Hymn tune mixup overdue

Stephen Lingwood has been riding hard the hymnody found in British Unitarian churches. His most recent comment is in reference to the General Assembly Opening Ceremony just past:

By the last hymn I would have been holding my hands out, if it wasn’t for the fact that the last hymn was to the tune of ‘The Day Thou Gave Us Lord Has Ended’ which, I’m sorry is a funeral song. So instead of leaving the worship thinking/feeling – yay it’s good to celebrate together with Unitarians – I was thinking – oh dear my grandmother’s dead. Ah well.

He had already plowed into the more recent (but more traditional) of the two hymnals in current British Unitarian usage, Hymns of Faith and Freedom. (How is it that denomination of about four thousand can have two hymnals, and we have one? Note the United Church of Christ keeps up four. We could do better on these shore. The other is the 1985 “green” Hymns for Living. I have both and will refer to them as HFF and HFL respectively.)

I like HFF because of its incomperable indices, but it shares that pecuilarity I find in a lot of British hymnals: it is words-only. (Many British denominational hymnals come in words-only and melody-only editions. Fine for compact bookcases, but terrible if you sing the harmony as Hubby and I do.) The accompanyist is supposed to add the tune in — again, there’s an index with recommendations — from another hymnal.

This should be a boon, theoretically. If a tune is funereal, change it. But that rarely happens in practice, and even less often I imagine with full-music hymnals. Consider “The Day Thou Gave Us Lord Has Ended.” In the two British hymnals, it is matched to the tune St. Clement. In the US Hymns of the Spirit, it is matched to Les Commandmens. Neither does much for me.
Now, my rule of thumb is that — if all else fails — go to one of these sources for better tunes:

  1. The Welsh, generally
  2. Particularly, Ralph Vaughn-Williams
  3. German chorales
  4. Shape-note tunes, especially from Appalachia
  5. Genevan “jigs” (psalm tunes)

I make a point of avoiding anything from the Gospel music tradition, which tends to be painfully Victorian and, well, either funereal or like something out of a period dance hall. Ironically, it is my understanding — correct me if I’m wrong — that it was Ralph’s doing that we so firmly fix certain texts and tunes together, through his editorship of the landmark New English Hymnal.
Take, for instance, the much-loved hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory.” It was still very new when the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit came out. The editors matched it to Regent Square, better known for its match to “Angels from the Realm of Glory” — and that’s how I know it viscerally — while most people now sing it to Cwm Rhondda, also know for its older match to “Guide Me Now Thou Great Jehovah.” Try them both, choose your favorite.

That said, if someone really wanted to keep “The Day Thou Gave Us Lord Has Ended” I would pick a punchier tune like Eucharistic Hymn (see #121 in Hymns of the Spirit) or cream off the first two verses and sing them together as a single verse of “Rendez à Dieu” a remarkable, solemn but pliant Louis Bourgeois (Genevan) tune.

In short, if we don’t like or can’t sing our hymns, we should look first to the tunes.

Categorized as Hymns

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I can confirm that the vast majority of Unitarian services I’ve attended, in fact ALL Unitarian services, have been jam packed with terrible hymns – terrible in the sense you have this organ whining on and the generally small congregation mumbling through (except for the odd old dear who gets really into it). Hymns of Faith and Freedom (the red book) is the more Christian leaning book but its very Victorian – and the other ‘green book’, the less Christian hymn book, isn’t much better either in my opinion. Apparently there is also a ‘blue book’ which is even more archaic…

    I’ve attended a services at a variety of different churches of different denominations – the most uplifting was an evangelical Baptist – Anglican service at St Toms in Sheffield, UK. This church is one of the fastest growing in the UK and I don’t think all the young people & students who attend are necessarily going for the theology – they go because the service is based on a format and music style that at times is very meditative and other times very lively… but the point is its spiritual, enjoyable and well put together.

    I’m not into charismatic-style worship with jumping around and clapping (which St Toms sometimes borders on) but its much better than the tired, stale worship within British Unitarianism.

  2. I love your list of tune sources. When I think about it, those are pretty much the sources I would head to first. But maybe expand shape note tunes to include a wider range of folk tunes, e.g., I found this wonderful Appalchain folk tune for “Hold On,” in F# Phrygian (minor with a flatted fifth) that I’m really tempted to use in worship. Seems like there are also some Black pre-Gospel folk tunes that could be useful.

    I do remember that Unitarian Universalism in North America had multiple hymnals when I was a kid (in the 1960’s). In my home church we had Hymns for the Celebration of Life (the “blue hymnal”) and Hymns of the Spirit (the “red hymnal”) in the pews; the children’s chapel used “We Sing of Life,” which was really a multi-generational hymnal. By about 1970, the Los Angeles church put out “How Can We Keep from Singing” (sometimes known as the “yellow hymnal,” depending on which edition you had), but it was too politically leftwards-leaning for my home church. That made four hymnals circe 1970! I still draw from all these hymnals upon occasion — e.g., the blue hymnal’s version of “America the Beautiful” for Memorial day, Christmas carols from the red hymnal, second verse for “Simple Gifts” in the yellow hymnal, etc.

    I had high hopes for the hymnal supplement, “Singing the Journey,” but it really isn’t worth buying. It’s really a hymnal for music directors of big churches. There are songs in there that are pretty good, but I already have most of those written out as lead sheets, meaning one hymn doesn’t spread out over 4-6 pages as in the hymnal supplement with its overly complex arrangements.

  3. Okay, I confess: I love “The day thou gavest” to St Clement. The Episcopal monks here in Cambridge sing it a cappella each night for Compline, and it has wonderful moving lines for all four parts. Of all the Victorian tunes to pick on, this one has the least to object to. There’s almost no chromaticism and no long pauses. And how can a waltz be funereal anyway?

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