Thursday, March 29, 2007

19th Century Hymnody - Jesus, the Cosmic Pal

The words I, me, my begin to show up with great frequency in the 19th C. Theology increasing stressed “personal relationship” rather than corporate belief, and this is reflected in the hymnody. Look at the following hymn-titles (I’m not linking individually to cyberhymnal this time. You can go yourself) and note how many fall into this “ me, talkin’ to Jesus” pattern: about half. If you know the lyrics, they only reinforce the thought.

Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine…
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide…

This Is My Father’s world
O Worship the King All Glorious Above
Praise the Lord His Glories Show
Praise My Soul The King of Heaven
Stand Up and Bless the Lord
My Jesus I Love Thee
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
Sweet Hour of Prayer
What a Friend We Have In Jesus
He Leadeth Me
All the Way, My Saviour Leads Me
I Need Thee Every Hour
Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult
O Master Let Me Walk With Thee
Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory
Rejoice Ye Pure In Heart
Immortal, Invisible
For The Beauty Of The Earth
Come Christians, Join to Sing
Crown Him With Many Crowns
Breathe On Me Breath of God
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart
Faith Of Our Fathers
Lead On O King Eternal
Once To Every Man and Nation

More subtly, pronouns are used more often for God and Jesus as well. The intimate Thee, Thy, are still used, but they have less of their family-closeness meaning, and are used increasingly for their archaic cachet. Where the earlier hymns had been more likely to address God with some proper name or title, in the 1800’s He and You become more common. I attach no especial significance to that, as the psalms are loaded with these conversation pronouns also. But the frequency becomes great in the 19th C, and will become even more pronounced in the Camp Meeting hymns we will discuss later. It may be that the use of everyday pronouns instead of titles for God produces both more intimacy and less awe.

The other half are clear descendants of the hymns of previous centuries – the greatness and glory of God, expressed in complex lyric and harmony – and the we, us approach has not vanished.
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty…
The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord…

I wonder if the me-ness is related to the increased movement of the English-speaking peoples. Colonists may have arrive in North America two centuries before, but the lineage often moved just the once – to Massachusetts or Virginia or New Jersey – and then remained fairly close to their original settlement area for generations. Not until the late 18th C do we start to see great internal migration in the US and Canada, and within Great Britain itself. In the 19th Century this accelerates, and people may have seen themselves less as parts of communities and more as individuals. This theology of personal relationship would have more appeal for the uprooted, the isolated, and the itinerant.

This nostalgiac emphasis shows up in popular music of the time as well. I think every Irish song of the 19th Century is about “the girl I left behind who waits for me still back in _____, while I work here in ______.”

The archaic language may have much the same purpose. He leadeth me – that “eth” had dropped out of conversational English long before. Mine eyes have seen the glory, Rejoice ye pure in heart – similarly obsolete. The anachronism may have provided a sense of connectedness to not only the past, but the Church itself. One might be hundreds of miles from a birthplace and worshipping alone or with a small group of strangers, but still feel some connection because of the continuity.

Such archaisms don’t connect us to the historical church as a whole, but only a small part. The “old” ways and “ancient” language we feel an affection for might be only a century old itself, or a few at most. No matter, they predate our own birth and were used in our childhood churches, which gives them some stamp of authenticity. We remain connected to the true faith, we think, because it is in the form we originally received it in.

This sentiment is my explanation for the persistence of people insisting against all logic on the King James as the only reliable translation. It is not mere nostalgia, but an impression of authenticity. It was the form our grandfathers used, and their grandfathers also, which is our guarantee that what we believe must still be the true faith. KJV advocates even use the term textus receptus for the early documents that this particular translation was made from: the Received Text. The faith as received from time immemorial. The fact that we have added meanings and interpretations that our grandfathers knew not we can ignore. Same translation, same faith.


Anonymous said...

No matter, they predate our own birth and were used in our childhood churches, which gives them some stamp of authenticity. We remain connected to the true faith, we think, because it is in the form we originally received it in.

I wonder whether/how this relates to the use of Latin for the Catholic mass. Latin connects with the past, obviously, and also connects believers in space - when mass was in Latin, a Catholic could walk into a church anywhere in the world and understand the service, regardless of what the local language was. Also, Latin marked out a kind of sacred linguistic space because the only thing it was used for (unless you were a scholar) was religion.

Could the archaic language of the KJV and the hymns be providing something similar? A special language, in a way, dedicated to religion?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That was not its original intent, of course, but I think that is what Latin became emotionally for many Roman Catholics.

Anonymous said...

I suspect this is more of a Protestant phenomenon. The use of personal pronouns may be an effort to reinforce the Reformation fundamental of a personal faith and committment rather than participation in the sacraments.

On the other hand, the introduction of archaic pronouns may reflect a longing for connection with the Church Universal that was frayed by a history of schism and denominationalism that disrupted historical continuity.

***By the way, YOUR HOUR HAS COME***