Hymns to Avoid

by Royce Eckhardt

I love hymns. I love hearing them sung. I have always enjoyed playing hymns and arranging them. That said, there are some hymns that you might want to avoid. They can cause confusion or embarrassment — or both. They may cause you to snicker, which is not usually conducive to worship.

The renowned Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, former president of Union Theological Seminary, once told his class that he had often thought of compiling a collection called Hymns Jesus Would Not Have Liked, but the volume would probably be too large and heavy to be held or placed in a pew rack.

Most of these examples are from hymns that are at least a century old; some are much older. What strikes us now as humorous in most cases is simply quaint. Expressions that seemed perfectly apt and fitting for their time don’t work well today. We see how much devotional language has changed, particularly in hymns and worship vocabulary.

What follows is a sampling of some unintended hymnic humor, quaint songs and strange expressions.

From the otherwise grand medieval Palm Sunday hymn, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” comes this gem from the original stanza seven, now always omitted:

O Lord, be thou the rider and we the little ass,
That to God’s Holy City together we may pass.

An old gospel song, found in the beloved “brown hymnal,” (1930) is “Even Me,” a contemplative prayer hymn seeking God’s blessings. The opening stanza reads:

Lord, I hear of showers of blessing Thou art scattering full and free
Showers the thirsty land refreshing; let some droppings fall on me.

Later versions got rid of the droppings.

From the Covenant’s “green hymnal” (1950) are several rather curiously worded hymns:

More and more my heart’s aflutter with the thoughts I may not utter (#559)

Sounds like a cardiologist may be required.

When heaven’s opening gates invite the pilgrim’s feet;
And Jesus at the entrance waits to place them on his seat? (#189)

Make up your own interpretation.

Also in the “green hymnal” is a hymn entitled:

Awake, My Soul, to Joyful Lays (#188)

No comment.

Isaac Watts, the “father of English hymnody,” wrote many magnificent hymn texts for children, such as “I Sing the Almighty Power of God,” and also provided some moralistic admonitions for kids in his “Divine Songs in Easy Language for Use of Children” (1715):

Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God has made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For ‘tis their nature, too.
But children, you should never let
Such angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other’s eyes.

Try that out in your local Sunday School.

From an old gospel songbook is this song title: “I Find Christ Adequate.” An interesting Christological perspective. The author must not have read Colossians 1.

Speaking of the old song books from yesteryear, here are a couple of cozy hymn texts:

Snuggle up close to Jesus and rest a little while;
Snuggle up close to Jesus and bask in the sun of his smile.

This one is entitled “My Honeymoon:”

Jesus is the only Lover of my soul;
He has won my heart and now has full control.
Other lovers come and go,
Jesus never leaves me, so
There’s a honeymoon in my heart all the time.

An inappropriate tune can diminish and even contradict an otherwise fine text; conversely, an appropriate, well-crafted tune, conveying the mood of the message, can enhance even an unremarkable hymn text. Or a tune may have strong associations with something quite foreign to the message of the text. Here’s an example:

Glory to God! Peace on the earth!
Goodwill to men sang the angels above.
Glory to God! Peace on the earth!
Goodwill to men—sounds the chorus of love!

Here’s the kicker: the text is married to Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” (“Here Comes the Bride”)!

In a discussion of inappropriate hymn tunes, this might be Exhibit A.

One of the original stanzas of the classic hymn “How Firm a Foundation” provided this imagery:

E’en down to old age all my people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.

I should consult with my barber about trimming my hoary hairs.

Perhaps this one gets first prize for the most “unusual” hymn. You’ll definitely want to avoid this song in morning worship. Its title: “There’s Crap on the Door.” Here’s the first stanza, followed by a badly needed explanation:

Ring the bells softly, there’s crap on the door;
One now is sleeping whose sorrows are o’er;
White folded hands and calm, silent breast,
Peacefully, lovingly, now take their rest.
Waiting the judgment day, passing before;
Ring the bells softly, there’s crap on the door.

This 1896 text comes from an old Presbyterian collection; it was wisely omitted in later publications. The correct word should be “crepe,” coming from a time where black crepe was placed on the front door of the home of a deceased person during the period of bereavement. Somehow, through a printer’s error or someone’s misprint, or perhaps an evil spirit, crepe became crap.

From the section of home and family hymns, here’s a cheery one entitled, “Be Kind to the Loved Ones at Home.”

Be kind to thy father—for when thou wert young, who loved thee so fondly as he?
He caught the first accents that fell from thy tongue, and joined in thine innocent glee.
Be kind to thy father for now he is old, his locks intermingled with gray;
His footsteps are feeble, once fearless and bold, thy father is passing away.

Not exactly an uplifting Hallmark greeting.

E. O. Excell’s Triumphant Songs: A Collection of Gospel Hymns for Sunday Schools and Revivals, Hymns of Prayer and Praise for Devotional Meetings, Etc., Etc. (exact title) of 1896 contains a number of standard gospel songs from that era. Inside the back cover are advertisements of additional songs that may be purchased from Excell’s press:

The World, The Flesh, and the (D)evil One
He’s a Drunkard Tonight
Tighten Your Grip
You Better Quit Your Meanness

These are songs not wrapped in theological subtleties or moral ambiguities, but are quite direct and to the point—a sort of hymnic admonition that “you’d better shape up!”

Finally, this narrative of the second coming of Christ from a 1923 gospel songbook. It differs somewhat from the descriptions given in the Epistles, giving the parousia a more modern eschatological approach:

One of these nights at twelve o’clock this old world’s gonna reel and rock;
Poor sinners will tremble and cry for pain, and the Lord will come in his aeroplane.
Chorus:
Ho, ye weary of every tribe, get your ticket for this aeroplane ride.
Jesus our Savior is coming to reign and take us to glory in His heavenly aeroplane.
You may ride in your automobiles, of lightning speed on your motor wheels,
We’ll break all records as up we fly in an aeroplane joyride through the sky.
There will be no punctures on muddy roads, no broken axles from overloads,
No sparks to trouble or cause delay as we soar in rapture up the Milky Way.

Yes, I love hymns. They proclaim our theology, implant the scriptures, support the preaching of the Word, animate and enrich worship, and give us language for our prayers and petitions.

But there are some that you might want to avoid.

Royce Eckhardt was music editor for the Covenant Hymnal Commissions and taught hymnology at North Park Seminary. He lives in Wilmette, Ill.

See all articles by Royce Eckhardt