Written by: Geoff Thomas
If some hymn-writers today are more at peace and more conscious of God’s glory using the pronoun ‘you’ in hymns then we have few objections to their doing so and can sincerely sing good modern hymns and metrical versions of the psalms and paraphrases referring to God as ‘you’, nor do we object at all to men who use ‘you’ in their praying. Some always have. It would be unnatural for them to change to ‘thou.’ We not see the need of that change. We also have no problems at all with hymns which refer to God as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, nor do 60,000 pagan Welshmen singing in the Millennial Stadium, “Guide me O Thou great Jehovah.” Not for a fleeting second does a single rugby supporter have any difficulty understanding that he is singing to God. Of course, he will not be aware that by using the ‘Thou’ he is also being theologically correct in addressing the Lord as the one God.
We are finding objectionable those who fiercely oppose our contentment with ‘thou’ in hymns and have launched a campaign to undermine our peace with the second person singular. Why should attempts be resisted to change hymns written with the word ‘thou’ into the word ‘you’? Or at least why should the pretentious claims about the benefits of so doing be given a raised eyebrow?
1. Hymns are poetry. So they scan and rhyme and use alliteration and imagery. No one talks to another person in the language of hymns because they are sung poems. A poet may choose an archaic word for its surprise value, making the line more memorable. A contemporary poet from Africa or India might select the word “Thou!” for the effect it produces. Who has the right to say ‘Desist!’?
2. We do not address God in the same tone of voice with which we speak to fellow sinners. Our God is a consuming fire and is to be approached with reverence and godly fear. One cultural means of reminding us of this is the fact that we may address God by saying to him ‘Thou.’ In the New Testament it was different. Even the devil was addressed by ‘thou’ – “Get thee behind me Satan.” But in contemporary America and the English speaking world today ‘Thou’ is almost exclusively reserved for communion with God. In our famine of awe something that might help our posture before him – our sense of insignificance – as simple as this, is not to be mocked. “The very thought of you,” is Cole Porter or Irving Berlin. “Jesus the very thought of Thee,” is worship. Who uses ‘Thou’ today? Wall Street executives, scientists, charismatics, old people who left school at 14, Koreans in the West, miners, Scottish fishermen, in fact all kinds of people. ‘Thou’ lives.
3. ‘Thou’, ‘thee, ‘thy’ and ‘thine’ extend the range of rhyming and provide a contrast with ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ in a manner which ‘you’ and ‘yours’ fail to do. In the Penguin Rhyming Dictionary the word ‘you’ has a mere page of words which rhyme with it. The word ‘your’ throws up just 17 words, a few of which can be used in the plural form: doer, brewer, sewer, ewer, skewer, skua, Dewar, viewer, wrongdoer, pursuer, reviewer, evildoer, tamandua (tree-living mammal), Porirua (New Zealand city), Rotorua, revenuer (US revenue officer), interviewer. In other words there is virtually no word for a hymnist, writing in the language of devotion concerning the personal relationship of the worshiper with Almighty God, that rhymes with ‘yours’. The word ‘thine’ however, has a page and a half of words which rhyme – about 500 of them. The word ‘thee’ has virtually an innumerable number of words to rhyme with it, including most adverbs, all listed in many pages in the Rhyming Dictionary. What opportunities for creativity this gives to the Christian poet. Think of the problem of changing the ‘Thine’ of the following hymn to ‘Yours’: “Lord Jesus, I love Thee I know I am Thine,/ For thee all the pleasures of sin I resign.” It is impossible to simply sing, “Lord Jesus I love You, I know I am Yours,” because when you scan the Rhyming Dictionary’s suggestions you end up with something as unsingably banal as, “I thank You for saving all us poor wrongdoers.” There is not much else.
4. The words ‘thou’, thee’, and ‘thine’, are sweet sounding words. They are formed by the tip of the tongue being placed against the front teeth, and this soft sound emerges. The words ‘you’, and ‘yours’ by contrast are harsh words, guttural sounds, made at the back of the throat. Though American pronunciation tries to soften it to their ‘yoo’ sound, in many British cities, and South Wales valleys ‘you’ is mostly pronounced as ‘yew’ which is not euphonic at all. The sweetness of a sound is more important than you think. A name is given to a child because it is a euphonic word. A house would not be called ‘A Sound of the Wave’ in English because it is pretentious and sounds like a tourist night-club on the Spanish Riviera. But in every seaside town in Wales you will come across houses named ‘Swn-y-Don’ (A Sound of the Wave) because in that language, unlike in English, the sound of those words is sweet. Every poet is conscious of the sound made by the words he chooses, especially in hymns which are written to be sung aloud. He combines them with that effect in mind – “He maketh a rebel a priest and a king,/ He hath bought us and taught us a new song to sing.” And, “Then we shall be where we would be,/ Then we shall be what we should be,/ That which is not now, nor could be,/ Then shall be our own.” There is also a trend in modern hymn-writers, locked into ‘you’ by evangelical political correctness, to seek liberation from the restraints of the second person plural by writing hymns about God using the third person pronouns ‘He’ and ‘Him’ rather than the direct and immediate form of address, for example, “Tell out, my soul, the glories of His word!/ Firm is His promise and His mercy sure.”
5. The tradition of writing hymns with ‘thou,’ ‘thee’, and ‘thine’ is very much alive. Consider the hymns of Vernon Higham (Tentmaker Publications), one of the most prolific of modern hymnists. They are all written in the second person singular, and they continue to be written as such in this millennium. Amongst the most popular hymns of the 20th century were, “How great Thou art,” and “Great is Thy faithfulness” and “So let the praises of my heart be Thine.”
6. One of the hymns we sing is a paraphrase of a psalm of Moses written 3,400 years ago. The other psalms were written 3,000 years ago. The most popular wedding hymn chosen generally by people who never went to church (the ones being targeted today) was one such ancient psalm. The people singing it never thought that it was ‘old’ or that when it said, “My table Thou has furnished” it was ‘funny’ because they are not stupid and are aware that that is poetical devotional language. It is humbling in this age to be using hymns that stretch over the history of the church laden with such built in time codes as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. To sing a hymn written by the Puritan, John Mason (1645-1694) “Thousands of thousands stand around/ Thy throne, O God most high;/ Ten thousand times ten thousand sound/ Thy praise; but who am I?”; or by Charles Wesley (1707-1788) from the next century, “Jesus! Lover of my soul,/ Let me to Thy bosom fly,”; or by Josiah Conder (1789-1855) from the nineteenth century, “Thou art the everlasting Word,/ The Father’s only Son:”; or by Alan Clifford (1941- ) in the twentieth century, “Blessed Jesus! how Thy name/ Fills my heart with holy flame;/ Can there be such love as Thine,/ Love so free and so divine?/ Hallelujah”; is to be conscious of what a small space in the history of God’s church we briefly occupy. It mortifies self-importance to be reminded of how the early fathers, and reformers, and Puritans, and leaders of the Evangelical Awakening had served God in their eras, as the men from Princeton and Edinburgh and London had served God in the nineteenth century. We have served him in that same historic Christian faith experiencing the same battles for truth and righteousness in the twentieth century and will do so, according to our light and power, in this century. I love to sing the hymns our mighty fathers wrote, and hope one or two of ours will be sung in the future and so on until the Saviour comes.
I sigh at the spirit evident in this barren age encouraging “a decisive break” with the past. That past is for the charismatic a history without ‘tongues’, and without ‘prophecies’, a history of scarcity, and ‘one man ministries’, undemocratic and oppressive. For me it is none of those things. It has been the age of the Spirit compared to our age of religious declension. Dr Johnson was very conscious of the benefits of the past. He said, “Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses – whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of human beings.” How important that observation is in the setting of today’s worship services which are designed by personality, music, drama, ritual, dance and humour to appeal to men’s senses. But the best hymns are those that focus on the eternity of the ever-living One. The best Book began to be written almost three and a half thousand years ago and its words, still read each Sunday, are today Spirit and life.
I love those ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s like ivy resting upon old ruins, the embrace of time swiftly burying Christian excitement about a date stamp – “Composed in 2001”! Soon most of our compositions will be compost eaten by worms. The magnetic field of the earth eventually demagnetises sermon cassettes someone told me. Is that true? If so that too fills me with delight. All flesh is as grass. The Word of the Lord endureth for ever. How curious this capacity we have to enter a 19th century chapel with its stiff-backed pews and see our neighbours there, worship alongside them and gain fresh life from the old and human which is blest by God. How blinkered are those who cannot see that.
7. The older I get the poorer is my eyesight, and I cannot swiftly read the words in hymnals even with my glasses. How quickly the new lens becomes insufficiently strong. They don’t make glasses like they used to. The partially sighted cannot read their hymnals at all. I love to discard spectacles and book and sing the words of hymns I have sung for over sixty years knowing myself to be before the living God with an innumerable company of angels, and with my sister and blessed parents who have passed into the Lord’s present before me – “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” I love to lift up my voice and lead the congregation. I would hate to bury my nose in a book again and sing uncertainly what has become totally new hymns that have been de-thou’d, with booby-traps in each line. How the volume of the praise has been diminished. Learning new hymns – fine. learning new tunes – delightful. But de-theeing and de-thouing a hymn has been given a go – as best as it can be done – and the lines limp.
It is not words like ‘thou’, ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ that need to be changed to make the Christian message hissing hot and pyrotechnic. It is the contemporary jargon that degrades our thoughts and weakens our language.
Great words in the Bible are ignored and others are devalued. The congregations are not taught their meaning and encouraged to use them correctly. We need the spiritual nurture of prayer, reflection and reading widely. Men and women have written and continue to write far too many hymns and they have thought too little. Our promotion of these hymns can become a cover up for the absence of deep reverence, joy and godly fear within our gatherings. Any engineering of man cannot compensate for the absence of the Spirit. We have been seduced by the band and the group, the drums and the choreography, the closed eyes and the uplifted hands. They are not the answer. As William Cowper warns in “The Task”, the church ought not to stoop To conquer those by jocular exploits Whom truth and soberness assailed in vain.
The best hymns from every age will continue to be sung without ‘hacks’ making them ‘relevant.’ Let’s stop hacking and speak peace.