As culture and language change, the way in which Christians express their adoration and love for God also changes. Singing has always been a significant part of Christian worship and in the early eighteenth century Isaac Watts insisted that hymns should be both ‘intelligible and delightful’. For him this meant that they had to be contemporary, and he set out to achieve this for his own generation. Two hundred and fifty years after Watts, many of those responsible for leading services are finding it increasingly hard to choose some of the traditional hymns; they were written in a language which is at times unfamiliar for a modern congregation. To many, words or whole lines are either unintelligible or amusing because meanings have changed. The result is that many churches are abandoning traditional hymns altogether. As the pile of acetates grows, so our older hymns are forgotten and we are in danger of losing their valuable expression of the strong theology and scriptural experiences of our Christian faith. This trend must be reversed.
The work of Praise! began with a few who are associated with the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches revising some of the traditional hymns. Vision expanded as an increasing number of people expressed the same interest. Grace Publications Trust was independently also considering the possibility of producing a new hymn book. We found ourselves to be in full agreement, and the Praise Editorial Board was established. This Board, together with six working groups, an Advisory Council, the Praise Trust, and more than five years of hard work, finally led to Praise!
It was recognised that revising our heritage of hymns was not our only challenge. Many new renderings of biblical psalms were being published. There was also a stream of newly written material in the form of hymns and songs, and we acknowledged that much of this modern material was excellent. This was the challenge: to revise our traditional hymns sensitively and therefore ensure their survival for the next generation, to choose the best psalm renderings available so that we could experience singing psalms in a more contemporary idiom, and to compile a selection of modern hymns and songs which were likely to be the most enduring, or which added a fresh feel to our worship. We aimed at a hymn book for the twenty-first century.
A sample of eighty-eight items was published early in 1998 and this was used at a number of conferences. Many responses and suggestions were received. Each comment was carefully considered and we learned much from them. The proposed list of first lines was published later that year and this produced further response. A few pleaded for their particular favourites to be included but there was surprisingly little convergence in these lists. We believe that our choices will be generally acceptable. In the spring of 1999 Echo Recordings produced a CD and cassette of some twenty-one selected items from the book.
Why did we dare to revise?
Some have suggested that we should not touch the results of the great hymn writers of the past; but these writers frequently revised their own work, and their contemporaries also made changes. John Wesley might have forbidden anyone to revise his work, but that did not stop him revising the works of Isaac Watts. In fact, many of our hymns have been subjected to the insights of later editors, and today we do not often sing from a complete and unaltered text. All our hymn books contain both acknowledged and unacknowledged changes. Verses have been moved, many have been lost, and subtle revisions are commonplace. Sometimes we found it impossible to trace the original and wondered just whose hymn we were looking at! The argument that we should never touch our heritage was lost more than two hundred years ago.
Hymns are not intended to be monuments to the literary genius of past poets. They must be judged by their ability to express great Christian truth and experience in a clear and contemporary way. Here in Praise! we offer some of our historic hymns in a language that is accessible to the modern worshipper and is not necessarily inferior in literary quality to that of the original.
However, to chart a course of revision and to arrive at a perfect haven are two very different things. We do not pretend that our results are perfect, but we are satisfied that they have not been arrived at lightly. Many hours have been spent wrestling with details. We have always tried to be sensitive to the language of the author, although at times a phrase or word has been introduced that would not have been used in the eighteenth century. Reference to the fact that a hymn is in a Jubilate or Praise! version should encourage our minds to leave a previous century and enter the third millennium. We have enjoyed many debates to discover exactly what particular authors meant or whether we agreed with what they meant. Earlier hymn-writers did not have a monopoly in either knowing the truth or accurately expressing it, and where necessary we have chosen not to perpetuate either their error or their inexact expression.
We hope that congregations will sing these revisions with a mind open to the possibility that a particular change might be an improvement, and that if they were singing it for the first time they might actually prefer it.
We set ourselves the goal of including at least one version for each item in the Book of Psalms, and to achieve this some have been specially written for Praise! The chief policy decision was that each had to be either a close version of the original, or one that gave a sympathetic treatment of the range of themes included. Hymns which follow the psalm only generally, or which focus on just one part, can be found elsewhere in the book. Careful attention has been paid to the meaning of each psalm in its context. The challenge of the length and content of psalms, combined with the variety of styles by our writers, has provided a rich diversity of renderings accessible for a contemporary congregation. Those psalms that clearly look forward to the coming of Christ (messianic) have been often interpreted in this way, and those that include prayers against enemies (imprecatory) have been dealt with as statements of how God acts towards evil in general.
Modern hymns and songs
As in every era of hymn writing, many of the modern hymns and songs will not outlive their generation. We looked for items that contain biblical truth and the expression of scriptural experience, combined with contemporary language. Some will have lasting value whilst others, perhaps especially the single-verse songs, will prove less enduring, but they have a place in our worship today. Included in Praise! is some previously unpublished material, both words and music. Many of the authors and composers are publishing here for the first time.
The choice of authors
We agreed that biblical accuracy and modern relevance would determine our choice of items. The inclusion of any particular authors, whether past or present, does not necessarily imply our agreement with all their theology. In this we have adopted the position of most hymn books in general use today.
The over-use of masculine words to refer to all Christians, or the human race generally, has sometimes been seen as inaccurate or unnecessarily offensive today. Whilst we have not allowed ourselves to become servants of the popular demand to use inclusive language at all costs, where a simple change could be made, which was both consistent with Scripture and appropriate to the hymn, then we have been happy to make it.
Using the second singular
Some Christians still prefer to address God in the second person singular thou, with the unfamiliar verb endings such as dost, wouldíst, art, wert and wilt. They enjoy our respect and their own freedom. However, there is no biblical basis for this practice. The second singular is not used today, and most contemporary Bible translations have dropped this archaic form. We have used them in only three instances in the book, once to retain an older and familiar version of Psalm 23 and twice where we were unable to obtain permission to change a popular item that is still under copyright restrictions. Problems that arose because of rhymes with thee and thine were often difficult but rarely insurmountable. In a few instances we concluded, with regret, that a text could not be revised successfully; for this reason some items had to be dropped.
Hymns for children
In order to make room for a wider selection of both traditional and modern items, the decision was taken not to include a section of hymns for younger worshippers. Far from implying any lack of concern on our part for children in worship, it expressed our recognition that hymns are not what most children enjoy singing today in the context of Christian worship, and that to meet their need is a specialist area in itself. However, some of the hymns included are suitable for children.
The use of capital letters
We have used capitals sparingly in order to retain their significance. Initial letters for pronouns and adjectives for the Godhead are lower case; this follows the pattern of many of the older hymn writers, like Watts and Wesley. However, we have used capitals for words that follow the vocative ëOí and those which follow the definite article ëtheí as a title. Sometimes our apparent inconsistency in this area is due to the fact that the item is still in copyright and we did not receive permission to change to our own house style.
The covenant name for God
The Hebrew Old Testament uses two distinct words when referring to God as Lord. One is the special name for Israel’s covenant-keeping Redeemer (Yahweh), printed as LORD in most of our Bible translations; the other is the common word for lord or master (adonai), printed as Lord. In the psalms section we have followed the rule that small capitals are used for the divine name LORD only where Yahweh is used in the biblical original. However, not infrequently the more common word (adonai) is also used to refer to deity. Where we have introduced the word Lord to refer to God we have retained the lower case.
Whilst language has changed significantly but slowly, with music it is different. The last four decades have seen an explosion in the variety and availability of music. At one time people may have gone for days without hearing any music, but today we hear it wherever we go. Few children leave primary school without the ability to make music of some kind. Because of all this, or some might think in spite of it, the general standard and appreciation of harmony and rhythm is possibly higher than it has ever been. Inevitably, this plethora of music has had an impact upon Christian worship.
In Praise! we have tried to ensure that the best of the old tunes mingle with the best of the new. We have enhanced the harmonies of some of the older tunes, but we have never changed the melody. Among the tunes that appear here for the first time in a hymnbook, many have been specially commissioned. It is our hope that congregations will both learn and enjoy singing new tunes and new harmonies.
However, we recognise that some tunes are more appropriate than others in different circumstances. Partly for this reason, we have often cross-referenced to alternative tunes. To every tune we have attached chords, so that accompaniment is not limited to keyboards. We have also printed the first stanza of the words between the music staves to help resolve any difficulties about how the words should be sung.
Our aim has always been to help those who sing; the music and the musicians are means to this end, they are not ends in themselves. Above all we want the music to be singable so that Christians can encourage one another and glorify God.
In our task of revision we have been greatly indebted to the directors and members of Jubilate Hymns whose spirit of cooperation in allowing us to use and even to alter some of their work, saved us many hours and many mistakes. To all other copyright holders, and the many individuals who patiently allowed us to suggest small changes or major rewrites of their work, we gladly express our sincere thanks.
The members of the Editorial Board and various teams enjoyed an unbroken relationship of friendship and unity in the lively debates prior to decision-making. None of us won all our best arguments, but everyone was ready to concede when the vote went the other way. However, our work would never have been accomplished without the small army of men and women dealing with words, music, copyright, administration and production. Their contribution of enthusiasm, perseverance, ability, and an eye to the glory of God, has made the whole project possible. In particular we are grateful to Chris Prest, Jim Ransome, Alistair Reeve and Steve Devane for their valuable coordination, copyright, secretarial and design assistance respectively.
The Victorian hymn writer Henry Twells wrote in one of his hymns, “Change marches onward: may all change be blest!” This seems especially appropriate for all of us who have worked on Praise! for the past five or six years. It has been our prayer that Praise! would be a work of excellence in order to bring honour to God, to exalt Jesus Christ and to benefit the congregational worship of Christian churches. However, we recognise the potential for conflict in introducing a new hymn book. In his preceding line Twells wrote, “Strife is among us: melt that strife to peace”. We have prayed that this book would not be a cause of division. We are aware of the strong convictions held by some against the revision of traditional hymns, by others against “tampering” with the psalms, and by others against the inclusion of works by particular authors. We respect these views, but they are not ours, nor are they the views of a growing number of biblically based Christians today.
We therefore offer Praise! as a hymn book for contemporary Christian congregations and pray that it will bring encouragement “as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
The Editorial Board
Gill Berry, Margaret Ellis, Rich Horton, Linda Mawson, Jim Sayers (chairman)