Horton on Songs We Shoudn’t Sing

I quote Michael Horton on three particularly bad hymns from the article Singing Christ into Our Hearts.

“In The Garden:”

The words of “In the Garden,” by C. Austin Miles (1868–1946), reflect a Romantic—even Gnostic—image of Christ. The believer is alone with Jesus in the garden, “while the dew is still on the roses,” experiencing an utterly unique rapture that “none other has ever known.” “He speaks, and the sound of His voice is so sweet that the birds hush their singing. And the melody that He gave to me within my heart is ringing.” There is nothing about Christ’s person and work; everything turns on the saving impression of his personality. This was a common emphasis in the liberal evangelical (pietist) circles of Germany, England, and America. Although the poetry and melody are not as good, the sentimentality reflects the Romantic era. With all of these songs, a good question to ask is “Could a Unitarian sing these?” In some cases, Unitarians wrote them.

“Blessed Assurance:”

Many of the gospel songs that arose in the nineteenth century are more evangelical (in the positive sense), but hail from the revivalistic heritage—especially as it was shaped by the Holiness tradition. Fanny Crosby’s 1873 hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” is one of the most popular examples. First published in Phoebe Palmer’s Guide to Holiness and Revival Miscellany, the hymn reflects theology of the Holiness movement, with its Wesleyan doctrine of perfection (the “second blessing”). According to this view, one may be justified yet not baptized with the Spirit. In order to enter into this second stage of “victory,” one must become “fully surrendered.” In this condition, one may live above all known sin, in perfect love. So verses 2 and 3 of “Blessed Assurance” sing,

Perfect submission, perfect delight!
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels descending bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

Perfect submission, all is at rest!
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with his goodness, lost in His love.

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic:”

[The Battle Hymn of the Republic] blasphemously raises the Union’s triumph in the Civil War to the level of Christ’s last judgment. Machen quite properly wonders how those seeking refuge from the tumult of violence between the clashing armies of this age could be served by such a confusion of Christ and culture. The late eighteenth century in both Britain and the United States saw a profusion of romantic hymns to empire and nation that have no place in the public service where Christ is gathering a remnant from all peoples and nations. There is nothing more dangerous than arousing religious emotion for national causes.


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30 Responses to Horton on Songs We Shoudn’t Sing

  1. Zrim says:

    Speaking of “Looney Tunes” characters (ahem), whenever I see the name Fanny Crosby as the author of a 19th century hymn, I think of Tweety Bird’s Granny. Was Granny a Methodist, too?

  2. Todd says:

    Yes, in all my years of ministry I never choose Blessed Assurance. Can’t stand that song – or Trust and Obey. Though some in my congregations have been perplexed of my profound dislike for Amazing Grace.

  3. Rick says:

    But Todd, “There’s no other way to be happy in Jesus”

    It’s amazing that “Amazing Grace” hardly mentions the Lord. You really have no idea how you’re receiving the grace or who is giving it.

  4. Elijah Harrington says:

    What is your (or Horton’s) issue with Battle Hymn of the Republic? I can’t totally agree with your statement about the danger of “rousing religious emotion for national causes,” was the fight to free the slaves not a worthy “religious” goal as well? (i.e. the right thing to do). I won’t go into Just War theory here… but the reference to the remnant coming from all peoples/nations seems to imply that one nation can never be “right” and another “wrong” to the point of armed conflict, which I would disagree with…
    …also, what lyrics are you pointing to where you see the hymn “blasphemously rais[ing] the Union’s triumph in the Civil War to the level of Christ’s last judgment”? I certainly see some poetic liberty here, possibly more so than should be in a church hymnal…
    … I’m just not quite sure what your (Horton’s) issue is. Can you clarify? Thanks,
    Lyrics here, http://www.contemplator.com/america/battle.html (I googled it, no affiliation)

  5. Joe Brancaleone says:


    doesn’t the line,

    “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free”

    bring up a serious problem of the liberty of conscience? It’s not a given that gospel obedience implies engaging in bloodshed among one’s own countrymen over the social issue of slavery. Even though I don’t think there is any biblical case in favor of slavery as it was practiced at that time, there probably needs to be more freedom in the wisdom of how Christians address social evils. A Christian hymn rallying to violence (if I’m reading that line correctly) is plain bizarre.

  6. Rick says:

    It’s called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” I, for one, refuse to sing any republic’s hymn in Church, much less a Battle hymn. This one was written to rally the troops for carnal battle against what they saw as a satanic nation. All the lyrics should be viewed in that light. In that light it’s quite blasphemous. The Hymn makes the War Between the States Armageddon.

    “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” is terrible no matter what light you’re reading in. To equate the atonement with any sacrifice we might make is ridiculous.

  7. Durell Flood says:

    One of the songs that I’ve been “struggling” with is “I know not why God’s wonderous grace.” I can’t help but think this song is puerile. There’s a bit of strangeness about singing what a person doesn’t know. I really wonder about the theological maturity of the singer.

    I went after this song once in conversation with a music major and the response was the refrain was right out of Scripture so I was…well…written off.

    To get people to deal honestly with a song is hard to do as well. Texts of songs are conscripted rather then dealt with in light of the song’s corpus. If I’m not mistaken, we’re to be singing with understanding.

  8. Aunt Barb says:

    I heard Mark Noll trace the history of evangelicalism (from Reformation to today!) via its hymnody this summer. He too takes serious issue with “In the Garden,” but said he had to reserve judgment after learning about a Chinese Christian who was sustained during torturous years of the Cultural Revolution by singing that song while he was mucking out a dung pit. Noll said that none of us can ever tell how and what the Lord will use in his people’s lives. (Back in the 16th C. day, Noll also said, the ordinary person couldn’t tell the difference between the Calvinists and the Lutherans by their preaching, but they surely could by the hymns.)

  9. Zrim says:

    Aunt Barb,

    I think the premise here is what is sung in stated, public worship, not necessarily a dung pit.

    Even so, is “whatever gets you through the night” really a good standard for even the pit? I mean, romanticism is romanticism wherever you are, isn’t it?

  10. Elijah Harrington says:

    To Joe,
    Well, Southerner though I am, I would say that the war was more than a “War of Northern Aggression” and truly a war to stop the spread of evil, the “right” to own other human beings. I don’t think it is meaningful to categorize it as a “social evil” as if it were a problem with society as a whole or that war is only for “national evils”(?). I digress (again!) into a debate over the righteousness of the Civil War…. if that is the point of disagreement, then it seems we’ll just have to disagree.

    To Joe and Rick both,
    I don’t interpret the line the way you do, and that may make me a minority or just a poor user of the English language. I think the construct “As he…, let us…” does not equate our sacrifice to Christ’s, but rather exhorts us to be more Christ-like. Christ died for a purpose, and the atonement is far above and beyond any sacrifice we might ever make to be sure. I agree! I just don’t interpret the lyric in that way. I interpret it as a “be willing to be like Christ, in that Christ died, so we too will die.” Morbid? Possibly. I think it expresses a willingness to die for a cause, without equating the cause (slavery is evil) to Christ’s cause. I think we could sing to extol dying like Stephen, or any other Christian martyr, or someone like SFC Paul R Smith, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

    …. all of the above, in my humble opinion. My experiences in my study of the Civil war, the books I’ve read, my Southern heritage (and strong rejection of many parts of it), and my experience as a Soldier all effect my views and interpretations. And my grammatical interpretation of the “as he… let us” construct.

    Side note, and more on topic, my favorite I-can’t-believe-we’re-singing-this song…. I can’t even remember the title, but it was sung at an [organization unnamed] event, and the chorus was: “We choose to bow / we choose to sing / we choose to crown Him / King of Kings.” To which I stood there silently thinking… what does our choices have the least bit to do with it? and who are we to be doing any sort of crowning? Yikes.

  11. "Michael Mann" says:

    Is this a time to vent? How about “Away in the Manger?”

    Away in a manger,
    no crib for His bed,
    The little Lord Jesus
    lay down his sweet head.
    The stars in the sky
    looked down where He lay
    The little Lord Jesus,
    asleep on the hay.

    The cattle are lowing,
    the poor Baby wakes,
    But little Lord Jesus,
    no crying He makes;
    I love Thee, Lord Jesus,
    look down from the sky
    And stay by my cradle
    till morning is nigh.

    1. “Sweet?” Chapter and verse, please!
    2. “The stars looked down” – let’s leave that to children’s bedtime stories, please!
    3. “No crying he makes.” Is this meant to convince kids not to cry? Or just to complete a sentimental scene along with the “sweet” and anthropomorphized stars? Plus, it seems inconsistent with a proper understanding of Jesus’s true humanity.

    Thanks – I feel better now.

  12. Todd says:

    I haven’t quite figured out why “It is well with my soul” always rubs me the wrong way. Any suggestions?

  13. Rick says:

    Hmm. I can’t argue with the theology of it so much. But I know what you’re saying – it seems heavy on the, “me, me, me..” The first verse is a little too, “come what may, I’m OK.”

    But I don’t think we should feel bad about singing it in Worship.

  14. David R. says:

    More venting:

    This morning we were treated to “Jesus Loves Me” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

    The former was chosen as a prelude to the sermon text, Matthew 19:13-15 (in which Jesus lays hands on, and prays for, some children). It was prefaced with the explanation that, assuming that uninspired songs are allowable in worship (probably a tip of the hat to yours truly, since I’ve made it known that I’m skeptical of said assumption), there could be no principled objection to singing that particular song.

    My view is that we should not sing uninspired songs in worship, but I am open to the possibility that Horton is right (in the essay linked above) when he says that there is “precedence in the New Testament itself for godly hymnody that is not only a direct citation of Scripture (or paraphrase), but a meditation on and exposition of biblical teaching.”

    But if I accept Horton’s view, do I have to give hymns like these two a “pass”? I wouldn’t know how to argue against them except possibly on the grounds that they’re not suitably reverent, or that children’s songs are meant for children.

    Any thoughts?

  15. "Michael Mann" says:

    Once in a while I get peer-pressured into eating at restaurants that serve tasteless & limp food in stainless steel troughs with small shovels in them. Obviously that kind of thing would not exist but for the Fall, so I like the way this hymn stigmatizes the whole ordeal: “though Satan should buffet…”

    With this salutary feature of the hymn, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t like it. If you have bouts of curmudgeon-ness like me, you may struggle to make your mouth repeatedly say “it is well with my soul.”

  16. RubeRad says:

    I think a space needs to be made for criticism of hymns not just on lyrics, but on their tunes, even on objective grounds. Jesus Loves Me is indeed childlike (childish?), but I don’t think that necessarily makes it irreverent (isn’t childlike reverence greater than adult reverence, biblically speaking?) or disqualify it. It is well with my soul is not too bad, but it tends toward the sentimentality of the late 1800s.

    I have this test I call the “Carousel Test”. Imagine a hymn tune being played by the automatic organ of a carousel — if it fits, you can bet it was written approx 1880-1900.

    “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free”

    That line makes me recoil as well, but perhaps I can throw some Peter on the fire… 1 pet 2:21 “For to this [suffering for doing good] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” Also, 4:1 “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves…”

    Both of those passages I have found very troubling in their conjunction of Christ’s sacrifice with our Christian walk. So since Christ died to make men holy (make us holy), maybe we should be willing to die to make men free.

  17. RubeRad says:

    I remember you mentioning that before; that talk wouldn’t be recorded/online, would it?

    I’m also curious about the Calvinist/Lutheran thing. Was that meant to imply you can tell the difference because Calvinists only sang psalms (as some in these parts would insist), or that their hymns were of a different character?

  18. Rick says:

    We do follow the path of the Savior inasmuch as we are made perfect through suffering.

    In the setting of the “Battle Hymn” one dies in a political cause to make men free from political oppression.

    Certainly the revision of the hymn was better, “let us live to make men free”

    But one still has to divorce the lyrics from their original intent to make it acceptable. We need to ask, “Free from what?”

  19. Rick says:

    Good point on the tunes. One that bugs me is “Faith is the Victory.” Some of the lyrics come from John’s first epistle, but the tune sounds like a carnival ride.

    I wonder too, with its battle themes, if it comes out of the same camp as the “Battle Hymn.” It was written in 1891 so…. Revival era stuff always requires a critical eye.

  20. Elijah Harrington says:

    Slavery! Free from slavery, Rick. I don’t see that as “political oppression,” real human beings enslaved by others, and those others willing to take up arms to fight for their “right” to enslave other human beings- to the point of death, murder, torture, and the like. If that’s not worth fighting for – what is? What better way to show love for fellow humans and love for God than to be willing to “die to make men free” – none of the pacifists in the North were doing their fellow humans- albeit of a different skin color and decent- any favors by standing by and doing nothing. What, in your interpretation, is enough for a Christian to take up arms and fight with real violence- anything?

  21. Rick says:

    Eli, that is precisely the problem I have with the song. The Church is supposed to be spiritual. “My Kingdom is not of this world,” “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal” etc…

    The Church’s duty is to make disciples with the spiritual weapons of the Word and Sacraments.
    The things you mentioned are worth fighting for indeed and that’s why they were in fact fought for. If I had been alive back then I would have fought with my country to make men free, but I would not have done so claiming that it was a Kingdom responsibility. We don’t fight carnal battles for the Spiritual Kingdom.

    But I’ll let someone more qualified than me respond. These are the words of URC pastor preaching on Philemon:

    “It is not the function of the Church to force that kind of change. The Church can and it must speak to the conscience of a nation, but the church cannot and should not force such social, economic, even moral change on nations. Jesus never did that either. Jesus never said, “All slaves may now go free.” Christ was not a political revolutionary. Neither was Paul. Paul even wrote in Ephesians and Colossians that slaves should obey their masters, but then Paul also reminded masters to treat their slaves with kindness, remembering that they as owners were also under a master; the Lord Jesus Christ. And then Paul reminded Christians of something else; He said in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Before Christ, the slave and the free man are equal.”

    And I suggest you read David VanDrunnen and D.G. Hart and these posts from Zrim:
    Post #1
    Post #2

  22. RubeRad says:

    Rick (and his pastor) are absolutely right. You can’t honestly read the NT and see a call for abolition of the earthly institution of slavery. And the O.T. law even had specific rules and regulations (now abrogated) about how slavery should work within Israel.

    You might well protest “but slavery in the american south was totally different and much crueler than what the Bible talks about”. I would respond (a) you are probably grossly underestimating Rome’s ability for cruelty; I mean, didn’t they chuck slaves into the gladitorial arena all the time so their deaths would amuse the crowds? Weren’t slaves used as disposable lives in the rowing-galleys of warships? And (b) ok, if American slavery was so totally different than the slavery that the Bible condones, then guess what, the Bible doesn’t address it, which means that it doesn’t issue a call to war!

  23. RubeRad says:

    P.S. good to “see” you around lately Rick! I guess you’ve gotten some reprieve from work?

  24. Elijah Harrington says:

    Well, in a very belated and round-about way, I suppose I actually agree with the two (three? four, if you count Horton, I read those other posts Rick…). I think my initial read/reaction was based on *me singing* the hymn, which I (clearly) have no issue with, rather than based on the implications of the *church leading* (mandating/preaching/supporting) the hymn. With that perspective, yes, I suppose if I have to stick to my 2K viewpoint when pressed (which I have been, ha) then I can’t be advocating that the church impose upon others what I in my Christian liberty and in my actions as a citizen would do. I sort of skimmed over that little 2K division bit… and went straight to my beliefs regarding the duty of the state and what *I* would do. Thanks for the thoughts, quotes, links, and discussion (Rick and RubeRad both).

  25. tbordow says:


    There were many political solutions offered to end slavery pre-civil war. War was only one solution but not desired by many even on the anti-slavery side. Many believed war could be avoided if no other new states were allowed slaves, others if slaves had more opportunities to buy their freedom, some, fearing a slave revolt upon immediate freedom, suggested returning the slaves to Africa, that we owed them that much and would protect the nation from bloodshed. There were a few other political solutions to address the evil that was slavery, but the point is, the church is not given the responsibility or wisdom to solve all these difficult political questions, nor should it, as in the Crusades, call upon its members to take up arms in the name of God. The NT is pretty clear on that.

  26. Rick says:

    It’s good to be seen.

    Couple things. 1. I kept seeing Zrim at our church and that reminded me that this blog was out here. 2. The Tigers tanked so I’m spending less time watching them. 3. We just had our 3rd child – we’re home more now – less going out, less weekend getaways and such. So I popped in and Z was talking about the Supper and I had to join in.

  27. Durell Flood says:

    ” have this test I call the “Carousel Test”. Imagine a hymn tune being played by the automatic organ of a carousel — if it fits, you can bet it was written approx 1880-1900.”
    Sometimes listening to hymn tunes out of the Great Hymns of the Faith I swear I could be at a baseball game in the way the organ is played.

  28. James Cannon says:

    You think you are smart by criticizing old hymns.Yes they reflect human experience rather than adoration to God. But Blessed Assurance needs to be something modern day Christians experience. So what if it reflects 1800s holiness theology ? We interpret the song in the light of mainline evangelical thinking.

  29. RubeRad says:

    Actually, we think Michael Horton is smart. Yes, Blessed Assurance is indeed something all Christians should experience. Does that experience consist of visions of rapture bursting on my sight? Does the bible promise such visions to us? What if somebody doesn’t have any bursting visions? How Blessedly Assured are they supposed to feel?

  30. If that is all you get from it, then don’t sing it. As for me and my house, we will sing unto the Lord, and we will sing about the exceeding great and precious promises given to us by God our Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord – Blessed Assurance.

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