Altering Hymn Lyrics and the Golden Rule

Christianity Today recently asked various people to weigh in on whether it is ever appropriate to alter hymns. Most of the article is hidden behind a paywall, but the first few responses are visible.

That article brings to mind a helpful 2012 post from Bob Kauflin, “Can I Change the Lyrics to Your Song?” He explains why he usually says “no,” and gives an example of a remarkably gracious email request, which he denied with similar grace. Sadly, as he notes, most such exchanges are not so gracious, and many don’t even ask permission. In fact, as Christianity Today noted, sometimes a singer changes a song in a way its author would not approve.

Under what scenarios, if any, is it appropriate to alter a hymn’s lyrics? The potential scenarios are almost infinite. Some examples:

  • Changing a hymn with orthodox lyrics to unorthodox lyrics
  • Changing a hymn with unorthodox lyrics to orthodox lyrics
  • Within orthodox traditions, changing a hymn from one tradition to reflect another tradition’s doctrine
  • Changing one line in a hymn the singer finds especially problematic
  • Preserving a hymn mostly intact but adding a new praise chorus
  • Adding verses
  • Modernizing the language

Which of these are appropriate, and which are not?

First, copyright makes a difference. Songs that are still under copyright cannot be changed without the permission of the copyright holder. If the author’s alive, this may be the author. If the author has passed away but the song remains under copyright, the current copyright holder can approve or deny lyric change requests. (Copyright holders can be found at the BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC repertories.)

But for songs in the public domain, I would suggest a simple answer. Apply the Golden Rule. Jesus said, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). As you consider whether to make a lyric change, ask, “Would the author have wanted this change to be made?”

For changes that impact doctrine, I would suggest that the answer is no. John Wesley said that while he did not mind if others reprinted his hymns, “I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able . . . to mend either the sense or the verse.”

Frederick Faber originally wrote “Faith of Our Fathers” as an overtly Roman Catholic hymn. One verse originally read:

Faith of our Fathers! Mary’s prayers
Shall win our country back to thee:
And through the truth that comes from God
England shall then indeed be free.

It is safe to say that he would not approve of Protestant adaptations.

On the other hand, there are changes which most authors would quite heartily approve. The clearest examples come when language changes mean that the author’s original words do not preserve their original intent. One example is Robert Southwell, a hymnwriter who lived in the 1500s. His hymn title “Behold a Silly, Tender Babe” does not mean today what it meant then. At that time, “silly” meant helpless. Were he to understand how much the meaning of the word “silly” has changed today, he would quite likely approve a change.

Another example is from a much more familiar hymn, Augustus Toplady’s “Rock of Ages.” Originally, the climactic verse says, “While I draw this fleeting breath / When my eye-strings break in death.” At the time, it seems, current medical opinion held that strings held eyes in place and broke at death. If Toplady lived today, he would probably be as hesitant to sing “eye-strings break” as the rest of us. Even he would probably prefer the now-standard alteration “when my eyes shall close in death.”

From an ethical standpoint, there is no more simple and straightforward approach to this question than the Golden Rule.

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