How To Revise Hymn Lyrics Without Destroying The Hymn

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Kristen Gilles playing guitar outdoors

Kristen sometimes writes new tunes for old hymns. I'm the clown who revises lyrics

In our My Song In The Night Modern Hymns page I said that when people speak of “modern” (or “retuned” or “contemporary”) hymns, they either mean entirely new songs written “hymn-style” or they mean old hymns with a new melody (and occasionally, lyrical revision).

Hymnal committees have always revised hymn texts, for better and for worse. If you’re a musician or tunesmith who wants to “retune” an old hymn with your original music, you must learn the difference between “for better and for worse.” I’ve written before on how to compose new music for old hymns, but today let’s explore the practice of lyrical revision.

The Clearest Case For Changing Hymn Lyrics
Hymn writers (sometimes called hymnodists or hymnists) of the 18th century sometimes wrote of the “bowels of God.” Gross. In those days, “bowels” meant the same thing we mean when we talk about the heart — it’s that deep-seated place within you, where your passions and integrity reside. To feel something “within your bowels” meant to feel it with every fiber of your being. But today it just means that you ate a little too much fiber.

Our hymn-writing forebears expected that their lyrics might need revision sometimes, even in their own day. In the Preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Isaac Watts wrote:

“What is provided for public worship should give to sincere consciences as little vexation and disturbance as possible … where any unpleasing word is found, he that leads the worship may substitute a better; for (Blessed by God) we are not confined to the words of any Man in our public solemnities.”

It’s Getting All Welkin Up In Here …
In 1739 another pillar of English hymnody, Charles Wesley, wrote a hymn that has become one of his most enduring. It began:

“Hark how all the welkin rings”

“Welkin” meant something like “Heaven,” — the home of God and his angels. Wesley was saying “All of heaven is ringing with the news.” A fine phrase, if the word “welkin” would have hung around in society. But it didn’t. In 1753 George Whitefield turned it into the phrase you’re familiar with:

“Hark! The herald angels sing”

Kevin Twit, Sandra McCracken and Chelsey Scott of Indelible Grace

Kevin Twit, Sandra McCracken and Chelsey Scott of Indelible Grace, singing at our church Sojourn

This change stuck, along with Whitefield’s deletion of two verses. Hymnal committees have considerably revised this popular Christmas anthem, in fact.

You’ll find other examples from time to time of lyrics containing words that have changed in meaning over the years, and no longer make sense in their hymn text setting to modern congregations.

How Come Some New-Old Hymn Groups Let Archaic Words & Phrases Stay?
Indelible Grace founder Kevin Twit has said many times that singing lyrics from another era helps us to identify with the saints who have gone before us. One of the shames of the contemporary American church is our ignorance and loss of church history. In many ways we’ve discarded the lessons learned and provided for us by our ancestors in the faith.When we gather to worship, we are joining our voices with the praises of angels and all those who have died in Christ (Hebrews 12:18-24). We don’t exist in a vacuum. Singing old songs helps us to remember this.

My opinion is that I don’t want anyone rewriting lyrics of hymns that are familiar to me and are both poetically and theologically sound. So “Rock of Ages, cleft for me/ Let me hide myself in … you” doesn’t cut it — and not just because “you” destroys the rhyme with “me.”

But if you’re working with an obscure hymn text and are sure you can revise skillfully to make some difficult passages clear, that’s your call. Otherwise, leave it alone. If an old text is good, yet your new version is good, then the choice to use the old or new version is a matter of preference for each worship leader, singer or community.

So Give Me Some Principles For Altering Public Domain Hymn Texts

Book cover of Brian Wren's "Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song"Brian Wren provides many principles in his book Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song. Here are a few important ones:

  • “Don’t alter rhymes unless you have replacement rhymes of like quality, and that smoothly fit the stress pattern.”
  • “Respect stress patterns as well as the syllable count.”
  • “Speak and hear each proposed revision aloud. What looks OK on the printed page may sound ugly when spoken or sung.”

Let’s look at the rhyme issue first. Many people say “We need to get rid of all the thee’s and thou’s in old hymns, just like the ESV, NIV and other modern Bible versions have gotten rid of those King James-era pronouns.”

Makes sense, but it isn’t that easy because unlike the Bible, hymns typically rhyme. Rhyme is the major memory device in song, and if you lose it, you make it harder for congregations to remember it, to sing it … even to like it.

Hymn writers often used pronouns like “thee,” “thine” and “thou” as end-rhymes, for  these reasons:

  1. Good songwriters and poets know that the last word of a line is important. Since those archaic pronouns usually refer to God, using them at the end of the line puts the emphasis on God — the most important being in the universe.
  2. Those vowel sounds are pleasant to sing and hear, and the hymnodist can find many rhymes for them.

So while it’s easy to change “I need Thee every hour” to “I need You every hour,” what are you going to do with:

Was ever grief like Thine,
Or debt of sin so vast as mine?
(hymn text by Samuel J. Stone, 1866. New recording from Cardiphonia’s Hymns Of Faith project)

You would have to alter the couplet to come up with a rhyme for “Was ever grief like Yours,” which might take the song in a different direction. So updating archaic words and phrases can be a big deal, particularly if you change the end rhyme.

Wren’s next point is to respect the stress patterns. If you change a word like “aloft” to “flying” you may think you’re okay because you’ve substituted one two-syllable word for another. But “aloft” is an iamb (two-syllable unit with the stress on the second syllable). “Flying” is a trochee (two-syllable unit with the stress on the first). Say them aloud and you’ll hear the difference:


So your substitution may cause singers to “place the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong syLAble.”

This is why Wren’s third point is crucial. Sing these lyrics to yourself long before you sing them to anyone else. If something doesn’t sound right to you, don’t ignore it. Keep working on your rewrite, and maybe even consider if you should just stick with the original text.

The Difference Between Hymn Revision and Hymn Adaptation:

I changed several phrases on Isaac Watts’s Hymn 95 and, with Neil Robins and Dave Moisan, added a chorus. The first line provides a quick example. I changed:

“Not all the outward forms of earth”


“Not any government on earth”

The original is fine but I wanted to emphasize something that modern audiences need to hear, in this age of faith in democracy and political reform. Government can’t save us.
But my aim for this song (and most of my other songs in Sojourn’s Isaac Watts Project) was not to come up with a new melody for an old hymn. It was to use Watts’s work as a starting off point — to be a “music expeditionary” like one of my other songwriting heroes, Bob Dylan (see my article about how Bob Dylan uses older folk ballads in his own songwriting).

Sojourn Worship Pastor Mike Cosper gave his songwriters freedom in our Isaac Watts Project. Some of us wrote songs inspired by the hymns of Isaac Watts, some wrote songs that are adaptations of one or more Watts hymns, and some simply wrote new melodies for Watts hymns.

All of these are fine, but if you’re going to simply use an old hymn as a basis for a new song, then just give it a new title and call it what it is: a new song adapted from or inspired by an old one. I would never try to pass off “We Are Changed” by Bobby Gilles, Dave Moisan and Neil Robins as “Not All The Outward Forms of Earth (Hymn 95)” by Isaac Watts.


  • Think about what you’re doing. Are you writing a new song inspired by or based on an older one?
  • If you want to stay more true to the original text, ask yourself if you need to change the lyrics at all.
  • If so, proceed carefully, preserving meter and meaning, and preserving rhyme when you can.
  • Say and sing the words aloud (you should do this every time you write a song, anyway).
See our “Warning! Understand Copyright Issues Before Revising Old Hymns” for a brief discussion of copyright law & hymns.



Top photo of Kristen Gilles by Katie Bierdeman

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