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'Battle Hymn,' 'Onward Christian Soldiers' Reprieved : Methodist Panel Retreats on Songs

July 06, 1986|RUSSELL CHANDLER | Times Religion Writer

Revising a church hymnal is a sure way to orchestrate dissonance, a national Methodist editing committee has found out.

"Onward Christian Soldiers," with its marching beat and exhortation to battle for Jesus, was considered too militaristic so the committee voted it out, along with another hymn that refers to warfare, "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

But, in a crescendo of protest, thousands of militant church members who wanted the longtime favorites included in a new songbook browbeat the committee last week into voting the hymns back in.

The hymnal editor said the controversy was the largest ever to rattle the rafters of the 9.1-million-member United Methodist Church.

"The sheer volume of response to this issue was making it impossible for the committee to go on with its work," the Rev. Carlton R. Young said. In addition, 12 regional conferences of the church took formal action last month calling for restoration of the hymns.

But militarism was not the only culprit that committee members had their eye on while scanning hymns for the new book. Special-interest groups have sung out for their causes as well.

"Good Christian Men, Rejoice," and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" will be changed because they are too sexist. "Faith of Our Fathers" is not cut, but a footnote will suggest that martyrs , mothers or ancestors may be substituted for fathers .

Native American Objections

The Methodist committee heard objections from Native Americans about the "Pilgrim feet" in "America the Beautiful" trampling Indian rights.

And the speech-impaired found fault with the line "when failing lips grow dumb" in the hymn "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing."

The Methodists are only the most recent of a number of denominations, including the Episcopal, Lutheran, Christian Reformed and Churches of Christ, whose hymn committees have discovered there is more to revising a hymnal than meets the ear.

While some churches rarely, if ever, adopt a new hymnal, many revise existing hymnbooks about every 20 years. The hymnal revision process may require anywhere from three to 25 years, depending on the speed of the committee and the number of songs that it is considering.

The Churches of Christ in February adopted its first completely revised hymnal in a half-century, aiming the songbook at a more "yuppie" audience by eliminating hymns with strong rural images. Thus, "Bringing in the Sheaves" is out.

"We are a city people; we need city hymns," music editor Jack Boyd explained.

The Episcopalians' "The Hymnal 1982," which has sold a million copies in the six months since its publication, eliminates male imagery of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, replacing it with gender-free terms such as Creator , Redeemer and Comforter . While "Rise Up, O Men of God" has been retained, it is altered to read "Rise Up, Ye Saints of God."

"Many feel we didn't go far enough with inclusive language; many felt we went too far. But we didn't change the words of the great poets," said Carol Foster, a member of the Episcopal Standing Commission on Church Music and director of music at St. John's Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

Diversity within a denomination increases the probability of discord over hymnal revision.

A poll conducted late last year by the United Methodist Church--arguably the nation's most diverse Protestant denomination--ranked "How Great Thou Art" and "The Old Rugged Cross" as all-time favorites. But the same two hymns also topped the most-hated list.

The composition of hymns in most modern hymnals dates from hundreds of years ago to the last several decades, but many were written during the late 1800s and early part of this century.

"Your ditty may be someone else's favorite," noted Marjorie Tuell of Glendale, who chairs the Text Subcommittee of the Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee and is the wife of Methodist Bishop Jack Tuell of the California-Pacific Conference.

"Hymns are either dearly loved or badly hated," she said.

The committee's intended deletion of "Onward Christian Soldiers" and all but the chorus of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" from the proposed 1990 Methodist hymnal touched off such a cacophony that the committee called a special meeting in Nashville, Tenn., last Wednesday to tone down the uproar in the church.

Committee Reverses Itself

Barraged by countless telephone protests that jammed office phones for 10 days and by 8,000 letters--only 40 of them supporting the May 17 decision to drop the songs--the 25-member committee reversed itself, recommending that the songs be reinstated.

The vote to restore "Onward Christian Soldiers" was 21 to 3; "Battle Hymn," also known as "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," was voted back in by a 19-4 vote with one abstention. The song first appeared in the Methodist hymnal of 1966. The committee chair votes only to break a tie.

After the committee originally decided to omit the songs, protesters denounced its members as anti-American, "soft-headed," and communist, Young said.

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