One of my mini-crusades recently has been trying to help raise Ebenezer. I seize every opportunity to publicly lament modern revisions of that beloved hymn, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," written by Robert Robinson in 1758. The revisions all seem to agree on deleting "Ebenezer" from the hymn's second verse, which begins, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer." Some of the "improvements" offered through the years include: "Hitherto thy love has blest me," "Here by grace your love has brought me," and "Here I raise to thee an altar."
Why protest such efforts to make the great hymn's message more accessible to very-likely-to-miss-the-point worshipers today? After all, the word Ebenezer likely calls to mind that old curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge.
But protest I must, for several reasons.
First, I protest on artistic grounds. As a hymn writer myself, I imagine Robinson felt he had found just the right expression to say what needed to be said. His phrasing, in this case, was succinct, biblical, pointed, poignant, and poetic: "Here I raise mine Ebenezer."
Second, the revisions are, at best, inconsistent attempts to be culturally relevant. How can the revisers leave in words like hither and fetter, as they typically do, while Ebenezer is heartlessly expunged?
Third, I protest on biblical grounds. Robinson's choice of Ebenezer (which means "stone of help") is a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12. After the Lord had given a great victory to Israel, "Samuel took a stone and named it Ebenezer, saying, 'Thus far has the Lord helped us.' "
This single word ushers the worshiper into both the biblical episode and the greater narrative of God's redemptive dealings with his people. It points us, also, to Robinson's dramatic conversion three years before he penned the hymn, inviting us to reflect upon our own stories and to remember God's faithful dealings with us. By removing the word from the hymn, we likely remove it from believers' vocabularies and from our treasury of spiritual resources.
Finally, I protest as a Christian educator. What we have in such revisions is the worst sort of accommodation, even contribution, to biblical illiteracy. Our faith is filled with names and terms that were unfamiliar to us when we joined the familyatonement, propitiation, Sabbath, Passover, Melchizedek. What are we to do with such terms? We teach! How difficult would it be to simply explain the reference to Ebenezer?
Other types of hymn revisions are even more troubling. Consider the many choruses that have lifted titles or phrases from hymns of earlier days. "Jesus, lover of my soul" has turned up in a number of contemporary songs. In one such song, the worshiper is invited to promise Jesus that "I will never let you go" and "I will worship you until the very end." The original, written in 1752 by Charles Wesley, could not be more different in emphasis. "Hide me, O my Savior hide, till the storm of life be past" and "Other refuge have I none, hangs my helpless soul on thee" are cries of utter dependence upon God's faithfulness, not promises of our determined faithfulness to God.
Generally speaking, we are misguided to attempt to improve hymn texts. Of course, we cannot assume that hymnists of old were more spiritual than their contemporary counterparts (stories tell of Robinson painfully fulfilling his words, "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it"). Yet most seem to have known their Bibles far better than we do. Frances Ridley Havergal, author of "Take My Life and Let It Be" and "Like a River Glorious," was a Scripture-soaked woman. We are told she memorized large portions of Scripture. I fear today we are too distracted to produce many such songwriters.