On the Rewriting of Hymns…

By: Michael Tucker

(Disclaimer — Those of us who are not so concerned about the details of the hymns we sing, and why we do or do not appreciate them, may find all these personal observations tedious!)
For years I enjoyed the hymn “Rise Up, O Men of God”, finding both tune and lyrics inspiring. To refresh your memory, here are the original lyrics:

Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
To serve the King of Kings.

Rise up, O men of God!
His kingdom tarries long.
Bring in the day of brotherhood
And end the night of wrong.

Rise up, O men of God!
The church for you doth wait,
Her strength unequal to her task;
Rise up and make her great!

Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where His feet have trod.
As brothers of the Son of Man,
Rise up, O men of God!

This hymn belongs to an era where language was not always inclusive. Today a perception of exclusion can hamper the value of a hymn for use in assemblies of our church. For this one to continue to inspire us, it seemed that some re-phrasing could help.
So I sent out an email to a few people asking their opinion of this hymn. It was a blind cc list; in other words, no one knew who else was being asked.
All were asked to be perfectly frank. Each is a faithful believer, each is wise, and each has decades of life experience in Churches of Christ. The variety of response was both enlightening and entertaining. Among them:

• Some offered helpful alternative words/phrases/versions.
• One person had a love-hate relationship with this hymn. Love, because of good memories associated with it. Hate, because they considered it extremely and painfully sexist.
• One pointed out that since we refer to the church as ‘her’ or ‘bride’, we should understand ‘brotherhood’ in a universal sense. They were not troubled by the “men” for those reasons.
• One observed that the hymn suggests a feminine weak church whose strength is “unequal to her task” (so strong men will have to rise up to help)
• One offered alternating verses — masculine, feminine, and non-specific.
• One was untroubled by the entire issue, and would stick with the word “men”.
• One offered witty and rhythmically challenging phrases such as “Rise up, O Persons of the Deity”.
• One had thoughts from a perspective of the evolution of language. They considered that rather than being particularly sexist, it was written consistent with a time when most English language was written / spoken to refer to any person in masculine terms.
• One confessed to being in the “People who change lyrics and people who complain about lyrics annoy me” category.

My own thought is that (as a rule) we should re-write other authors’ lyrics with care, and only for compelling reasons.
Many of us know songs whose lyrics were changed because of perceived doctrinal errors. One might recall the preface of a once-popular hymnal which stated something on the order of “it is just as bad to sing a lie than to tell one otherwise.” A few notable “doctrinal re-writes” are:

• When the Saved Get To Heaven and Why Do You Wait, Dear Sinner. (Let’s be sure not to include anyone who doesn’t belong…)
• A Mighty Fortress. “The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him who with us sideth.” (Oops, delete that. People might sing this and start speaking in tongues…)
• Holy, Holy, Holy. Anti-Trinitarians prefer “God over all and blest eternally”.
• To God Be the Glory. A dispute over the “moment of salvation” has spoiled this much-loved hymn for some.

A church we once visited had their hymn books stamped to “X” out many songs, with explanation that they did not sing these because they were unscriptural, stating reasons for each. To that my reaction was, “People who cannot understand poetry should not bother to read it nor sing it.”
But I think language that makes people feel excluded is in a different category. Such language is worth reconsidering.
From all the suggestions on “Rise Up”, I weighed pros and cons, borrowed some good ideas, and enjoyed the humor. For the version that we used a few Sundays ago, the word “woman” was specifically included because of the topic of the morning’s sermon. (A couple of poet musicians in our midst pointed out that this does not work so well in regard to rhythm and stress. Such details, not even noticed by most of us, make the difference between good songs and great ones. This particular issue was minimized by a good song leader.)

Here is the version we sang:

Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
To serve the King of Kings.

Rise up, women of God!
His kingdom tarries long.
But soon shall Christ bring in the Day,
And end this night of wrong.

Rise up, O child of God!
The Church for you doth wait,
Your strength unequal to the task;
But Christ in you is great!

Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where His feet have trod.
As followers of the Son of Man,
Rise up, O saints of God!

Some of us liked it. Some of may have been a tad annoyed. A good number of us don’t mind one way or another. And some never knew the song in the first place, so it didn’t matter.
The whole point is for our assemblies to glorify God and build up one another. If we keep those goals in mind we can only do well.