War Hymns? Ambiguous Hymns?

J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings In 1933 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A published a completely new hymnal.  It was a significant event in the history of the PCUSA as it opened the door even further for liberalism and modernism.  J. Gresham Machen wrote a critical review of the hymnal in the December issue of “Christianity Today” that same year.  Here are two excerpts from it that I thought were interesting and helpful.

“…We are glad that the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ …is absent from the new book.  Opinions may differ about the political views out of which that poem was born.  Some of us may agree with them; some of us may disagree.  But one things is clear – a fiery war song like that one has no place in the worship of a Christian congregation.”

“…What characterizes the new hymns above anything else is their deadly vagueness.  Such vagueness cannot, of course, be exhibited in any review; it can be appreciated only when a man reads the new hymns through for himself.  This vagueness is altogether attractive to the nondoctrinal Modernism that now dominates the visible church, but to the Christian heart it is almost as depressing as definitely and clearly unscriptural teaching would be.  Let it be clearly understood, therefore, that what we shall now say in criticism of individual hymns is only supplementary to the central indictment that they ignore the great central verities [truths] of the faith and particularly the heart and core of the Bible which is found in the shed blood of Christ our sacrifice.”

Ambiguous hymns weren’t confined to the 1933 hymnal; they are alive and well today on Christian radio, overhead church projectors, and worship band playlists.  I agree with Machen: ambiguous hymns are “almost as depressing as definitely and clearly unscriptural teaching” is.

(Note: You can find the rest of Machen’s helpful article in his Shorter Writings.)

shane lems
hammond, wi

One Reply to “War Hymns? Ambiguous Hymns?”

  1. And here’s a sobering thought: they’re alive and well in the blue Psalter Hymnal too. Just today I was reading through the text of #397, which in the third verse says,

    Let me feel Thy sacred presence,
    Then my faith will ne’er decline.

    What sort of vague statement is that?! Do our feelings define our faith? Is the Christian life one of “feeling” the Holy Spirit’s presence every waking moment of the day? We undoubtedly need greater discernment when it comes to the soundness of the hymns we sing.

    Thanks for this post.

    Michael Kearney
    West Sayville URC
    Long Island, New York


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