I love old hymns. I keep a stack of hymnals on my nightstand and have an ever-growing collection in my library. I cut my teeth on Charles Wesley and John Rippon. I hope to write academically on the pastoral theology of hymns. I even have a dog named Watts.
While I certainly don’t think that historic hymns are the only thing we should sing in corporate worship, I am concerned that omitting older hymns in our gatherings silences the rich voices of church history. Some churches seem uninterested in any song that is more than two years old, much less two hundred years. Yes, the church will continue to write and sing new songs (Psalm 96:1), but it is also good and helpful for us to sing old songs.
What’s New Is Not Always Best
When I mention historic hymns, maybe you cringe as you recall a “worship war” in your local church. Maybe you’re eager to only sing the old hymns. Or maybe you wonder why it is important at all. My aim is not to renew local church disputes or bolster mere sentimentality, but to commend something else altogether—to encourage younger churches to remember their history by joining with the countless men and women who have shared these songs over hundreds of years.
Our society is fixated on what’s new and what’s next, but hymns remind us that what’s next is not always what’s best. Singing the historic hymns of our faith reminds our congregations that we are not the first generation who have wrestled and prayed, asked and believed. We are not the first to write hymns of praise to God. We walk gladly in the footsteps of our fathers who have written praises to Christ that have stood the test of time.
With a steady diet of merely new choruses, we can develop both modern idolatry and historical amnesia. Perhaps we should adopt this paraphrase of C.S. Lewis? Sing at least one old hymn to every three new ones.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise him all creatures here below,
Praise him above ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
—Thomas Ken, 1674
Hymns Teach Us
Hymns are portable sermons that articulate, exegete and pronounce biblical truths. They shape the way we view God, man and Christ, and how we are to live in light of the gospel. The truths they communicate preach to us throughout the week following the style of Deuteronomy 6—at home and away, when lying down and waking. As R.W. Dale famously said, “Let me write the hymns of the church and I care not who writes the theology.”
Singing is a form of teaching that uses poetry to open to us the word of God. When Isaac Watts published Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, his intention was not to sing Scripture line by line, but to create poetic and emotive renditions of Scripture that enabled the church to sing the truths of Scripture.
Singing for the Christian is formative and responsive, and therefore must be informed by Scripture. We learn what we sing.
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.
—Samuel Stone, 1886