This article is part of our series on Voices Together, a new worship and song collection coming fall 2020 from MennoMedia, in partnership with Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.
The words we sing in worship carry tremendous power to form our theological imaginations. The poetry we sing can become ingrained in our memories in ways that sermons and readings cannot. Songs learned in childhood remain with us throughout our lives.
What language do we hope will form the generations that will grow up using Voices Together? We strive to balance the formational needs of the growing church with the living repository of congregational song that has been handed down for hundreds (and even thousands) of years.
Every hymnal committee wrestles with changes in language and theology, and the Voices Together committee has invested considerable energy and time into these issues.
For every song that will be in Voices Together, the full committee has discussed text, tune and accompaniment, and considered and voted on possible changes. Subcommittees determine whether such changes are available already in other denominational hymnals, or they propose new options. Sometimes copyright status prevents changes; or, in cases where authors are still living, we attempt to contact them directly to discuss possible alterations. Some authors are quite amenable and provide helpful updates, while others prefer that we include their work “as-is.”
Older texts present additional issues to consider. The article “Why we change hymn texts” by Katie Graber, published in The Mennonite and The Canadian Mennonite in 2017, discussed some of the issues associated with publishing historic texts, including translations and published changes over time. Many hymns that Mennonites have learned from The Mennonite Hymnal (1969) and Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992) have been changed from their original published form:
- Older texts that were first written in non-English languages have often been published in multiple English translations over decades or centuries. See, for example, these less familiar translations of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “Be Thou My Vision.”
- Many texts written in English prior to the 20th century are found with multiple variations in early published sources. For example, this early version of “In the Rifted Rock” is different from Hymnal: A Worship Book, and I know that “My Redeemer Lives” looks somewhat different in this version from 1800 (see page 87-88).
- Songs from the oral tradition are notoriously difficult to “pin down” on paper. African American spirituals can often be found in multiple variations. This book about the Fisk Jubilee Singers published in 1883 includes many familiar spirituals, as well as some that are different from the way many denominational hymnals print them today. European folk tunes are also published and performed in many versions. “O Waly Waly” (known as “When Love Is Found” in Hymnal: A Worship Book) is an example of a tune with multiple “correct” versions. “Star of the County Down,” known as “My Soul Cries Out” in Sing the Story, is also related to the tune KINGSFOLD, paired with “I Heard The Voice of Jesus Say” in Hymnal: A Worship Book.
The books and websites linked above are only a small portion of the research we do on songs to be included in Voices Together. For each historical text, we examine the earliest available publications to determine whether they might inform changes. We consider literal meanings of the original languages to assess the quality of our received translations. In all these cases, we balance the idea of “the original” with the way our received versions have become heart songs in our congregations.
Take “This Is My Father’s World” as an example of many of these issues. The first publication of this poem included 16 stanzas (you can read them all here), and Franklin L. Sheppard combined six of these into the three verses often published in denominational hymnals. The Voices Together Summer Sampler includes several lines from an original stanza that had not been part of the Hymnal: A Worship Book version: “a wanderer I may roam/whate’er my lot, it matters not,/ my heart is always home.” We also used a text change already published in other hymnals, “This is God’s Wondrous World,” following the rationale that this text is not primarily about God as father but rather focuses on God as creator. By contrast, consider “Children of the Heavenly Father,” which weaves the father metaphor throughout its text. The committee’s goal is for Voices Together to include an expansive variety of images for God, both familiar and fresh.
Gendered language for God and humans is one of the most visible and formative aspects of language, but it is not the only issue the committee considers. We also recognize that the language we use related to darkness has the power to shape our imaginations. “Darkness” has consistently and overwhelmingly been associated with sin, suffering, and evil, which extrapolates too easily to the way race has traditionally been discussed. Likewise, if terms like “blind” and “lame” are only ever presented as maladies to be healed, we are not singing the lived experiences of many people in our communities. We have worked to receive counsel from a variety of people who may be affected by or who will see themselves in the language we employ around race, gender, ability and more.
When integrating changes, the poetry and theology of the received material guides our choices. It is generally not enough simply to substitute one word for another. The flow of the phrase must be taken into account. Our goal is that a person encountering the text for the first time would not recognize what about it has been altered.
There will be changes to some texts in Voices Together that may seem startling at first, but there will also be many songs with very subtle changes that may not be noticed at all. And some will appear exactly as in Hymnal: A Worship Book, even when there might have been compelling reasons to make a change. We hope that as worshippers adjust to the new collection, they will receive our work with grace and curiosity as they find new ways to worship a God who is beyond all our words.
For more information on this project, see VoicesTogetherHymnal.org or follow Voices Together Hymnal on Facebook.
Katie Graber is an ethnomusicologist who studies race and ethnicity in a variety of contexts including Mennonite music, American music, and European opera. She has taught classes on Western music history and world music, and she accompanies Suzuki recitals and school choirs. She leads singing at her church in Columbus, Ohio, and chairs the Intercultural Worship committee for the Voices Together project.
Adam M. L. Tice is text editor for Voices Together. His hymn texts appear in numerous recently published hymnals. He lives in Goshen, Indiana, and attends Faith Mennonite Church.