Changed words in Christmas carols

A Pray Tell reader writes to ask what I think of the change to the text of stanza 3 of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in Gather 3 from GIA. It now has “Born to raise each child of earth,” where the previous edition of Gather (for example, in the choir edition which isn’t yet available in revised form for the new hymnal), ran “Born to raise us from the earth.” I told her I’d put the question to you.

Let’s talk about all Christmas carols, not just this one. What alterations have you noticed? What do you think is an improvement, and what not?

The purists, I suppose, can sing the only correct version of the above carol, the original “Hark! How All the Welkin Rings.” The rest of us can have a serious discussion about text alterations which, after all, have been going on since the beginning.

Meanwhile – God rest ye merry, peoplekind.



  1. My notes from the meetings of GIA’s text editors who worked on the hymn texts for Gather 3 and Worship 4 are in Orlando, and I’m in Kansas City right now. I cannot say where the text in the 1986 Worship 3 is from; many of those texts were from the Lutheran Book of Worship or the Hymnal 1982; at times, the editors of Worship 3 made other text alterations of their own. From an online source, I see that The Hymnal 1982 and the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal (and, I am sure, many other hymnals) use the text as it is found in Worship 3.

    Earlier versions of the hymn often had this wording:

    Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

    Two or three years ago GIA’s text editors judged that the line from Worship 3 (and subsequent GIA hymnals) — “born to raise us from the earth” (the subject of this enquiry) — departed too much from the text above. It was felt that placing the preposition “from” before “the earth” introduced a resurrection of the dead or even a “Rapture” theme which is not in Wesley’s “born to raise the sons of earth,” which the editors thought referred instead to the elevation of human nature or the redemption of humankind which Christ’s coming effected.

    Someone with a copy of Evangelical Lutheran Worship handy may wish to check to see whether the revised text now in Gather 3 and Worship 4 was previously used in that hymnal a few years ago.

    Sorry, but this is all I can recall at the moment.

    1. “Born to raise each child of earth” is a pain in the butt to sing. Are we supposed to elide the CH—”eetchild”?

      As someone in the generation raised on inclusive language, I’ve always known it as “raised us from the earth.” I see the theological problem of using “from,” but what was wrong with switching to “of”? It sounds awkward, but it’s not any less awkward than the other solution. It preserves the first-person plural (us) and doesn’t introduce the weirdness of the back-to-back CH sounds.

    2. Also, this might be too nitpicky, but if the new lines are “Born to raise each child of earth / Born to give them second birth,” is there a problem with noun-pronoun agreement here? “Each child” is singular, and technically “them” is supposed to be plural (although there has been a movement to make it a non-gendered singular generic pronoun, much to the dismay of prescriptive grammar Nazis).

      1. Noun – pronoun disagreement is a common feature of reworked texts. One does but with difficulty conclude that those responsible are either deficient in how to fashion an English sentence, or that they carelessly paste words together assuming no one will notice that they don’t make sense.
        Another notable example is the well known Hymn from the Liturgy of St James, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh’. In St. 1, the last half reads in Moultrie’s trans.:
        For with blessing in his hand
        Christ our God descendeth
        Our full homage to demand.

        this makes sense, but Catholoic versions could not countenance that nasty old archaic ‘descendeth’, so they changed it to ‘descending’ and made nonsense of the sentence.

        They did the same in Stanza 3, in which Moultrie’s trans. gives us
        Rank on rank the host of heaven
        Spreads its vanguard on the way
        As the Light of Light descendeth
        From the realms of endless day
        That the powers of hell may vanish
        As the darkness clears away.

        Again, the editors of Gather, et al., cringed at that cruelly and burdonsomely obsolete ‘descendeth’ and gave us ‘descending’ in its place – again making nonsense of the sentence.

        Such paste jobs as this practiced on perfectly understandable texts of our heritage are the work of hacks and amateurs (as the above examples do suggest) who have no business fashioning any texts for the use of the worshipping Church

        It isn’t as if we were expecting people to understand middle English or Anglo-Saxon. These texts are valued facets of our heritage of recent times. They deserve respect. They are of such fine stuff that they deserve not to be doctored up and/or given the lets-pretend-gender-doesn’t-exist treatment lest we offend those who go around with a gender chip on their shoulders.

      2. That agreement rule is fairly recent in the development of English – it only became exceptionless within the past couple of hundred years, and the fact that conversational usage has consistently fought it might be sign that it has been a rule that has never been “received” or settled properly. It’s certainly less a rule now that it was in the mid-20th century.

  2. The text as it appears in Evangelical Lutheran Worship:

    Mild he lays his glory by,
    born that we no more may die,
    born to raise each child of earth,
    born to give us second birth….

  3. More astonishingly narcissistic editing with an eye laughably to erase gender from consciousness! This is sick.
    The original form of this stanza needs no editing. It’s meaning is clear even to the facetious fellows and women who would pretend it was unclear, or, that if it was clear, then it was criminally sexist. These same people seem to have no parallel urge to erase ‘her’, and ‘she’, etc. from texts in which they appear. The real sexism is in the minds of its paranoid denizens.

    One can understand a contemporary sensitivity in the fashioning new texts; But, not the wanton disfigurment of old ones which only the most screechingly paranoid would find trouble with.

      1. FB –
        I have not noticed this.
        It is certainly not true around here.
        The Church has historically been referred to in feminine forms, reinforcing the teaching that SHE, Holy MOTHER the Church, is the BRIDE of Christ, and quite a bit of passive and feminine (even ultra-feminine) baggage are attendant on this stance. If it has or is being discarded it has escaped my notice and that of the many people I witness using it. This is one aspect of our Roman Catholic Church with which I do not identify and do find alienating in the extreme.

      2. Sorry if I was unclear. What I meant is that one of the most striking things, to me, about the new translation is the reintroduction of feminine pronouns in reference to the Church. I can’t quite decide if I like it or not, but it is a notable change from the 1973 translation.

  4. The general topic is one of my pet hates–in particular, I cringe every time I am subjected to the US version of ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’.

    But the particular case of ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ is ironic, in that the familiar version introduces the idea of angels, and stresses a certain sort of Augustinianism, in a way quite alien to the original Wesley words (which are quite beautiful).

    Apparently, too, Mendelssohn insisted that the tune we now sing should not be used for religious purposes! See

  5. Wise words from Mark Roberts, with application far beyond Christmas carols:

    If you’re unfamiliar with the history of church music, you may be surprised to learn just how much variety there was in the early years of some of our most familiar and beloved hymns and carols. Slight changes in hymns in contemporary hymnals can get people pretty upset. Often they’ll say something like, “We should sing the hymns the way they were written!” Little do they know that, often, what they consider to be original is not original at all.

    1. That’s a familiar discussion. In my choir, if people have trouble finding room to breathe and stay at the right tempo, the director feels free to make a small change in the music, for example, shorten some notes by a half-beat to give us time to take a breath.

      Similarly, if some word is giving us trouble (hard to articulate, at risk of being mistaken for something else embarrassing, a mouthful, awkwardly placed on the notes, or impossible for the people in the pews to understand as we sing it in spite of our best efforts), I often suggest a small variation that would solve the problem. But my “improvements” are almost never followed, because “we have to say what’s written”, or at least, that seems to be what the rest of the choir thinks. (Funny considering that at the same time, the same choir has no trouble making changes automatically to make the text more inclusive!)

      I follow suit since I’m in a minority of one, but I think that there is way too much respect for what’s in print. Wouldn’t it be fun to take the hymns and improve them according to our needs?

    2. Is telling people that the version they thought was original really isn’t going to make them suddenly want a poorly done rewrite they can’t sing?

      When people want the “original” version, what they are really saying is they want the version that has become the standard in this age of recorded music and connectivity.

    1. Are you referring to those straw men who supposedly think “original latin” means something other than the Third Edition of the Roman Missal?

  6. Rachel, thank you for supplying the text.

    Christian, I and many others experience no pain whatever in any part of our anatomy singing “each child.” And, no, you are not supposed to sing “eat child.”

    MJO, nice rant. But you certainly have not checked out either Gather 3 or Worship 4, which do not have the text for “Let All Mortal Flesh” which is the object of your comments. And, by the way, horizontal gender-inclusive language is here to stay, whether you like it or not.

    1. Fr RK –
      You are correct. I have not checked out Gather 3 or Worship IV. I have yet to see a Gather edition which had so many as 75-100 hymns which I would consider using at any time throughout the year. Plus, many of the texts of even these have been so edited or foolishly altered that they either do not make sense or are simply inferior to their originals. Catholics do have a talent or a penchant or both for incredibly poor adaptations of classic hymn texts: the rhyme is wrong, the stress or accents are wrong, words often fail to match up with the proper note or notes (I’m thinking of Adoro te, for one), the translations would never be on a par with any Anglican hymnary, the amateurishness is patent and would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.
      That brings us to your Worship IV. I recall admiring Worship I as an outstanding hymnal for Catholics in its day. My experience with each successive one is that the quality of music and text has inexorably deteriorated. So, I have not examined the new one, but have read that it stoops far too much to matching given hymn tunes to multiple texts, resulting in quite a few bad marriages. Apparently this is to spare poor ignorant Catholics the necessity of learning more hymn tunes so that they can sing more hymns to the same tunes. This is a stupid thing to do. How long, how long, O Lord, are they going to coddle Catholics into that comfortable, though false, notion that they can’t sing, or if they can, they can’t sing beyond a certain basic level and we mustn’t ask too much of them. (Oh, and I didn’t mention the texts that have suffered sadly under the pens of gender and ‘politically correct’ word agents. Why don’t these people just write new hymns and tunes? At least that would be honest. But no: their great pleasure is in botching up someone else’s work who is not even alive to defend it!)

      You remarked above that my comments were a nice rant –
      perhaps I did get somewhat more strident than I would have desired. For that, I apologise (without retracting the substance of my remarks).

  7. Is it, Fr. Krisman? There is a whole new generation of priests and musicians coming along. Let me tell you phrases such as “for all men,” “sons of earth,” et al. are being sung more and more in parishes across the nation.

    Let me say that I don’t actually have a hatred for horizontal gender inclusive language. I generally don’t have a problem with it. But I DO have a problem with it when it becomes DOGMATIC. As an IDEAL and a VALUE, I despise it.

  8. David, undoubtedly some folks prefer gender-exclusive language for ideological or other reasons. But I still think that the majority prefer horizontal gender-inclusive language both as a value and an ideal.

    That does not mean that all textual alterations made in the past to achieve greater gender-inclusivity were good ones. MJO pointed out above (while addressing the issue of archaic English verb forms, not gender-inclusive language) that some textual alteration made in the past created syntactical errors. GIA’s text editors found that to be true of some hymn texts used in previous GIA hymnals, and they addressed the problems (as editors of denominational hymnals have also been doing the same recently).

    Alterations made in the past by hymnal editors to reduce the number of “God the Father” references in hymn texts at times also created problems of syntax or, simply, internal coherence. One text I remember which contained such an internal inconsistency is Creator of the Stars of Night / Creator Alme Siderum. The final stanza in the Hymnal 1982, Worship 3, and loads of other hymnals had changed “God the Father” to “God Creator.” Apparently no one noticed that it is the Second Person of the Trinity who is referred to as “Creator” in stanza 1 of the hymn. So our editors changed the doxology stanza back to: “To God the Father, God the Son…”

    Hymnal editors do not work in a vacuum. GIA’s text editors examined every strophic hymn in both Gather 3 and Worship 4. For many of these texts, we compared what was in Worship 3 and Gather Comprehensive II with the earliest published versions of those texts. For all texts which are also contained in OCP and WLP hymnals, we consulted those texts. And we also consulted a number of recently published denominational hymnals.

  9. Two thoughts:

    1. Each community now seems to be doing their own translation or adaption of these hymns in a vacuum, to the point where if you visit the Lutherans, UCC, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Roman Catholic communities, you can’t really sing without stumbling over the words, especially in regards to holiday carols. The effect could be a cacophony of words rather than a united sound of praise. Or in the case of where some may have the old, outdated versions of their youth set to memory and don’t need a book or worship aid, virtual frustration or embarrassment, or in some communities, offense.

    2. Fr. Ron–The Hymnal 1982 #60 (Creator of the stars of night), final verse begins, “To God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, Three in One…” Perhaps you were thinking of Worship third edition?

    1. Why that’s exactly what LA wants! Catholics need their own texts! We don’t want to sound like the other religions. That would be confusing!

      But really, you’re making this out to be way more of a problem than it is. Heck, Holy God We Praise Thy Name differs from GIA to WLP to OCP and we manage. Just follow along in the song sheet/hymnal.

  10. John, I apologize for my mistake re: The Hymnal 1982. As I stated yesterday, I have no hymnal resources with me. But the point I was trying to make stands: Worship 3rd edition did not originate the referred-to change in the final stanza of Creator of the Stars of Night. The editors of that hymnal found the alteration in one or more previously-published hymnals. Furthermore, the problem has now been addressed by the editors of Worship 4th edition.

    As to your first point, John, I really do not think that hymnal text editors are intentionally doing their own thing with regard to textual alterations. I believe they are seriously examining each other’s work in an effort to achieve as far as is possible a common text. I know that the text editors at GIA had that as a goal. You’ll see the results in a number of texts where we went back to a far more common reading. Some examples are the text for “Praise to the Lord” (LOBE DEN HERREN) and the restoration of “bounteous” in “Now Thank We All Our God” (NUN DANKET).

  11. MJO,

    It’s not just the ranting. It’s your penchant to generalize without any facts whatsoever to support your statements. Look again at your 3:13 AM post. You say you have not seen Worship IV and yet you accuse it of pairing hymn texts and tunes which result in “bad marriages.” Just NAME one or two of those supposedly “bad marriages.”

    You make statements about badly altered texts without providing examples. The altered text you referred to yesterday (Let All Mortal Flesh) is not what is in Gather 3 and Worship 4.

    1. BTW: the “mix and match” nature of hymn texts and tunes is part of the hymn tradition. If you check any hymnal with good indices, you will find an Index of Hymn Tunes, and even an index for hymn meters. So any hymn text of an meter (for example) can be sung to any tune of that meter. It seems to be part of what is meant by hymns. (And nobody here seems to mind that Away in a Manger has two different tunes.)
      Note that the tunes themselves can vary a bit (the slurs in Amazing Grace — sung to the tune of New Brittain, I believe — and in Holy God We Praise Thy Name; syncopation in Hark the Herald Angels Sing and O Little Town of Bethlehem).
      It’s SO annoying, isn’t it, that language and music persist on being aspects of living languages that just will not stay put, no matter how stable and doctrinal and “correct” we try to make them . . .

  12. As I read through these comments, it occurred to me that if one understands that the Roman Eucharistic Liturgy resists hymnody as a musical form, we do not even need a “hymnal” except for use in the celebration of the Divine Office, which does use hymnody. Now being in a parish choir which sings the appointed Psalmody for Entrance, Offertory and Communion Chants, I cannot imagine processing to strophic hymns anymore! Lastly, although it is common in Eucharistic Liturgies in the United States, there is no such thing in the Roman Rite as a “Closing Hymn.”

    1. I am curious as to where the tradition of a closing hymn came from. If it came from Protestantism, did it come from German Protestantism? Did German Catholics use closing hymns? Are we seeing the difference between a local Roman custom and the rest of Europe? Or possibly the difference between monastic centers and/or cathedral cities versus rural areas?

    2. Nor is there any such thing as a ‘gathering hymn’ or a ‘gathering rite’. I don’t imagine that hymns are disappearing any time soon in our churches, but Mr McVey is spot on! We must concede, though, that hymns are (according to the GIRM) licit alternatives to the propers of the GR. It is, then, our task to instill the best of hymnody and to discourage the use of those ubiquitous songs that aren’t really hymns and aren’t really apropos to any liturgical celebration.

  13. If you all haven’t had the chance to check out Worship IV yet, by all means do so. It’s an excellent book that will take sung liturgy in parishes to a new level.

  14. “Each child of earth” is definitely closer to what the “original” wording means. But while I very much appreciate the effort to include everyone, when it comes to hymn texts as old as this one I can live with the familiar, gender-exclusive versions. They have all sorts of other language that sounds archaic, after all, it seems like it’s just part of the Christmas scene. And honestly, I’d be happy just to get three verses into “Hark!” Especially since I think it’s one of the more theologically edifying Christmas-carol lyrics.

    My wedding was during the Christmas season, and we used “Joy to the World” as our recessional hymn. We stuck with “Let men their songs employ,” because “Let us our songs employ” just sounds terrible to me. (We skipped the “far as the curse is found” verse, though, as it seemed like a bit of a downer under the circumstances.)

  15. I attended a large parish of the United Church of Christ on Christmas Eve. The congregation prides itself on outreach to the GLBT community, and as such, places a very high priority on eliminating sexist language from every aspect of its liturgies. This sometimes irks me, as this aim–while laudable–sometimes yields wording that can sound clunky and obvious.

    One of several instances from the worship aid for 12/24/11:

    The first Noel, the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay, in fields where they lay keeping their sheep, on a cold winter’s night that was so deep. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel: born in a manger, Emmanuel.

    Jesus wasn’t “born in a manger.” Luke merely says he was placed in one. In order to keep some semblance of the traditional wording (“born is the King of Israel”) while still avoiding “King,” I would have preferred:

    Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel: born is our Savior, Emmanuel.

    I’ve been to this church a number of times. Their spirituality truly appeals to me, but in regards to inclusive language, it seems to me like the music ministry simply makes an effort to get rid of potentially offensive gender-specific wording without much concern for the sound–or potential change in meaning–of the resulting lyrics.

    I’ve been contemplating bringing this up as charitably as possible to the music director, but I can't think of a way to do it without coming across as nitpicky or confrontational.

  16. Although not a Christmas carol, this seems like as good a place as any to ask how in the world the 2nd verse of “Glory and Praise to Our God” has remained unchanged for 35 years, despite its glaring theological error: “Though the power of sin prevails…” Prevails?! Isn’t the whole point of our liturgical celebration the idea that the power of sin does NOT prevail, it was conquered by Christ’s resurrection. Sure the power of sin persists, exists, remains, etc., but it most certainly does not prevail. To Mr. Schutte I send a resounding, “C’mon, man!”

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