness” (p. vi).

The hymn has been referenced in many times in popular cultural including the in an issue of the comic strip Krazy Kat, the Mark Twain novel The American Claimant (1892) and the films The King and I (1956) and The Proposition (2005).  Despite its “universal acclaim,” the hymn is not nearly as popular today as it once was. The website lists 539 hymnals containing “There is a Happy Land”, but only three of these were compiled after 1970.

The three-stanza hymn is an invitation to heaven. An irregular ABAACCCA rhyme scheme is punctuated in the middle section of the tune.

There is a happy land, far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day;
Oh, how they sweetly sing, worthy is our Savior King,
Loud let His praises ring, praise, praise for aye.

Come to that happy land, come, come away;
Why will you doubting stand, why still delay?
Oh, we shall happy be, when from sin and sorrow free,
Lord, we shall live with Thee, blest, blest for aye.

Bright, in that happy land, beams every eye;
Kept by a Father’s hand, love cannot die;
Oh, then to glory run; be a crown and kingdom won;
And, bright, above the sun, we reign for aye.

The first stanza introduces a distant realm (the “happy land”) where the saints worship the savior on his thrown (see Revelation 4-5, 7). The text urges the listener to join the throng (“Why will you doubting stand, why still delay?” and “Oh, then to glory run”) and shares a feeling of happiness brought by redemption (“sin and sorrow free”; Rev 7:14). The third stanza share some of the aspects of this other realm: perpetual love (“love cannot die”), saints with crowns (Rev. 4:4) and light brighter than the sun (Rev. 21:23). Similar texts with “heavenly” themes including the last verse of “Amazing Grace,” starting “when we’ve been there ten thousand years”, the saints “casting down their golden crowns” in “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Rev. 4:9).

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do you remember from your Sunday school experience? Were there any themes or lessons that stuck with you?
  2. Are there any hymns that you consider “universal hymns”, which are familiar and well-liked by many Christian audiences?
  3. The tune for “There is a Happy Land” may have been known to common people as a “song of the day”. Many of Luther’s hymns were also based on popular songs. What role does popular music play in worship in modern churches? What role should it play?
  4. How do you think Young felt knowing his song had such an impact?  The Apostle Paul lists several “spiritual gifts”. Do you recognize any of these gifts in yourself or others? (See also: Romans 12:6–8, 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 and Ephesians 4:11).

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:28

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John Newton was a slave ship captain

Despite our sentimental attachment to the song, the story of “Amazing Grace” is intertwined with the story of transatlantic slave trade. In fact, the hymnwriter’s life tells us not only about grace, but about justice.

While his mother hoped that he would join the clergy, English hymn writer John Newton (1725-1807) renounced his Christian faith after joining the Royal Navy. Reflecting later Newton writes, “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” Newton was so headstrong that his vulgar disagreements with shipmates caused him to starve and he was later enslaved on a planation in Sierra Leone. He was eventually freed by his father, who was an influential shipping merchant.

In 1748, abroad the Greyhound, a violent storm knocked one of Newton’s crewmates off the almost-capsized ship. To keep from being thrown overboard, Newton tied himself to a pump on the ship, telling his captain, “if this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Newton survived and landed in Ireland two weeks later.

After the incident on the Greyhound, Newton famously rethought his relationship God after years of mocking others for their faith. Even so, Newton continued to work on salve ships and lead several voyages through Africa and North America as a ship captain, participating in despicable acts of coercion and violence against Africans.

In 1750 Newton finally quite sailing so he could return to England to be with his wife Polly. While working as a customs agent, Newton taught himself theology and his friends suggested he become a priest. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1764, after being initially turned down since many of his friends associated with the emerging Methodist movement headed by John and Charles Wesley. Newton joined a small perish in a village of 2,500 residents, mostly poor and illiterate. He was noted for preaching about his own weakness during a time of elitism by celery. Inspired by the texts of Isaac Watts (“O God Our Help in Ages Past”) and Charles Wesley (“Christ the Lord is Rise Today”), Newton wrote his own hymns for local prayer meetings. In 1772, Amazing Grace was first presented as a poem at one of these meeting. (The modern tune for the text, called NEW BRITAIN, would not be composed until 1822, during the Second Great Awakening in the United States.)

Despite the dramatic story told in movies and books—that Newton was saved from a shipwreck and turned his life to God—it was not until 30 years later (in 1788) that Newton finally came to condemn slavery. In Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he described the horrific conditions of slaves and apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”  Newton writes of “the hour I first believed” in “Amazing Grace”, but he also viewed faith as a more gradual experience: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”

Why is this story important? Certainly God uses imperfect people to accomplish great things (c.f. any non-divine Bible character). However, while researching this story I was struck by the fact we can indifferent or complacent in matters of injustice and oppression. Despite working in the slave trade and being a priest for several decades, Newton was only able to realize the horrors of slavery much, much later. He lived long enough to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which finally ended the selling and trading of human slaves.

How are systems of  injustice perpetuated today? What might be preventing us from realizing that how we treat different kinds of people might simply be wrong? And how can engage in “Kingdom work” to make reparations? In scripture, God’s kingdom and people are often compared to a vineyard. The prophet Isaiah writes a “love-song concerning his vineyard”, but is quick to call out the nation of Israel for violence and injustice.

My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
    but saw bloodshed;
   but heard a cry!

Isaiah 5:1-2, 7

Once we recognize our privilege, justice is only achieved by consistent and honest efforts. Jesus told a parable about the persistence of justice-seekers and the difficulty of facing the powers that be:

Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

Luke 18:1-8 (Paraphrased)

Like John Newton’s remarks on slavery, I hope that all of us consider the ways we might be participate in systems of injustice and work toward being “repairers of the breach.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:9b-12
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Why is “Jesus” sung as a minor third?

Why is “Jesus” sung as a minor third?

I remember hearing the German carol Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine for the first time while I was playing at a local church in college. I was struck by the passage in the refrain that repeats “Jesus” with two descending minor-thirds.

Excerpt from the refrain of Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine (RESONET IN LAUDIBUS)

This part of the refrain is a meditation on the name of Jesus, whom the song beautifully identifies as “love’s diadem.”

Later I realized that this same melodic motif appears in Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, an early Lutheran hymntune found in several Bach cantatas.  In fact in many renderings of the text in English (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star) fit the words “Jesus, Jesus” to the minor third motif in the first verse.

Excerpt from “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star”

Similar to Joseph Dearest, this passage repeats a V-I cadence pattern underlying descending minor thirds, except that both chords are now major.

That Jesus is most-often represented as a minor-third in music is a dubious claim. After all, in most hymn-like melodies the majority of intervals are thirds and seconds (musical “steps”), of which there are four total varieties. Perhaps it’s the phrase in Joseph Dearest which clearly dwells on the name of “Jesus” using a minor third that creates my own association between the minor third and “Jesus”. The match is very effective. The phrase is repeating using longer notes, contrasts rest of the surrounding melody, dwelling on the name of “Jesus”.

Other Hymns

After finding “Jesus motif” in two different hymns, I wondered if Jesus appeared as a minor third in any other hymns. A quick search on gives a clear yes. In fact, some of the most popular tunes and texts of all time, including Jesus, Loves Me and What a Friend We Have In Jesus place the word Jesus over a minor third in the opening phrase.

In most of these examples the Jesus motif is created by the minor third between the fifth and third scale degrees (so – mi). In some cases (e.g. Stand up for Jesus) the interval is created by the first and sixth scale degrees (do – la). Perhaps the most striking example is the opening of the Gaither song There’s Something About That Name, which uses three minor third recitations of “Jesus”.

Universal Intervals

Why does the Jesus motif seem to appear in so many well-known hymns? Is there something special about a minor third?

In a 2010 study from Tufts University, researchers recorded acting students speaking and noted that more significantly a change in pith at about ~300 cents (a minor third) were strongly associated with parts of the speeches as expressing a “sad” idea.

In his famous lecture series The Unanswered Question, Leonard Bernstein tried to tease out universal qualities of musical, including a “grammar” to explain musical elements like linguists explain language.  One salient observation Bernstein makes is that the universality of the minor third as the first musical interval learned by children. Winner (1982) argues that “children in different cultures tend to tease each other by singing a repetitive minor third” (p. 230).

Figure from Winner (1982) showing minor thirds in “children’s chants”

Hence, the minor third may be a more universal interval, innate in spoken communication and is often associated with sadness. It is tempting to extend this idea and suggest that name of “Jesus” (perhaps more accurately, “Christ”) is appropriately paired with a minor third since it represents universal human longing found in the suffering of Jesus, just as the minor third represents a universal human expression of sadness.

But of course the messiah’s name is not “Jesus” in most languages. And most aspects of music are probably not universal outside of Western society. (And humans generally like finding spurious patterns!) An optimistic explanation is that the Jesus motif in Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern became an earworm for later hymn writers. Still, there’s “something about the name” of Jesus.