I’m thankful for most of the hymns I learned in the church growing up. I’m thankful for the timeless ones from Watts and Wesley and even the campy ones like Victory in Jesus. Considering the move to all things digital, I’m increasingly thankful that we even had a hymnal to hold, peruse, learn from, and take home.
But most hymnals have a few clunkers. I grew up singing God of Grace and God of Glory. It’s a good title set to a strong tune (almost always CWR RHONDDA, though the author wrote it for REGENT SQUARE) and has the stirring refrain: “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.” The problem is the hymn was written by Harry Emerson Fosdick, the well known liberal preacher who inflamed the modernist-fundamentalist controversy with his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win” (1922), in which he set aside essential articles of the Christian faith like the virgin birth and the Second Coming.
Can we only sing songs in church written by solid evangelical Christians? I wouldn’t say that. We may not know the precise theological convictions of some ancient hymn writers and, no doubt, popular tunes can come from a wide array of sources. But I question whether we should sing songs meaning something with the words that the author did not mean. Fosdick wrote God of Grace for the dedication of the Rockefeller financed Riverside Church in New York City (October 5, 1930). Years later when he penned his autobiography, Fosdick entitled it “The Living of these Days,” an allusion to a line in the second verse of his famous hymn. When Fosdick wrote of the church’s need for courage and asked God that the church might bloom in “glorious flower,” he had a different vision for the church than we should be comfortable with.
Besides the question of authorial intent and a host of vague exhortations, the hymn has one dreadful line:
Save us from weak resignation,
From the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
The first sentence is passable, though it comes across as an ode to willpower. The second sentence should simply not be sung. Is it really the case that the search for salvation is our eternal glory? Is this what liberalism has to offer—that we exult in our journeying after God? It’s no wonder so many contemporary hymnals have left out this verse or changed the line to “the gift of your salvation.” The surpassing glory of divine grace is not be found in our seeking, but in our being found.
How striking that the other famous hymn to use the tune CWM RHONDDA is Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, written by the great Welsh preacher and hymn writer William Williams. Where Fosdick celebrates earthly triumph and our seeking after salvation, Williams has us sing of God’s kindness in leading us through this pilgrim life until we safely reach our heavenly home on the other side of death and destruction. Both use the same stout Welsh tune, but only one deserves it. There are many true statements in Fosdick’s hymn, but not enough to overshadow the man’s errant theology and his misguided sense of where true glory lies.