Our Changing Hymns: A literary study guided by a personal aesthetic

Author: Donald Bell

Bell, Donald, 2021 Our Changing Hymns: A literary study guided by a personal aesthetic, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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My work on this thesis began from a feeling that all was not well with hymn singing in the church’s worship. Two decades ago, I completed a Master of Arts (MA) in the English Department at Flinders University about the stirrings generally happening in the language of worship. At the same time, I was becoming significantly engaged in hymn writing myself and was asking serious questions about the poetic text of hymns or, as some would say, of “songs”. A clear research question was beginning to frame itself: What makes a good hymn text?

This study demanded a good selection of hymns to be observed so valid conclusions could be drawn concerning congregational song in Protestant churches. As it happened, the church to which I belong, Pilgrim Uniting Church in Adelaide, has three consciously different worshipping congregations on a Sunday morning. At 8.00 am, a relatively traditional Protestant worship is held with traditional Protestant hymns from the Australian Hymn Book (AHB), published in 1977. At 9.30 am, worship is more consciously modern with some home-grown “songs”, as well as some from Together in Song (TIS), the second edition of AHB, published in 1999. At 11 am, the Anglican hymnal, Common Praise (CP), is used which is the new version of Hymns Ancient and Modern, published in 2000. I chose these three books for my study with a strong feeling that they provided a good microcosm of Australian Protestant worship to explore. Many hymns appeared in all three books, with some differences in wording, making it easier to compare different versions of many hymns.

My methodology involved choosing a particular hymn, in which changes of wording had been deemed necessary. I first take a literary critic’s stance to evaluate such a hymn before changes were made; and I then evaluate the text of the hymn after the changes have been made. Literary and linguistic skills make for interesting discoveries about hymn texts.

Much of the interest in this thesis is the literary detail of twenty-nine hymns and a few hymn fragments, as it uncovers many of the riches contained in this genre of religious literature. I found that the revision of hymn texts, regardless of how sound the motive, has frequently come at significant cost to the hymn’s literary quality. This was particularly evident in Together in Song (TIS). The AHB, which was published about ten years before work began on TIS, was successful in its time. Published around the same time as TIS, CP pursued a standard of “invisible mending” when it came to revising hymn texts. As I found, it was, indeed, largely successful in preserving the quality of the original hymn.

Keywords: Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Robert Seymour Bridges, James Ellerton, Graham Kendrick, Erik Routley, William Cowper, John Newton, Catherine Winkworth, Marty Haugen, hymn language, hymn tune, metrical psalms, language change, archaism, literary world, new hymns, biblical allusion, Thou or You?

Subject: Linguistics thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Rev Professor Andrew Dutney