In recent years, we’ve heard a number of evangelical leaders and hymn writers denounce sappy, Jesus-as-boyfriend language in our songs. This is good. The problem is not new, however; it showed up in 19th-century Gospel songs, German Pietist hymns of the early 18th century, and probably a number of earlier places, too.

The following passage comes from Reginald Heber (1783-1826), Anglican bishop and hymnwriter best known for penning the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. Offering up a few of his own hymn texts for consideration, Heber sent along these remarks:

In one respect at least, he [Heber] hopes that the following poems will not be found reprehensible;–no fulsome [that is, flattering] or indecorous language has been knowingly adopted: no erotic addresses to Him whom no unclean lip can approach; no allegory ill understood, and worse applied. It is not enough, in his opinion, to object to such expressions, that they are fanatical: they are positively profane. When our Savior was on earth, and in great humility conversant with mankind; when he sat at the tables, and washed the feet, and healed the diseases of his creatures; yet did not his disciples give him any more familiar name than Master, or Lord. And now, at the right hand of his Father’s Majesty, shall we address him with ditties of embraces and passion, or language which it would be disgraceful in an earthly sovereign to endure? Such expressions, it is said, are taken from Scripture: but even if the original application, which is often doubtful, were clearly and unequivocally ascertained, yet though the collective Christian church may very properly be personified as the spouse of Christ, an application of such language to individual believers is as dangerous as it is absurd and unauthorized. Nor is it going too far to assert, that the brutalities of a common swearer can hardly bring religion into more sure contempt, or more scandalously profane the Name which is above every name in heaven and earth, than certain epithets applied to Christ in our popular collections of religious poetry.”

– Letter to the Editor of The Christian Observer (London, October 1811). As appears in Hymnology: A Collection of Source Readings, David W. Music: Scarecrow Press, 1996 (151-2).

Takeaways:

  1. In Heber’s view, sappy language cheapens the name of Christ and invites the scorn of onlookers; in fact, we might as well be hurling around curse words.
  2. Heber implies a number of specific violations to avoid in hymn language: engaging in flattery (emotionally over-the-top ascriptions of praise), employing language usually reserved for expressions of romantic love, including awkward or vague allegories, referring to Christ in casual terms, and applying aspects of the Bride of Christ to individual believers.
  3. I don’t think Heber is saying that they should only call Jesus “Master” or “Lord” in public worship; only that Christianity had gone far beyond expressions of familial love into rank sentimentalism.
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