When a Good Hymn Goes Bad (Andy Naselli)
GUEST POST from Andy Naselli
Sometimes it’s disheartening to learn what the author of a hymn intended by his or her lyrics. It can ruin what you thought was a good hymn!
To pick just one example of dozens, I used to sing “The Cleansing Wave” in churches I grew up in:
The cleansing stream I see, I see!
I plunge, and O it cleanseth me;
O praise the Lord, it cleanseth me,
It cleanseth me, yes, cleanseth me.
Later I learned that this is the most famous hymn by Phoebe Palmer (1807–74). Palmer was part of the holiness movement, embraced Methodist perfectionism, and was a forerunner of the Keswick movement. Section 1 of her book The Way of Holiness is titled “Is There Not a Shorter Way?”, and her emphatic answer is Yes. Her teaching emphasized this (erroneous, I think) teaching, and her famous hymn illustrates how she emphasized sanctification’s immediacy. She compares the crisis of Christian perfection to a baptism or internal cleansing that results in a pure life.
So what do you do if you’re singing a hymn like this with a congregation that is generally unaware about the hymn’s authorial intent? I can think of at least two options: (1) don’t sing, or (2) if the lyrics are redeemable, sing but don’t interpret the hymn according to its authorial intent. In other words, a postmodern hermeneutic may save you from the dilemma of not singing versus affirming error. What would you do?
[Editor's note: Two other examples of beloved hymns with Keswick theology are Take My Life and Let it Be and Like a River Glorious, both by Frances Havergal.]