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Review of Sacred Songs of the Church

by Wayne S. Walker

The first new hymnbook among churches of Christ for the 21st century (notwithstanding the late Alton H. Howard's Songs of the Church 21st Century Edition which actually came out in 1990) is now available. It is Sacred Songs of the Church, edited by William D. Jeffcoat, copyrighted in 2007 by Psallo Publications LLC (3642 Peachtree Rd., Atlanta, GA 30319), and published by Publishing Designs Inc. (P. O. Box 3241, Huntsville, AL 35810). It has 946 selections, all of which are songs (no numbered scripture readings to fill pages or instructions on how to use medleys). I recently purchased a review copy and, having perused through it a number of times now, am ready to make some comments. There are several items which commend the book. It is in large, clear type which is easy to read. One of the main complaints I have heard about Praise the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand, which is actually a pretty good collection, is that the print is too small.

Most importantly, Sacred Songs of the Church is obviously intended primarily for congregational singing. The "praise song" crowd will probably not like this book because it is not filled with one-stanza numbers having a set of seven, often touchy-feely, words sung eleven times to a new age melody. It is definitely more in the tradition of E. L. Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church and L. O. Sanderson's Christian Hymns rather than Alton Howard's Songs of Faith and Praise. There are a few difficult pieces scattered throughout the book, including some of the songs of the southern gospel convention variety (i.e., from Albert Brumley, Stamps-Baxter, and Stamps Quartet) that have become so popular, but it has no entire section of "special selections" or "camp songs."

The vast majority of the numbers will probably be "old favorites," but there is also a good deal of new material for brethren to learn and increase their repertoire. Jeffcoat wrote, "Thus, new materials have been added to a solid core of songs that have proved to have enduring significance. ... A diligent effort has been made to produce a balanced hymnal, comprising older songs of proven merit and several new songs of great potential. It is earnestly hoped that congregations will endeavor to learn the newer compositions, for they will afford variety and greatly enrich the song services of the church." This new material can fall into either the plus or minus category. "Several new songs" seems an understatement!

Fully 119 of the 946 (over 10%!) are songs by Jeffcoat or his assistant Benny Davis. I do not know how this compares with other songbooks available among us today, but I do recall being struck by the large amount of songs by the editor. Of course, if a man edits a hymnbook, he has a right to include as many of his own songs as he desires. E. L. Jorgenson included very little of his own material in Great Songs of the Church, but L. O. Sanderson had quite a bit of his in Christian Hymns. However, based on the number of other books that use them, it is readily agreed by almost everyone that many of Sanderson's songs are really good and will last. It is not my intention to pass judgment on Jeffcoat's and Davis's hymns, so only time will tell if they will be considered worthy by future generations.

Of course, Dane K. Shepard and R. J. Stevens used Hymns for Worship as a vehicle to publish many of their own songs too, probably in similar proportion to Sacred Songs of the Church. Some of these are fairly good while others are less memorable. In addition, Sacred Songs of the Church has many unfamiliar hymns by older members of the church such as Tillit Teddlie, Franklin Eiland, Newton Allphin, Austin Taylor, and Mark Ussery. Some of their hymns are well known, while others are not. I have been studying the history of hymns and hymnwriters for over thirty years, and this book includes some of their work that I have never seen before. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, but there may just be a reason why Teddlie's "Heaven Holds All to Me" and "Worthy Art Thou" are beloved favorites and others are not.

Jeffcoat also wrote, "Special care has been given to selecting songs that are scriptural, singable, and servicable." Certainly the desire to be scriptural is commendable, but my experience is that sometimes the changes and deletions made in an attempt to achieve that goal are unnecessary and occasionally even ridiculous. Some songs are plainly unscriptural and should be omitted. While I will not argue the matter, I have yet to see how we can lustily sing "Jesus Is Coming Soon!" when the Bible says that no one knows the day nor hour of His coming. (As an aside, some have offered that when they sing the song, they mean that Jesus may be coming soon; if they want to do such mental gymnastics, I guess that it is all right, but that is NOT what the song says!).

Jeffcoat does not include that popular but questionable favorite. All songbook editors, including those among us, have made slight changes in several songs to bring them more in line with scriptural sentiment. However, the practice of making wholesale changes in songs began with Foy E. Wallace in Marion Davis's 1941 Complete Christian Hymnal and was carried almost to an extreme by Ellis Crum in Sacred Selections for the Church (of course, Crum "changed his own tune" because Special Sacred Selections often contains examples of the very kinds of things that he sought to eliminate in the original Sacred Selections!). Jeffcoat is somewhat inconsistent in his emendations. It seems as if they depend on whose book he copied the hymn from. For example, in "Inside the Gate," he followed Crum's change of the opening "Loved ones in glory" to "Saved ones in glory," and in "No Tears in Heaven" he likewise followed Crum's change of "Loved ones be dearer" to "Saved ones be dearer," (also in "I Will Sing the Wondrous Story" with "Where the saved ones I shall meet)," but in "Sing On" he did not change "Where those we love are waiting" to "Where angels there are waiting" as Crum did, nor in "Heaven Holds All to Me" did he change "Loved ones are waiting" to "Saved ones are waiting" as Crum again did (also in "Beyond the Sunset" with "With our dear loved ones"). In fact, I once wrote the late Robert S. Arnold, author and composer of "No Tears in Heaven," to ask his permission to quote his words in a yet-to-be published handbook to accompany Hymns for Worship Revised, which also changes "Loved ones" to "Saved ones," and included a copy of the hymn study that I proposed. When he responded, he just sent back the page I had sent him with his handwritten permission, but he also crossed out "Saved" and wrote "Loved"! No, I do not expect all my "loved ones" physically speaking will be in heaven, but I do hope that my "loved ones" among the brethren will be there.

In about ten older songs, Jeffcoat either arranged the words or replaced stanzas with new ones of his own. Again, I assume that this was done to make them "more scriptural." Personally, however, in the ones with which I am familiar with the original, I fail to see how any of the arrangements or replacements actually improve the songs at all. There are some other oddities that I noticed. Jeffcoat used L. O. Sanderson's arrangement of "This Is My Father's World" instead of the original that most of us are more familiar with. He chose R. J. Stevens's tune for "We Thank Thee, O Father," probably to have at least one song by Stevens included, instead of the original tune by Johann Schulz. I love R. J., but personally I think Schulz's tune fits the song better. He follows Christian Hymns by setting "The Church's One Foundation" to the tune with which we usually sing "Stand Up for Jesus" instead of the usual melody by Samuel S. Wesley. I never did understand that one!

There are some other unnecessary Ellis Crum changes that Jeffcoat follows. In "Praise Him! Praise Him" both change "Reigneth forever and ever" to "Liveth forever and ever" when the Bible specifically says, "And He shall reign forever and ever" (Revelation 11:15). If the Bible says it, why cannot we sing it? They also change "Crown Him! Crown Him!" evidently thinking that such language is premillennial. However, while it is true that Jesus was crowned King at His ascension, poetically we crown Him King in our hearts now by obeying Him and we shall, in a sense "crown Him" with our praises throughout eternity. Also, in "Where the Gates Swing Outward Never," both change, "And with Jesus reign forever" to "And with Jesus live forever" when again the Bible specifically says of the God's redeemed servants by the river of life, "And they shall reign forever and ever" (Revelation 22:5). At least, Jeffcoat did not follow Crum in changing "starry crown" to "shining crown" (and the dictionary gives one meaning of "starry" as "shining").

In "Grace Greater than Our Sin," Jeffcoat followed Shepard and Stevens in Hymns for Worship by changing "There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt" (rhyming with guilt) to "There where the blood of the Lamb was shed," apparently under what I consider the ridiculous idea that"spilt" always implies something accidental. Even Crum noted that one definition of "spilt" is "shed" with reference to blood, and orators sometimes talk about the men who spilled their blood in fighting for the freedom and defense of our nation. That was no accident! (At least Jeffcoat also changed the phrase ending in "guilt" to a phrase ending in"stead" to make it rhyme, but I still think that it is absolutely unnecessary). Also, he changed the third stanza to use the word "obey" instead of "believe." I often think that some brethren must be itching to change Jesus's statement, "That whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" to "Whoever obeys Him"!

There were couple of well known hymns that I noticed were omitted entirely. One is "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name," which many brethren have, I believe mistakenly, thought was premillennial. The song simply pictures the coronation of Jesus upon His ascension as if we were around at that time. That "yonder sacred throng" does not refer to the final judgment but to the multitude of beings who fell before Him when He was crowned King (as in Revelation 5:8-14). Another is "When We All Get To Heaven," which some have objected to on the basis that not everyone who is singing will be going to heaven. I know, not all who sing about heaven are going there, but all who will eventually be in heaven are going there. On this same basis, we probably ought to make sure that no lost person ever joins us in singing, "Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It!"

Here are a couple of other quick observations. Jeffcoat follows several newer books in using Bryan J. Leech's "updating" of Henry Ware's hymn "Happy the Home When God Is There." I think Ware's original is just fine. Also, "Something for Thee" is included twice, once under the first line "Savior, Thy Dying Love." Someone did a poor job indexing on this one. I have noticed a couple of other books in which it appeared that the rush to include as many songs as possible resulted in some repetitions. Also, in "Beulah Land," Jeffcoat follows Alton Howard's change in Songs of the Church from "Land of corn and wine" to "Land of love divine." Really! Wine does not always have to be an intoxicating beverage, and in the Bible the phrase "corn and wine" is simply a symbol of prosperity (Deuteronomy 7:13, Psalm 4:7, Isaiah 36:17). At least he did not try to make "Beulah Land" refer to heaven instead of the church, as Crum did.

However, one of the biggest objections that I have to this book, which I also have to Hymns for Worship, and even to some extent to the old Christian Hymns, is the paring down of so many hymns to just three stanzas. Obviously, there are occasionally good reasons to omit some stanzas. Many of the older hymns had anywhere from eight to twelve to fifteen stanzas. Some stanzas may teach false doctrine. However, in a lot of instances, omitted stanzas often contain some material that is very helpful to understanding the thought of the song. My preference would be to include five or six stanzas if there are that many and leave it up to the song leader to choose which ones to sing or not to sing rather than not having them available at all.

I have one other question. For a songbook whose aim is to have "songs that are scriptural" why would it include a song which boldly says, "It won't be very long till Jesus shall descend. ... It won't be very long till Jesus shall appear," but not have the beloved and eminently scriptural hymn "In Heavenly Love Abiding" by Anna L. Waring which draws directly from Psalm 23?

Having ranted and raved a little (and hopefully in a relatively gentle way) about some of my pet peeves regarding hymns and gospel songs, I will conclude by saying that Sacred Songs of the Church is not too bad of a book. It is pretty much on a par with Alton Howard's Songs of the Church, V. E. Howard's Church Gospel Songs and Hymns, and Stevens and Shepard's Hymns for Worship (Revised). It is far superior to Alton Howard's Songs of Faith and Praise, a little better than Ellis Crum's Sacred Selections, but not quite as good as John P. Wiegand's Praise for the Lord, which I think is probably the best all around collection available among churches of Christ today (although the vast majority of the last 190 selections are practically useless for congregational worship). We shall wait with bated breath for the new book being published by Guardian of Truth Foundation.