Where Have all the Wretches Gone? by Timothy C. Tennent

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

This past Sunday our congregation sang the wonderful hymn by Stuart Townend, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.  Townend is one of my favorite contemporary British hymn writers.  If you haven’t discovered the hymns of Stuart Townend, Keith Getty, Christopher Idle or Timothy Dudley-Smith, then you have missed some real treasures!  These contemporary hymn writers have put out a body of work which is, for the most part, theologically solid, musically strong, sensitive to the rhythms of the church year, Trinitarian, and worshipful.

There is a line in Townend’s How Deep the Father’s Love for Us hymn which says, “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure; that he should give his only Son to make a wretch his treasure.”  Did you notice the modern use of the word “wretch?” by Townend?  If you have followed the adaptation of older hymns into current usage you will be aware of the quiet removal of the word “wretch.”  The most well known examples are in the well known hymns, Amazing Grace and Victory in Jesus.   The phrase, “that saved a wretch like me” in Amazing Grace or “to save a wretch like me” in Victory in Jesus has been rendered in some modern hymnbooks, “to save one just like me.”  It seems that we just don’t like the word “wretch.”  It is entirely too negative for modern sensibilities.  So, there I was singing How Deep the Father’s Love for us when I noticed that someone had changed the last phrase from, “to make a wretch his treasure” to “to make us all His treasure.”  It took over 200 years for people to start meddling with John Newton’s classic Amazing Grace.  Stuart Townend is being de-constructed and re-cast in about ten years.   The problem is, until we really come face to face with our own sinfulness – our naked wretchedness before God, then we can never begin to comprehend the holiness of God.  There is a direct relationship between the comprehension of our sinfulness and our vision of God’s holiness.

So, I encourage you to think about the theological implications which quietly lay behind changing the words to hymns. Here’s another example to ponder and weigh in on this blog what you think.  The hymn The Church’s One Foundation was written in 1866 by Samuel Stone.  One of the lines goes,

“From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;

With his own blood he bought her and for her life he died.”

In 1983 Laurence Stookey updated it (see current UMC hymnal).  The result is the following:

“From heaven he came and sought us that we may ever be

His loving servant people, by his own death set free”

Think about this change theologically.  What can we learn from this?  I would love to hear from you.  I am praying that God would raise up a whole new generation of hymn writers at Asbury Theological Seminary.   The best hymns are always written by those who have come face to face with their own wretchedness and then captured a glimpse of the depth of God’s grace.


  • I agree with most of what you are saying. Giving the benefit of the doubt to those who changed the lyrics of “wretch” perhaps they were concerned that it is a bit archaic and not easily understood. However, I feel like if they remove it, it should be replaced with a word that has equal meaning and depth. In the last example you gave, it seems the intent may have been to make the song more gender nuetral, but in doing so, they lost the idea of the church being the subject. They took the words as speaking to the body or community of Christ, to a individualistic sense. I do not like that at all. As a leader I pay close attention to the theology we teach in our songs – because it is there above anywhere else that the church really ingrains doctrine.

  • Great insight. I am preaching a series on Heaven, Hell, and Life in Between. I’ve been looking for hymns about Hell and Judgement. The hymns I did find were written in the 18th and 19th century and are not part of our modern hymnals.

  • jd walt says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more on this point. It reminded me of John Wesley’s instructions for singing. His second rule is as follows:

    II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

    It is infuriating to a song writer when someone has the audacity to change the words to the song they wrote. Ask me to tell you The Wonderful Cross story sometime. It would be akin to someone approaching a great work of art with a paint brush.

    This Stookey edit is nothing short of preposterous. Its surprising to see such a great doxological thinker commit such wretched act of liturgical mal practice. ;0)

  • I’m no hymn writer, but I do like that you draw these issues to our attention. Here are a few thoughts in response to your question. Based just on the excerpt here, the imagery has changed from the expectation of consummating a marriage, committed by blood and the exchange of one life for another, in the 1866 version, to just sort of hanging out in a servant relationship in the 1983 revision. There is a cheapening of the relationship, and a shallowing of the exchange. There also appears to be a shift in focus from the church (“her,” the bride of Christ) in the 1866 version to a non-specific collection of individuals (“us” / “we”) in the revised version. Could this reflect theological movement from a sense of true unity in Christ (total commitment of the kind that is available only by grace through faith such that “I no longer live but Christ lives in me” as Paul wrote) to an individualistic approach which, no matter how committed, remains separate and distant and hopelessly dependent on self-effort? When comparing the two versions side by side, the 1866 version seems consistent with the efforts of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, John Wesley and others to call and exhort people to move from the faith of servants to the faith of sons and daughters of the living God; the latter version seems to undermine that effort.
    Chris Dunagan

  • P.S. — I was responding to your last question, “What can we learn from this?”
    My response to your first question, “Where have all the wretches gone?” is: I don’t know where all of my co-conspirators in the murder have gone, but there is one wretch sitting right here, redeemed only by the blood of Jesus.

  • Paul Lawler says:


    Grace to you.

    The revising of theology found in many hymns is analagous to the uncomfort many find in Wesley’s words, “Do you desire to flee the wrath to come and be saved from your sins?” Ultimately, it is a continuation of the reflection of the uncomfort with the Scriptures by much of modernity and post-modernity (i.e. 1 Thess. 1:10; Heb. 10:27; John 3:18). If I may, as a Wesleyan follower of Christ, quote John Calvin: “Men will never worship God with a sincere heart until they understand how indebted they are to His mercy.” May we re-awaken to the wretchedness of our sin in a manner that brings a greater glory to God for His mercy! Thank you for en excellent blog post!

    For His renonw,

    Paul Lawler
    Senior Pastor, Christ Church Birmingham

  • Lawson Stone says:

    The death of “wretch” is but the next in a string of such changes. I think the word “worm” might have been the first to go. It appears post-modern Christians can’t imagine themselves as unworthy, under the sign of condemnation, and desperately in need of grace. Flanner O’Connor writes of a man in one of her stories that he “had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any.” The man discovers his need for mercy, and then

    “He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present…He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.”

    I suspect that as those who in fact, feel we have been forgiven very little, are also among those who accordingly, love little.

  • Lawson Stone says:

    What is most alarming about the change of the nuptial imagery to servanthood is that it moves in exactly the opposite direction of Wesley, who spoke of moving from “the faith of a servant” to the “faith of a son” i.e. from service to relationship. The hymn change moves away from intimate, permanent, passionate personal union to the group speak of mere serving.
    I pray this guy never gets hold of the Song of Solomon!

  • Could it be that de-constructionists in most realms including poetry and hymns, find greater contentment and ease in making slight but highly damaging edits while failing to produce through the rigors of self-denial and personal piety, original material that stands theological, historical and musical scrutiny? Dr. Tim, your linguistic precision, keen insights and obvious courage, cause at least this reader–and I hope multitudes more–to stand tall.

  • I was born with the seed of your love
    planted in my heart without doubt that it will grow.
    Evil shadows tried to steal it,
    but your love made it strong enough
    to lift it up to the wings of salvation.
    I love you Jesus, my savior, my all.

  • […] Where Have all the Wretches Gone? Timothy Tennent, Asbury Theological Seminary If you have followed the adaptation of older hymns into current usage you will be aware of the quiet removal of the word “wretch.” Read more. […]

    • If in 100 years somebody would attempt to change the words I have written above, it might not only impact the way it is sang and the interpretation of it but also it might misplace the content from its original time of creation even if in 100 years its universal interpretation still makes sense. If hymns have been adapted because of “sensitivities”, and the changes have been allowed and accepted, then, it would be a good idea to, at least, mention it is an adaptation from its original content. If we have found time to change the words, then we should find few seconds to pay respect to the composer, the writer, and the time in history of its creation. Moreover, we should thank those souls for bringing to life words and melodies that, one way or another, have healed souls or have contributed in the process of salvation.

      “Where Have all the Wretches Gone?” Nowhere. We have just forgotten to dig in and gotten used to the new version.

  • Liz B Mertz says:

    Fortunately, the words printed with the music for “The Church’s One Foundation” in the UMC hymnal (545) retain the original language. I think most congregations still using the hymnal would sing that version. The revision is printed as an alternate text (546). It seems a misguided attempt at removing gender specific language.

  • Chris says:

    Not only is it rather irritating to have lyrics changed, but according to copyright laws and CCLI, it’s actually illegal. Our denomination has had theological issues with another line in another of Townend’s hymns (“till on that cross as Jesus died // the wrath of God was satisfied”) and as such usually changed the lyrics until one of our other worship pastors looked it up and realized that we’re not really allowed to do that … just sayin’ … I know old hymns are common property now, but when you do it to, say, Tomlin’s arrangement of Amazing Grace, it’s back under CCLI infringement territory …

  • Bob Brooke says:

    So many revisionists – so few traditionalists! The gist of this post applies to those who take such liberties with the Word of God, too.

  • James Lung says:

    An astute teacher could do a lesson on heresies by using the changes as examples. Modalism? How about “God, Christ, Spirit,” for Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

  • Thanks Dr. Tennent for bringing this to our attention. If we forget that we were once wretches we cannot fully understand the price that was paid for our sinfulness. May God continue to bless you as as the president of Asbury Seminary and a leader in the UMC.

  • It is a common thing in our time for people and even believers to avoid anything that suggest poverty, weakness or lack in general. I think it an indication of the theology of our time and it is an invitation to all well meaning theologian, I mean Biblical theologian to speak out against the perversion.

  • […] C. Tennent asks, “Where Have all the Wretches Gone?” in connection with changing the words of […]

  • […] http://timothytennent.com/2011/06/08/where-have-all-the-wretches-gone/ Posted on October 31, 2013 by stevewolfgang • Posted in Commentary, Hymns • Tagged Hymnology, hymns, Timothy Tennent, Wretches • Leave a comment […]