Ever since churches began singing hymns, people have been changing the words to hymns. This is often for the purpose of modifying the theological content of the song in question. Obviously doing this is not so objectionable as deleting or changing words of Scripture itself. Still, controversies over hymns can make national news, such as when the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. considered changing the words to Keith Getty’s “In Christ Alone” to soften the line “the wrath of God was satisfied.”
In research for a book I am writing on the Second Great Awakening, I came across a reference to small groups singing hymns by Joseph Hart at the Cane Ridge (Ky.) revival in 1801. Joseph Hart was a Calvinist minister and hymn-writer in London in the mid-1700s. Probably his most famous hymn was “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched” (1759). Those who know the song may be familiar with its title as “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” however. It seems that this change started appearing in the early 1800s.
The earliest reference I have found (so far) to the relevant changed word in a hymnal is in Ralph Williston’s A Choice Selection of Evangelical Hymns: For the Use of the English Evangelical Lutheran Church in New York (1806). The Evangelical Lutheran Church in New York (“evangelical” connoted “Protestant” in German) was a pioneer in offering English-language Lutheran services in America. Thus it was important for Williston to prepare an English-language hymnal for the congregation’s use. Most of Williston’s hymns were evangelical standards, including many by Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts.
The fact that Williston was originally a Methodist, then a Lutheran, and finally an Episcopalian, suggests a moderate or liberal theological trajectory that could explain his choice of “needy” over “wretched.” Within a decade of Williston’s compilation, “poor and needy” had become common in hymnals. “Wretched” still appeared in Calvinist-leaning hymnals. By the mid-twentieth century, “poor and needy” seems to have become the norm. A Google search today turns up three times more hits for “needy” than the “wretched” version.
Why make the change to “needy”? The word “needy” did appear in Hart’s original lyrics, but not in the title line. There may be evidence where hymn writers or compilers explain the rationale for substituting needy for wretched, as well. But absent direct commentary like that, the switch would seem to reflect a more sanguine view of human nature in the early 1800s. People who are “poor and needy” are proper objects of sympathy and pity, but are not necessarily repulsive. The fact that Jesus “ready stands to save” someone who is “poor and needy” is perhaps less shocking than his readiness to save a wretch. But the truth is, outside of Christ, we’re both needy and wretched.
The turn away from “wretchedness” in hymnody was not complete, of course, as illustrated by the most famous hymn that uses the word “wretch,” John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1779). Did anyone think to soften that language? In fact they did, but the change never caught on the way that the change to “Come Ye Sinners” did. In the Anglican minister Richard Whittingham’s A Selection of Psalms and Hymns…Adapted to Public Worship, Whittingham rendered the famous first line as “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound! That freely saved me.” This would not only change the meter (requiring that you sing “save-ed me”), but it also avoids having the singer call him- or herself a wretch. Is grace less amazing, however, if you’re not a wretch?
There may be occasions when churches decide to change or update words to hymns (with due attention to copyright laws, when applicable) to make the language comprehensible to a modern audience. But “Come Ye Sinners” is a good example of how the words of hymns can be changed, sometimes with little explanation or reflection, and end up with a theologically weaker message. “Come Ye Sinners” is still a fine hymn with “poor and needy.” But if you have a choice, consider a switch back to Hart’s grittier 1759 version!