Friday 13 March 2009

The stupidest hymn ever written

In the previous post, I mentioned that hymn-writing has not declined: hymns have always been mainly bad; the selection of a very small number of highlights for our modern hymnbooks simply creates the misleading impression that earlier generations were better, more profound songwriters.

If you need any proof, Steve Holmes posts these amazing verses from the 18th century – this hymn probably deserves the title of the stupidest thing ever written (seriously, you could never find a contemporary hymn even remotely as stupid as this). It’s a stirring anti-Muslim tirade, written for the worship and edification of the saints:

The smoke of the infernal cave,
Which half the Christian world o’erspread,
Disperse, Thou heavenly Light, and save
The souls by that Impostor led,
That Arab-chief, as Satan bold,
Who quite destroy’d Thy Asian fold.

O might the blood of sprinkling cry
For those who spurn the sprinkled blood!
Assert Thy glorious Deity,
Stretch out Thine arm, Thou Triune God
The Unitarian fiend expel,
And chase his doctrine back to hell.

Try singing it to the tune of “When I Survey Thy Wondrous Cross.” It’s very moving: I always get goosebumps when I sing the line about the “Unitarian fiend.” So who do you think wrote this liturgical gem? Why, it was Charles Wesley himself – the greatest hymn-writer who ever lived! As Steve observes, Charles Wesley published about 6,000 hymns – today, we still sing perhaps 20 of them. What happened to the other 5980? They were sung for a while (like our own contemporary ditties), then mercifully forgotten.

Steve also posts this little beauty, penned by a Baptist hymn-writer in 1696 – come on, lift your hands to the Lord and sing it with me now (to the tune of “Crown Him with Many Crowns”):

All mixtures, Lord, in Doctrine
And Practice thou dost hate;
Ourselves therefore with wicked men
Let’s not associate!

And John Stackhouse wants to complain about Chris Tomlin? Seriously? To accuse Tomlin of writing lyrics “considerably stupider than [those of] our much less educated Christian forebears”? Crikey, the man might as well be Shakespeare compared to these creative efforts of our esteemed “forebears”.

The moral of the story? That (for reasons difficult to fathom) the church of Jesus Christ can survive and preserve its witness even in spite of all the hymns and hymn-writers and hymnals – perhaps even in spite of all the worship CDs and worship leaders and worship committees. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”


Anonymous said...

Boy is this tempting me to take up pen...

bls said...

That (for reasons difficult to fathom) the church of Jesus Christ can survive and preserve its witness even in spite of all the hymns and hymn-writers and hymnals – perhaps even in spite of all the worship CDs and worship leaders and worship committees.

And in spite of priests, theologians, and bloggers, too....

Anonymous said...

Dear Ben,

You wrote; "Crikey, the man might as well be Shakespeare compared to these ...".

Actually, even the immortal bard had his off-days!

Anyhow, if we're having a competition for stupid hymns, may I enter one of my own. Try "Show a little mercy", which you can also hear me singing here, for a summary of the message of the prophet Oded (one of the most important in the Old Testament?).

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Anonymous said...

Personally, my money is on "God of Earth and Outer Space" as one of the worst hymns ever.

Here's a sample verse:

God of earth and outer space,
God of love and God of grace,
Bless the astronauts who fly,
As they soar beyond the sky.
Fling the spacecraft through the air,
Let man know your presence there.

Another favourite line:

As man walks in outerspace,
Teach him how to walk in grace.


joel hunter said...

Lutherans shall not be outdone here! Two verses from Earth and All Stars:

Engines and steel, loud pounding hammers,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Limestone and beams, loud building workers,
sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

Classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Athlete and band, loud cheering people,
sing to the Lord a new song!

Yes, that's "loud boiling test tubes." Sing that one, sucka.

Anonymous said...

Oh, man, Joel, I love Earth and All Stars. The tune is a joy to sing, and it is the tune's jaunty playfulness, not without a bit of irony, that makes me smile with glee at the 'loud boiling test tubes'. For some reason, I always have a fleeting image of 'test tube babies' cross my mind at that point. A hornet's nest for the theological ethicist, but a gas for the silly billy in me. I could sing this one every Sunday.

I am so embarassed...

The Ironic Catholic said...

I love this post. And as a Catholic who grew up in the 70s, I have no leg to stand on here. "Great Things Happen When God Mixes With Us!" Nuff said.

Adam Kotsko said...

But some of the post-Vatican II "folk" hymns really are great.

Man, Charles -- I'm so ashamed. What was even prompting that one? Were there big Anglo-Muslim tensions back in his times? I'm baffled.

Bruce Yabsley said...

The defence that "there have always been bad hymns" seems to me rather beside the point. OK, there have always been bad hymns. But we have forgotten or discarded most of them. If someone were proposing disinterring some of the stinkers you mention, from their centuries of sleep, for weekly use in church, I would see the sense of pointing out their badness.

But what I see around me is the total neglect of the good hymns, the ones we kept, four or five exceptions apart, in favour of contemporary dreck that tries too hard and is (again, with two or three exceptions) shallow. I think it's this sort of thing that powers complaints about modern song- (I hesitate, two or three exceptions again apart, to call it hymn-) writing.

How does the existence of bad hymnody in the past speak to this?

Dave Davis said...

One of the odd things I learned from reading a biography of Fanny Crosby was about a hymn/song she wrote about the US Civil War. She's usually a gifted writer of hymns, but the biographer refered to a hymn she wrote where the Confederate forces are not just blown up but are annihilated. This hymn was such a departure from her usual writings (maybe because she was such a partisan). Has someone else heard of that hymn/song?

Dave Davis

Joanna said...

While attending a church in the UK, my husband and I used to get hysterical fits of giggles just flicking through the chorus book they used. Some absolute favorites included the song that began
'Lord you put a tongue in my mouth' (on our first date, too!) and
the kids song titled
'Your banana over me is love.'
(it mentioned a lot of other fruits too.)

Ben Myers said...

Terrific, Joanna! And come to think of it, "Your banana over me is love" is perfectly faithful (in a creepy way) to the "banner" imagery in the Song of Songs.

Anyway, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who occasionally giggles at inappropriate liturgical moments. I must confess, there has been just one occasion when my wife and I had to get up and leave the building: we were visiting a liberal Lutheran church, and the entire liturgy was organised as a celebration of Australian rocks and minerals. By the time they started cataloguing various types of minerals in the "prayer of intercession", my giggles (and my wife's) had become so dangerously close to hysteria that we spontaneously rose from our seats and virtually ran for the door. I can only hope they didn't hear the peals of laughter that erupted—a few seconds later—from the car park.

Garet Robinson said...

You all have nothing on the proud musical heritage of the Southern Baptists!

This little gem appeared in the denominational hymnal in 1975. It's called God of Earth and Outer Space:

God of earth and outer space
God of love and God of grace
Bless the astronauts who fly
As they soar beyond the sky
God who flung the stars in space,
God who sets the sun ablaze
Fling the spacecraft thro' the air
Let man know your presence there
God of atmosphere and air,
God of life and planets bare
Use man's courageand his skill
As he seeks your holy will.
God of depth and God of height
God of darkness, God of light,
As man walks in outer space
Teach him how to walk in grace

Well? What say you all?

Lead_Worshiper said...

I do have a question...and no one jump down my throat.

What exactly makes the Wesley hymn the dumbest ever written? I'm curious as to your criteria. Here's what I see: a "modern" impreccatory psalm.

Additionally, if we're using a loose definition of "hymn" here (since Fanny Crosby, by some hymnographers, is considered to have written 'gosepl songs,' not 'hymns' per se), then I'd respectfully submit that "In the Garden" is actually the dumbest ever written. Such arrogance at the end: "And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known." It propagates the sort of "me, my Bible and Jesus" religion that isn't biblical Christianity by a longshot.

Interesting post, though. I'll continue to read as time permits.

tune pedant said...

'The smoke of the infernal cave,' would be a good sing but it won't fit "When I survey' [Rockingham]. Try 'Eternal Father,strong to save' [Melita] or for a touch of incongruity how about the Sussex Carol - 'On Christmas night all Christians sing' Personally I won't look at it again in case the words start to stick in my head.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's not just the hymn that's bad--it's the musical setting of the words. I have a Young Life songbook from the early 70s which recommends singing the words of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" to the tune of either "Light My Fire" or "With A Little Help From My Friends". That ranks right down there with singing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of either "House of the Rising Sun" or "I'd Like To Teach the World to Sing."
Another inappropriate musical setting for a hymn was when I was taught to sing "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus" to the tune of "Puff, the Magic Dragon."

Pamela Grenfell Smith said...

@Dave, the texts of more than 500 Fanny Crosby hymns are online at:

But I also want to put forward a personal favorite - a verse from I Bind Unto Myself Today" that did not make it into the Episcopal Church's Hymnal 1982:

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Unknown said...

How about 'Cloth for thecradle', that gem of imbecility from Iona. Cloth for the ear, more like.
Claimant and queen, wage earners in between,
Trader and travelling preacher,
Weave into one a welcome for the Son,
Whose word brings new life to every creature.
Cloth for the cradle......

Hungry and poor, the sick and the unsure,
Wealthy, whose needs are stranger,
Weave into one a welcome for the Son,
Leave excess and want beneath the manger.
Cloth for the cradle......

Wrinkled or fair, carefree or full of care,
Searchers of all the ages,
Weave into one a welcome for the Son,
The Saviour of shepherds and of sages.
Cloth for the cradle......

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