New Century Hymnal

The UCC's New Century Hymnal, dedicated and officially released for sale at General Synod XX in 1995 has created national controversy and parish conflict almost everywhere that it has been introduced. In an era of increasing ecumenism when the common language of praise and the selection of traditional hymns in best selling interdenominational hymnals have brought Christians together across denominational lines in a unifying language of worship, the NCH is an anomaly, identifying the UCC and churches which use the hymnal as "extremely liberal". It has further isolated the churches that use the NCH and the UCC in general from the Christian mainstream. A February 12, 1996 Newsweek article entitled "Hymns, Hers and Theirs" criticized the hymnal's violation of artistic integrity in rewriting historic hymn texts and suggested the NCH represented the introduction of a "new religion". Literally dozens of churches across the country have reported in alarm that the NCH has been `forced' upon them in ways that broke covenant such as having individual families donate the NCH without church approval, having interim pastors push the NCH without appropriate leadership consideration, minority or pastoral manipulation of decision making process, and in a few cases having the NCH actually placed in the pews even after committees and councils voted not to accept the hymnal. In almost every situation where the hymnal has been introduced church division has been one result. To date over 250,000 hymnals have been sold which means they are in use in between 20% and 25% of UCC parishes. The articles which follow give a selection of comments and relevant facts about the NCH which you are free to download and use. BWF has published a booklet with this and other information which you can receive for free by emailing The Confessing Christ movement has also issued a publication addressing the relevant issues of the NCH.
Hymn Comments:
  • There are many disaffected Presbyterian and Methodist clergy women who can hardly wait for this inclusive language." - NCH marketing director
  • The title page of the hymnal includes the Biblical quotation: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" yet in its consistent denying of the masculine nature of Christ, the hymnal succeeds in contradicting the very statement with which it begins. . . .. So thorough is the work of revision , that someone totally unfamiliar with Jesus Christ would need to look very carefully at many texts before being able to determine his gender." - John Ferguson - writing in Prism. He is Professor of Organ and Church Music and cantor to the student congregation of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. A former UCC person, now Lutheran.
  • Perhaps the most glaring historical problem with the NCH has to do with the disingenuousness represented by in the short biographical sketches they give of the original authors. After slicing, dicing, and splicing George Matheson's hymn "O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go, the editors include the following biographical information: "Although nearly blind, GM . . .he wrote his hymn in five minutes on June 6, 1882 at his parsonage." That is a lie! Matheson did not write this hymn at all. . .read and compare. -- from a sermon delivered by Leslie D. Callahan at Judson Memorial Church on October 1995. She is a 25 year old black woman and a student at Union Theological Seminary who favors the multi-cultural hymn selection and inclusive language.
  • In the past 2 1/2 years . . it has become increasingly clear that, for our BHM and OCCL staff personnel, the emphasis on diversity does not extend to language use, and the multiple tasks set out by Shelby Rooks have been replaced by one, overriding concern: inclusive language. It dominates and determines almost every aspect of our work." -Margaret Tucker, hymnal committee, October, 1992.
Because of the controversy over changed words in the traditional hymns, The Witness did some lyric comparisons using the Pilgrim Hymnal (1958), The Hymnal (E & R - 1973), and three top selling nondenominational books: Hymns for the Family of God (1984), The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (1986), and The Worshipping Church (1995).
  • We found 304 of the NCH hymns in other hymnals. Often the words were so changed that we could only find them using the tune indexes, not by first line.* Of these 304 traditional hymns, 45 were unchanged or virtually unchanged. 259 had significant word changes.
  • Only 22 of 617 hymns have the word "Lord." "Lord" has been removed from 125 hymns which used it in their original composition. In another 5, some of the "Lord's were removed and some kept.
  • 3 hymns (out of 617) use "he/him/his" in reference to Jesus, but none are capitalized as customarily done. These are: "Good Christian Friends Rejoice" (129) "Jesus Loves Me" (327) and " I Come to the Garden Alone . . . and he walks with me . . . and he talks . . ." (237)* 1 reference to "king." This is in verse 3 of "The First Nowell" (139) - "three sages came from country far; to seek a king was their intent . . ." The refrain is changed from "born is the King of Israel" to "born in a manger, Emmanuel." This editing seems to be limited to the English versions. In one Spanish song, the "king of kings" in original is gone in the translation.
  • All References to God as "Father" have God in the feminine as "Mother" in the same hymn (11, 274, 518, 583) * Inclusive versions of the Lord's Prayer (entitled "Prayer of Our Savior"- pages 56, 60), Nicene Creed (883, 884) and Apostles Creed (881, 882) are printed next to the original wording.
  • The original UCC Statement of Faith does not appear at all, only the inclusive version (886). * Of the 6 versions each of the Doxology and the Gloria Patri none are the "memory bank" versions exactly. One Doxology uses "father" but without "him." The "Glory be to the Father. . ." version of the Gloria Patri is found only as a footnote.
  • Of the remaining 300+ hymns, 68 are ethnic and the rest are either original to the NCH or taken from obscure sources.
  • 129 of the hymns were written since 1984, but only one of the ecumenically popular and well known contemporary praise songs is included (#14 -"How Can I Say Thanks"- My Tribute, by Andrae Crouch , 1971)
  • 83 of the hymns have lyrics authored or translated by the editorial panel (5) and the 10 others who worked with them on the language revision team. 26 are adaptations, paraphrases, or re-translations; 6 have new stanzas, and 6 are Spanish and English pieces. The other 45 include such hymn first lines as "Womb of Life, Source of Being" "By Whatever Name We Call You" "What Ruler Wades Through Murky Streams" and "Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit."
Theologians Comment:
  • "A close examination of this monumental but misguided undertaking (851 hymns and chants) reveals a commitment to reconceive God in terms of a democratic egalitarian ideology that rejects hierarchy and patriarchy." "This hymnal can be deceptive in that it contains many traditional hymns of the church and also a significant number of the beloved gospel songs; at the same time slight alterations in wording suffice to bring these hymns into line with current ideology, alterations that are not readily discernible to unsuspecting lay people" --Dr. Donald Bloesch, Dubuque Seminary (Dr. Bloesch's review of The New Century Hymnal, from which these remarks are excerpted, appeared in the July 15, 1996 issue of "Christianity Today.")
  • The NCH censorship rules conform to the goddess-worship need. To that extent, the NCH opens the door of the biblical temple for the re-entrance of the Asherah poles." The NCH provides ample support materials for the shift from church to `world as church' and from evangelism to doing good. Modernism segued into this humanism, which now, with the addition of the radical feminist redesign of God, qualifies as a new religion. I call it feministicism, a cancerous form of feminism, metastasizing even into deity." I believe the NCH control-religion, Egality, is a cancer in the hymnal and thus in the UCC." -- Dr. Willis Elliott is biblical scholar in residence at Craigville Conference Center and professor at large, New York Theological Seminary.
Hymnal Theology:
  • "By whatever name we call you Fashioner of spheres, you are grander, so much wiser than our minds perceive. Labels limit understanding, God, you have no peers. So, we question - changing, growing - wanting to believe." (#560 - By Whatever Name We Call You) Theological problem: Did or did God not reveal His name, character, person, purpose and Son very specifically in His Word? If not, is there a Christian faith at all?
  • "Strong mother God, working night and day, planning all the wonders of creation, setting each equation, genius at play . . . ."Old, aching God, grey with endless care, calmly piercing evil's new disguises, glad of good surprises, wiser than despair . . ."Young, growing God, eager, on the move, saying no to falsehood and unkindness, crying out for justice, giving all you have . . ." (#11 - Bring Many Names) Theological problem: Is God changing, in process, evolving or is He the same, yesterday, today and forever - omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent?
  • "Centuries of skill and science span the past from which we move, yet experience questions whether with such progress we improve. In our search for sense and meaning, lest our hopes and humor fray, God surprises earth with heaven coming here on Christmas Day"(#153 - Who Would Think That What Was Needed) Theological problem: Are we people questing in semi-despair for elusive sense and meaning or are we joyful, obedient, faithful children of our Father who have responded to His love and now know Him personally through Jesus Christ?
How it was Done
How were the decisions about rewriting and choosing hymns for the NCH made? Here are a sample of the guidelines which the hymnal committee used, taken from internal committee documents:

Theological Guidelines:

*Father is one way to envision God, but God is also seen Biblically as Creator, Mother, Builder, Rock, Mystery, Love, Breath and more.
*Subtle injustices in traditional hymn texts which equate darkness with evil or blindness with sin, use dumb for the inability to speak, or assume that everyone can stand, walk, or march are inappropriate
*Mission hymns must appropriately teach servant hood rather than conquest.
*Where a hymn is clearly Trinitarian, Father, Son and Holy Spirit language may be used, but we will consult poets, theologians and others to search for new ways of expressing the Triune God within orthodox parameters. We will use references to the Trinity ONLY when they are part of the essential text.
*We will avoid gratuitous use of the word Lord.
*When speaking of the authority of God, we will seek to use non-gender specific language, while maintaining the paradox between authority and servant hood.
*Language for Jesus Christ: We will use 'son' only to express the relationship between God and Jesus. We will not use 'Son' gratuitously. We will search for additional images with which to sing about Jesus Christ.
*We need to find expressive images that deal with the struggle against evil, while confessing we may be part of that same evil ourselves. The issue is how to depict the struggle against evil with the weapon being love and avoid coercive language.
*Memory bank hymns: whenever possible we will use 'invisible mending' when dealing with difficult language, especially in the first verse. What we mean by 'invisible mending' is language which is not so startling that it obliterates the message; language that makes a difference with out being shocking

Choosing a Hymnbook:
The Witness talked with hymnbook specialist Dr. Terry Terry, at Word Publishing about the hymnal development process, copyright issues, and what churches need to consider when shopping for a hymnbook.
Here's a list of things to consider and other suggestions we think would help:
  • * Needs to be music that glorifies God and communicate His attributes effectively so people can worship.
    * Are songs musically satisfying? Are they playable (are 5 flats torture for the keyboard person)? Is vocal range okay? Are there accompaniments?
    * Visually, what's the size of type and readability of music and other resources?
    * Is there variety enough of themes to coordinate with scripture, church liturgical year, sermon topics?
    * What worship aids and readings are in the book? What Indexes? Colors?
    * What style of music does the congregation want? Like to sing? (Gospel, contemporary praise choruses, traditional? A broad variety?)
    * Is denomination important?
    * Suggestion: Make a list of hymns from the book you are now using that people want to have in new hymnal and a list that you want but don't have. Try to match the lists with each book you are considering.
    * Consider the words. Does the congregation want inclusive language? Do you want King James? NIV?

    * It is best to choose with hymnbooks in hand, not from a catalog. The publishers we contacted were happy to send samples. Your local Christian book store or music supplier probably has a wide variety to look at.
Top Sellers
The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration
The fastest selling nondenominational hymnal ever with over 3 million copies sold since 1986. (Word Publishing, tel: 615-385-9673)
Hymns for the Family of God - The second best selling nondenominational hymnal, with 3 million copies sold since 1971. (Paragon/Bensen Music Co., tel: 1-800-688-2404, ext. 24)
CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) Supplies 80,000 churches with access to 95% of all current music or about 150,000 songs copyrighted by 2000 publishing companies. Tel: 503-257-2230
How Great Thou Art:
The #1 hymn UCC congregations wanted added to their new hymnal according to the survey was "How Great Thou Art" - a hymn that hundreds of churches have pasted into the inside flap of their hymnal. Note: Don't put away the glue. While it does not appear in the index, Hymn #35 entitled "O Mighty God, When I Survey in Wonder" is the corresponding hymn. It serves as a good illustration of lyric changes in traditional hymns found in the New Century Hymnal.

Traditional Version
from Pilgrim Hymnal (and E&R Hymnal):

1. O Lord my God, when I in Awesome wonder
consider all the worlds (works) Thy hands have made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling (mighty) thunder,
Thy power thro'out the universe displayed.
Refrain: Then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art
Then sings my soul, My savior God , to Thee,
How great thou art. How great Thou art.
2. When thro' the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
And hear the brook and feel the gently breeze,
Then sings my soul . . .
3. And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Then sings my soul . . .
4. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
And there proclaim, my God, how great Thou art.
Then sings my soul . . .

New Century Hymnal Version (#35)

1. O Mighty God, when I survey in wonder
the world that formed when once the word you said,
The strands of life all woven close together,
the whole creation at your table fed.
Refrain: My soul cries out in songs of praise to you.
O mighty God! O mighty God!
My soul cries in songs of praise to you,
O mighty God O mighty God.
2. When your voice speaks in rolls of thunder pealing,
your lightning power bursts in bright surprise;
When cooling rain, your gentle love revealing,
reflects your promise, arcing through the skies,
My soul cries out .. .
3. The Bible tells the story of your blessing
so freely shed upon all human life.
Your constant mercy every care addressing,
relieving burdened souls from sin and strife.
My soul cries out. . .
4. And when at last, the clouds of doubt dispersing,
you will reveal what we but dimly see;
With trumpet call, our great rebirth announcing,
we shall rejoin you for eternity
Refrain: Then we will sing your praise forevermore,
O Mighty God. O mighty God,
Then we will sing your praise for ever more,
O mighty God, O mighty God.
OR FURTHER INFORMATION: BWF Continues to research this topic and gather reactions. We will update these pages and publish our perspectives in an upcoming WITNESS. If you have something to offer about your churches experience, your own response or related information we would be pleased to hear from you: email

Newsweek article by Kenneth Woodward is in February 12th, 1996 issue.

To read the UCC official view on NCH

To contact theologian Willis Elliott, phone/fax 508-775-8008

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