Hymns at the 2021 Inauguration of the Samford University President

My colleagues and I who teach Christian history or theology at Samford often bemoan the fact that students no longer know the hymns we would like to refer to in class. I take heart that the inauguration of Beck Taylor as the nineteenth president of Samford University made some effort to address this.

The congregation and choirs sang three hymns: Isaac Watts’s “O God Our Help in Ages Past” (a paraphrase of the first half of Psalm 90) to William Croft’s ST ANNE, Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling” to Rowland Hugh Prichard’s HYFRYDOL, and William Williams’s “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” (as translated by Peter Williams) to John Hughes’s CWM RHONDDA.

It was clearly a big day for British (English and Welsh) hymnody. The anthems sung by the choir were also English: Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad” (words from Psalm 122) and John Rutter’s “God Be in My Head” (words from the Sarum (or Salisbury) Primer of 1514). The pieces for organ or brass listed in the program were French. The sole American contribution to the ceremony’s music was the Samford Alma Mater arranged by Samford alumnus and professor emeritus, Timothy Paul Banks. Given the strength of Samford’s division of music and its composition program, this choice of almost entirely British and French music was striking.

But I am not complaining. These are great pieces. And I found the way Philip Copeland lead the choirs in singing the the first two stanzas of Wesley’s “Love Divine” to be particularly sensitive. The temptation with HYFRYDOL, and any Welsh tune, is just to belt it out. And that is, frankly, what I usually do (and probably did at my wedding, Martha and I had chosen this to be among the congregational hymns) but Philip led the choirs in a quiet, clear, and tender signing of these stanzas, male voices on the first stanza, female voices on the second. It was transformative and directed the congregation anew to the words.

Like most eighteenth-century texts, these hymns exist in many forms. I normally sing them from the United Methodist Hymnal or the Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1982. Neither of these are one of the two hymnals in chapels on Samford’s campus nor, obviously, are they Baptist hymnals. I haven’t sleuthed out where the particular versions we sang at the inauguration were from, but there were minor differences from what I am used to. And these are interesting.

In the fifth stanza of “O God, Our Help” the familiar “bears all who breathe away” was changed to “bears all of us away.” But then the next line was still in the third person “They fly, forgotten, as a dream.” This shift from the first to the third person is just bad. It makes no sense. I’m teaching freshman writing this semester, and I wouldn’t allow it in a paper. If we are going to sing that time “bears all of us away” then we should sing “we fly, forgotten.”

Given Calvinists’ problems with Charles Wesley’s perfectionist theology, “Love Divine” is frequently altered. And so it was here. “Second rest” was changed to “promised rest.” “Take away our power of sinning” was changed to “our bent to sinning” (I’m used to “our love of sinning”). Most jarring to me is that “let us all thy life receive” became “let us all thy grace receive.” But all these are common alterations among more Reformed groups and none of them are as bad as some of the versions I’ve sung in Roman Catholic churches. (Those versions are motivated not by theology, but by a concern to move away from biblical allusions to something more comprehensible to those unfamiliar with the Bible.)

I wasn’t previously aware of variations in “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” other than the fact that in England they sing “Redeemer” rather than “Jehovah.” Given that Jehovah is a mispronunciation of the divine name and that Jews don’t pronounce the divine name, I’d opt for “Redeemer.” But I discovered a new-to-me alteration of this text in the third stanza. The translation of William Williams’s hymn that I am used to includes a direct address of Christ in the third stanza as “Death of death and hell’s destruction,” but the version we sang at the inauguration changed that to a petition “bear me though the swelling current.” I assume this is because the fact that “death of death and hell’s destruction” is a title for Christ is not immediately clear. It is a rich biblical allusion. When it is left out, the third stanza becomes the only stanza without a direct address to God.

It is a fair question, however, which is the better translation of the original Welsh. According to the noted hymnologist C. Michael Hawn the original Welsh if literally translated is

When I go through Jordan –
Cruel death in its force –
Thou Thyself suffered this before,
Why shall I fear further?
Let me cry out in the torrent.

C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’”

“Death of death and hell’s destruction” parallels “Thou Thyself suffered this before” while the “bear me through the swelling current” does bring out the vivid description of the “torrent” in the original Welsh. But that mainly repeats the idea of safety expressed in “land me safe on Canaan’s side.” The version we sang at Samford lacks any reference to the work of Jesus by which we cross the Jordan.

I first learned Rutter’s “God Be in My Head” from his CD Gloria. There it comes immediately before his setting of “Open Thou My Eyes,” a test from Bishop Lancelot Andrews’s s Preces Privatae. Because I have often listened to the two together. I always expect “God Be in My Head” to be followed by the study low-voice middle section of “Open Thou My Eyes.”

O Lord God, be thou to me a God
And beside thee let there be none else,
No other, naught else with thee.

All in all the inauguration was a good day for traditional English-language hymnody.

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