A hymnwriter you should know: Fred Kaan

I’ve talked a bit about the historical hymnody of the church, which is really important to learn about– it keeps us tied to our roots in the Christian church– and, it’s usually really fun to learn about. However, there are a lot of contemporary hymnwriters who are totally AWESOME, but who don’t always get the kind of press that folks like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley get.

So today, here’s a contemporary hymnwriter you should know: Fred Kaan.

Kaan (1929 – 2009) was one of the major hymn writers in the 20th century, and was a significant force in the hymnwriting explosion of the 1960s. He and his contemporaries were truly trailblazers, because while the church had spread through the world by this point, the international Christian church wasn’t globally connected and unified until the 20th century, thanks in large part to the improvements in communication methods. As the church connected, so did its music, and these hymn writers stepped up.

While the Wesleys were global hymnwriters in the sense that their traditional, Anglican-heritage hymns were sent out into the world with missionaries, Kaan and his contemporaries were writing hymns for the global church, as a part of the global church. They addressed contemporary global issues, they wrote for many countries, many nationalities, many traditions, and they worked to unify those faith communities within the international Christian church.

That’s super cool, but how exactly does one become a global hymnwriter, you ask? (Well, maybe you didn’t, but lucky you, I’m going to tell you anyway 🙂 )

Kaan was born in Haarlem, Netherlands in 1929. He was baptized but did not attend church as a child; this was profoundly changed by the experience of living through Nazi occupation. He watched three of his grandparents die of starvation, he witnessed his own parents’ deep involvement in the resistance movement; his father as a neighborhood commander, his mother as a gun-runner, and his family sheltered a Jewish woman in their home for 2 1/2 years.

Immediately after the war, he became a committed pacifist and began attending church with some friends, becoming confirmed in 1947. He went directly to seminary, and was ordained in the British Congregationalist church.

At his very first church, an earnest young man informed him that he was leaving the church. Kaan asked him why, and the man replied, “Because the hymns don’t send me any longer.”

Kaan realized that if the music of the church doesn’t move us, then “the mission of the church is then seriously impaired and mission– after all– is what the church exists for.”

This incident struck a chord with him, and he began to listen to hymns with a more critical ear. It was during his ministry at Pilgrim Church in Plymouth that he started to get frustrated with the inadequacies of the hymnals, of not finding what he needed, and he began to write his own texts.

As he says,

I have never consciously aspired or deliberately aimed at becoming a hymn writer; you see here before you the most surprised hymn writer in the world. …I simply tried to respond to and to reflect the commitment of that remarkable congregation, namely, to try and proclaim and live the Gospel in the modern city, in words and decisions that could be understood.

It was through this practice of writing hymns simply for his congregation that he began to live into his Reformed heritage and training: the ministers of the historical Reformed church have a practice of writing hymns that would follow and sum up the sermons they preached. Kaan ended up becoming a part of this practice out of a simple frustration for not finding the hymns he needed in the hymnal.

Kaan was subsequently called to serve the global church, moving to Geneva to become minister-secretary of the International Congregational Council, then serving as chairman of the Council for World Mission, during which time he visited faith communities in 83 countries, and this most certainly influenced his hymnwriting.

Even so, many consider the best of his hymns to be the ones he wrote while serving local parishes. Kaan’s hymns have been published in over 15 languages, and many of them can be found in our own 1989 hymnal.

His first hymn, written for that congregation in Plymouth, came about because he needed a hymn response after communion. “Now let us from this table rise” remains one of my favorites, and exemplifies his passion for the church, and his strong desire for the global church to reflect the love and life of Jesus. You can find it in your Methodist hymnal at #634.

1 Now let us from this table rise,
renewed in body, mind, and soul;
with Christ we die and rise again,
his selfless love has made us whole.
2 With minds alert, upheld by grace,
to spread the Word in speech and deed
we follow in the steps of Christ,
at one with all in hope and need.
3 To fill each human house with love,
it is the sacrament of care;
the work that Christ began to do,
we humbly pledge ourselves to share.
4 Then give us grace, Companion-God,
to choose again the pilgrim way;
and help us to accept with joy
the challenge of tomorrow’s day.

If you want to hear more about the journey of hymnwriting from Kaan himself, this is a wonderful article that he wrote in the publication “The Hymn.” His obituary is quite interesting as well.

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