O God, Our Help in Ages Past

Have you ever opened a hymnal and looked at a favorite hymn, and discovered that someone came along and changed the words you grew up with and loved?

I’ll bet this has happened to you, unless you’re really young; I first experienced this when I was at a youth retreat in high school. I felt a sort of nostalgic disappointment, because I loved this hymn the way it was, and why did they have to go and change it anyway?

I’ll let you in on a secret-that’s-not-really-a-secret: the version that you learned probably wasn’t the original, either. Hymns are changed all the time, and for all sorts of reasons.

Most hymns that we sing today have been changed from their original form. Those changes can have a great impact on our understanding of the hymn, or how we relate to it, or even whether we like it or not.

Sometimes they’re changed to use a more familiar tune, or a tune that’s more accessible and easier to learn. This change is often one of the first ones done, and often before it even makes it to our hymnbooks. First draft tunes frequently don’t last, and it’s a common story to find someone rediscovering an obscure hymn decades after it was first published and popularizing it simply by setting it to a better tune. There have been tune changes over the past 100 years as well, mostly due to the change in the church’s singers. Music education used to be a significant movement in this country, and it was expected that everyone sang in a choir at school, or in a glee club, or in youth choir at church. Even just fifty years ago, churches were full of people who had grown up with the expectation that they’d participate in choirs. With that universal musical training, we had congregations that could sing more complex tunes, and even hear the occasional harmony. The congregational makeup has changed so drastically since then with the absence of established and required choral programs, that most of the hymns with difficult melodies have been gradually phased out of the hymnals, or simply ignored, and their texts set to easier tunes.

Other changes have often happened in an effort to preserve a meaningful text’s relevancy through the years; there were many changes to hymnals throughout the 20th century, especially in the flood of hymnal publication in the 1970s-80s-90s, that updated a lot of hymns from “thee”s and “thou”s and other more antiquated english, to use “you” and other more common pronouns. There are still some “thou”s around in our hymnal, here and there, but they’re usually in more popular hymns to which people can still relate despite the clunky language, like:

  • Be Thou My Vision
  • Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
  • Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
  • Nearer, My God, To Thee
  • My Country, ‘Tis of Thee
  • O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee
  • Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee

Another change that was wildly popularized in the 1970s and 80s was the integration of genderless texts, in an effort to be inclusive of all worshippers. I’m generally supportive of this change, within reason: I don’t want the congregation stumbling through awkward language for the sake of gender neutrality. If it’s a change that doesn’t affect the fluidity of the text as it’s being sung, then I encourage it, but I’m far from militant about it.

The hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past was sung at church a few weeks ago, and this hymn’s text is an example of one that was changed right from the start. It is one of three paraphrases on Psalm 90 that Isaac Watts wrote for his Psalms of David, Imitated in 1719. A few years later, John Wesley discovered the unknown hymn and wanted to include it in his Collection of Psalms and Hymns in 1738, and when he did so he changed the first line from “Our God” to “O God”, giving the hymn a striking opening line. This small change of just 2 letters propelled the hymn into popularity, and has been used by most hymnal editors since.

Another example of a change in text, this time in an effort to keep a text relevant, involves a well-known hymn, Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed. The last line of the first stanza originally read, “Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” This wording, the labeling of someone as a “worm”, was a common idea when the hymn was written in the early 1800s. It’s an idea that’s also present in our scriptures:

Psalm 22:6 (ESV) But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.

Isaiah 41:14 (ESV) Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.

But “worm” is generally not a term that we identify with on a daily basis today. If someone walked up to you and called you a worm, would you be insulted, or just confused? So through the 1900s, the line of that hymn was gradually changed in most hymnals to “For sinners such as I”.

There are many other such examples of changes throughout most of the hymns in our canon today, and though these efforts to modernize our hymnody are valuable, they are not always uncontroversial. During its compilation of the Methodist 1989 hymnal, stanza five of O God, Our Help in Ages Past was altered from “bears all its sons away” to the genderless “bears all who breathe away,”. In the Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, Carlton Young is distinctly not appreciative of this change, saying, “[it] exemplifies good intentions corrupting a classic text.” It made me smile when I read that, because I can relate to that sentiment, can’t you? Haven’t you found yourself thinking the same thing about a change to one of your favorite hymns?

And yet, we know that if Wesley had not altered Watt’s original text, it’s likely that it would not be in our hymnals today. Changes are not usually done lightly, and that they usually help the hymn’s relevancy for modern congregations, and they are generally done in good faith and with good consequences. But that doesn’t make it any easier to accept changes that modernize the hymns that we grew up with, that we know and love.

Fun fact: Occasionally, hymns that seem to be dated or gender-exclusive have a story behind them that explain their peculiarities. The hymn Rise Up, O Men of God was originally written to be sung at a men’s prayer breakfast, and so the text reflects the hymn’s intended chorus and audience, calling the group of men to rise up and serve the Lord. This example, then, is not an instance, like so many, when the word “men” was used as a universal term for “all present”. It actually referred to a group of men. This intention should be appreciated by a musician using the hymn in today’s church, care should be given that the hymn be allowed to retain its authenticity, and perhaps that means hymns like this would better remain for the intended audiences, such as men’s-only gatherings, rather than put it through the changes required for it to be integrated into general worship.

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3 thoughts on “O God, Our Help in Ages Past

  1. Kristen, I always enjoy your posts. I’ve been looking for a tune for “My Times Are In Thy Hands”. I’ve sung it at some point, and can’t find it anyway. Since my diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in April, this hymn speaks to me.

    Love, Liz

    • Liz,
      I checked hymnary.org, it’s a website managed by the Hymn Society of North America and Canada, and there are two hymns by that name. If you click the links, you’ll find the full text of the hymn, along with other information about the hymn. Scroll to the bottom and you’ll find PDF scans of hymnal pages of that hymn, and there you can see the tunes that were used with it. The first one seems like it was more widely printed, so that’s probably the one you’re familiar with.

      http://www.hymnary.org/text/my_times_are_in_thy_hand_my_god_i_wish
      http://www.hymnary.org/text/my_times_are_in_thy_hand_o_gracious_god

      However, the meter of the first one is a fairly standard meter, 6.6.8.6, so if you turn in your Methodist hymnal to the metrical index in the back, you can pick a tune that you’re familiar with and sing these words to that tune. Such as:

      #129- Give to the Winds Thy Fears
      #420- Breathe on Me, Breath of God
      #557- Blest be the tie that binds
      #732- Come, we that love the Lord

      In addition to being under 6.6.8.6, that meter is also listed in that index as SM, which stands for Small Meter.

      I hope that helps!! I’m so sorry to hear about your diagnosis, I’ll be praying for your comfort and peace of mind.

      Lots of love,
      -kristen

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