Disturbing or sublime Protestant hymns?
February 7, 2010 8:16 AM   Subscribe

What public domain Protestant hymns do you find disturbing and/or sublime? I'm looking for songs with any of the following characteristics: grim imagery; interesting/odd/effective use of allegory and metaphor; expressions of doubt; awesome rhetoric.

This is for a music project. A bit more about what I'm searching for:

1. I'm looking specifically for Protestant hymns... for the purposes of this project I'm not looking for spirituals (I already know several that meet my criteria), Catholic liturgical music, Bible quotes or psalms (unless you can suggest a cool metrical psalm). I'm especially interested in Sacred Harp music (recent exposure to shape-note singing is what inspired this project, but I don't know much about the tradition or repertoire), hellfire-and-brimstone Calvinist stuff, revival songs from the 1800s, Wesley's darker moments, and so forth.

2. Songs similar to "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood" would be great, but anything with particularly evocative imagery is welcome (especially if they flirt with the intersection between doubt and hope). Some keywords: sin, death, blood, hope, war, guilt.

3. Because I'd love suggestions from people who are more traditional Christians than I am, I'll note that this project is going to be serious and respectful (if austere and a little grim). I won't be using your suggestions to mock anyone's religious faith.
posted by the_bone to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this is within your rubric, but there's a Unitarian hymn called We are a Gentle, Angry People with the unsettling (to me, at least) line "and we are singing for our lives" repeated liberally.
posted by kittyprecious at 8:24 AM on February 7, 2010

How about A Mighty Fortress is our God by Martin Luther? Great imagery, and is comforting to many in times of distress.
posted by midatlanticwanderer at 8:31 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: Glory to His Name

Down on the Cross where my Saviour died
There where for cleansing from sin I cried
There to my heart was the blood applied
Glory to His Name

Just As I Am (This song is a down to the altar to repent)
Without one plea
but that Thy Blood was shed for me....

waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot
to Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot
O lamb of God I come, I come.

Hope these are helpful.
posted by effluvia at 8:40 AM on February 7, 2010

If you are willing to spend the time looking through them, books.google.com has a number of public domain hymnals scanned in.
posted by fings at 8:55 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

My all-time favourite lyric from a hymn is taken from Crown Him With Many Crowns;
"Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime".
posted by sleepy boy at 9:51 AM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I love It is Well With My Soul. I think it would fit what you're looking for, since it's pretty sublime. Stafford wrote after four of his children died at sea.
posted by pecknpah at 9:57 AM on February 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's not a dark hymn, but Be Thou My Vision is one of the most sublime songs I know, both musically and lyrically:

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
Naught be all else but to me, save that thou art;
Be thou my best thought by day or by night,
Waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.

posted by EarBucket at 10:33 AM on February 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Oh, and a second to sleepy boy's recommendation of Crown Him With Many Crowns; it's unmatched among hymns rhetorically, in my opinion. It's full of great poetry like the line he quoted.
posted by EarBucket at 10:35 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Isaac Watts's hymn Alas, And Did My Saviour Bleed has a stanza often altered or omitted in modern hymnals because of its uncompromising doctrine of penal substitution:

Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, thine,
And bathed in its own blood,
While all exposed to wrath divine
The glorious Suff'rer stood!

Watts was also the author of that splendid hymn Blest Is The Man Whose Bowels Move. ('He, in the time of general grief, / Shall find the Lord has bowels too.')

Charles Wesley's hymn Terrible Thought! Shall I Alone was published in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists (1780) but isn't much sung nowadays:

Shall I, amidst a ghastly band
Dragged to the judgment-seat,
Far on the left with horror stand
My fearful doom to meet?

While they enjoy his heavenly love
Must I in torments dwell?
And howl (while they sing hymns above)
And blow the flames of hell?

Speaking of Wesley, don't forget his famous funeral hymn Ah, Lovely Appearance of Death:

Ah, lovely appearance of death!
What sight upon earth is so fair?
Not all the gay pageants that breathe
Can with a dead body compare.

With solemn delight I survey
The corpse when the spirit is fled,
In love with the beautiful clay,
And longing to lie in its stead.

And while we're on lesser-known Wesleyan hymns, check out Wesley's anti-Muslim diatribe Sun of Unclouded Righteousness: 'The Unitarian fiend expel, / And chase his doctrine back to hell!'

There are tons of revivalist hymns about the blood of Jesus; two that come to mind are I See A Crimson Stream ('I see a crimson stream of blood, / It flows from Calvary, / Its waves which reach the throne of God / Are sweeping over me') and There Is Power In The Blood. Graham Kendrick's worship song Shine, Jesus, Shine continues this tradition with the wonderful line: 'By the blood I may enter your brightness'.
posted by verstegan at 10:36 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

For dark stuff, it's hard to beat Phillip Bliss's beautiful dirge Man Of Sorrows.
posted by EarBucket at 10:38 AM on February 7, 2010

I like perhaps predictably, being ex-navy, Eternal Father, Strong to Save (often sung at funerals of sailors). I like how it admits that bad things happen, people do dangerous things. It's very "I'm sending the boys off in harm's way, please let them be OK." In the hymnal I have in the piano bench, it has stanzas for different services like air, army, etc. The music is so simply beautiful it makes me want to cry. No other hymn has ever had that effect on me. In my opinion, that qualifies as "sublime."
posted by ctmf at 10:40 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you can find a shape note version of I Know That My Redeemer Lives, you'll be blown away. The chorus is particularly powerful in that style:

Shout on, pray on, we're gaining ground--
Glory, hallelujah!
The dead's alive and the lost is found--
Glory, hallelujah!

posted by EarBucket at 10:42 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: Can't belive no-one's mentioned Jerusalem! It's awesome!
posted by prentiz at 10:55 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: O Sacred Head Now Wounded
O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred Head, what glory, what bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
Hallelujah! What a Savior

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Lifted up was He to die;
“It is finished!” was His cry;
Now in Heav’n exalted high.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown.
When I mentioned this question to my mom, she suggested Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted,
See Him dying on the tree!
’Tis the Christ by man rejected;
Yes, my soul, ’tis He, ’tis He!
’Tis the long expected prophet,
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord;
Proofs I see sufficient of it:
’Tis a true and faithful Word.

Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning,
Was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning,
Foes insulting his distress:
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.
And for expressions of doubt (although I suppose this is more an expression of frustration with doubt), Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, the last verse:
O to grace how great a debtor
daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here's my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.
posted by JDHarper at 10:59 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, thought of a another one: Who Is This So Weak and Helpless?
Who is this so weak and helpless, Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
Rudely in a stable sheltered, coldly in a manger laid?
’Tis the Lord of all creation, who this wondrous path hath trod;
He is God from everlasting, and to everlasting God.

Who is this, a Man of sorrows, walking sadly life’s hard way,
Homeless, weary, sighing, weeping, over sin and Satan’s sway?
’Tis our God, our glorious Savior, who above the starry sky
Now for us a place prepareth, where no tear can dim the eye.

Who is this? Behold Him shedding drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected, mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
’Tis our God, who gifts and graces on His church now poureth down;
Who shall smite in righteous judgment all His foes beneath His throne.

Who is this that hangeth dying while the rude world scoffs and scorns,
Numbered with the malefactors, torn with nails, and crowned with thorns?
’Tis the God Who ever liveth, ’mid the shining ones on high,
In the glorious golden city, reigning everlastingly.
posted by JDHarper at 11:07 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: Abide With Me, written by Henry Francis Lyte as he lay dying of TB. Lyrics here.
Became traditional to sing it at the FA Cup final, testament to the wide popular appeal of the message.
posted by Abiezer at 11:48 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: Here is the best online resource for hymn lyrics that I know of: NetHymnal

Here are the first lines of some hymns you might like:

With Christ we share a mystic grave
Asleep in Jesus
Alas! and did my Savior bleed
Buried with Christ and raised with him too
Once it was the blessing
Earth has many a noble city
Come, Divine Interpreter
How tedious and tasteless the hours
I am crucified with Christ
I am his, and he is mine
I know whom I have believed
In the bleak midwinter
It is better to sing
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
Let party names no more
Lo, how a rose e're blooming
My faith has found a resting place
Not all the blood of beasts
O for a thousand tongues to sing
One day there'll be new earth and heaven
Only thy garment's hem
O thou who at thy creature's bar
There's a wideness in God's mercy
The love of God is greater far
We bless thee God and Father
We limit not the truth of God
When I survey the wonderous cross
Within the churchyard, side by side

Also, check out the hymns of Isaac Watts.
posted by partner at 11:55 AM on February 7, 2010

When I was a teenager, I always liked singing the refrain from Up From the Grave He Arose, because it's creepy and triumphant.

Up from the grave he arose;
with a mighty triumph o'er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain,
and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!
posted by interplanetjanet at 12:32 PM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "I know that my Redeemer lives" is probably better known as "Antioch," which I believe is #277 in the 1991 Denson Sacred Harp.

But, yeah, I'm gonna have to nth Watts; I took a class on sacred music at my Catholic high school and the teacher, a monk, insisted we spend the entire second half of the semester covering him, and I've had to agree ever since - here's "China" (or "Why do we mourn departing friends?") arranged as a sacred harp tune.

I'm also a big fan of William Billings' "Africa," which is an arrangement of Watts' "Now shall my inwards joys arise."

(Most folk hymnody, for reasons I don't yet understand, features seemingly arbitrary place-derived names.)
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 12:40 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The creepiest thing in the US Episcopalian hymnal when I was growing up was Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. The downright gothic lyrics are heightened by the spiky modality of the tune [MIDI].
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:30 PM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: From the perspective of my upbringing (my father is a Lutheran minister of the Missouri Synod) your best hunting will be in Lenten hymns, easily the darkest season of the Christian church year, focusing as it does on the Passion and death of Christ.

Go to Dark Gethsemane is a personal favorite.

Lots of nice, dark, classic Protestant/Lutheran hymns to be found in this article.
posted by nanojath at 3:50 PM on February 7, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, great answers! I marked a few best answers based on my own needs for this project, but all the responses are appreciated... it's made me take a second look at a lot of hymns I sang growing up in the Episcopal church. "Crown Him with Many Crowns" and "Be Thou My Vision" are two of my all-time faves.

Just in case anyone else ever uses this thread as a resource, I'm gonna include some that I found while flipping through a Methodist hymnal (so the list will be pretty Charles Wesley-friendly):

Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies
Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin (particularly the last two verses)
Sinners, Turn: Why Will You Die
Grace Greater than Our Sin (verses 2 and 3)
Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown (it's about Jacob wrestling with the angel, and it's amazing)
Soldiers of Christ, Arise
posted by the_bone at 4:33 PM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: Idumea

And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot.

Soon as from earth I go
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe,
Must then my portion be!

Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!


it was featured in the Cold Mountain soundtrack in super sacredharp style

here's a more straightforward English version with the amazing Tim Eriksen

and there's another nice version done with banjos...

i mean, c'mon: "Am I born to die?" "deepest shade unpierced by human thought"? "I from my grave shall rise & see the flaming skies"?
how much more disturbing and sublime do you want?
posted by jammy at 4:49 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mmm, love "Power in the Blood," great tune.

Our church will never sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" because it's so un-PC (Christians going off to war). Consequently, it's always the first one requested at hymn sings.
posted by Melismata at 5:06 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Less hell, blood and dogma than soulful, "How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours" always resonates with me. Especially, for some reason, the fourth verse:

"Dear Lord, if indeed I am Thine,
If Thou art my sun and my song,
Say, why do I languish and pine?
And why are my winters so long?
O drive these dark clouds from the sky,
Thy soul cheering presence restore;
Or take me to Thee up on high,
Where winter and clouds are no more."


One link of all-vocal rendition (a bit cheerful, but good):

posted by slab_lizard at 8:11 PM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face

2. Twas He who taught me thus to pray
And He I trust has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair

3. I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He'd answer my request
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest

4. Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part

5. Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low

6. Lord why is this, I trembling cried
Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?
"Tis in this way" The Lord replied
"I answer prayer for grace and faith"

7. "These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me,
That thou mayest seek thy all in me."

-John Newton
posted by yoyoceramic at 8:13 PM on February 7, 2010

For grim imagery and war metaphors, few Protestant hymns can rival the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Although written originally as an anti-slavery song, it's provocative rhetoric has become a chest-thumping fight song of protest and determination for a wide range of causes. I don't know how well that translates into sacred music for the harp but it would be more familiar to the ear than most traditional Protestant hymns.
posted by birdwatcher at 4:31 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Sacred harp singer here. This list is, naturally, non-exhaustive. You can browse through the entire corpus of The Sacred Harp over here at fasola.org. Additionally, there are a bunch of youtube videos from composer and linguistics student Myles Dakan of the Western Massachusetts sing with accompanying scans of the music.*

Rise, my soul, and stetch thy wings,
Thy better portion trace,
Rise from transitory things
To heav'n, thy native place.
Sun, and moon, and stars decay,
Time shall soon this earth remove.
Rise, my soul, and haste away
To seats prepared above.
Last Words of Copernicus
Ye golden lamps of heav’n farewell,
With all your feeble light;
Farewell thou ever changing moon,
Pale empress of the night.
And thou refulgent orb of day,
In brighter flames arrayed;
My soul which springs beyond thy sphere,
No more demands thy aid.
Hark! the Redeemer from on high,
Sweetly invites His fav’rites nigh,
From caves of darkness and of doubt,
He gently speaks and calls us out.
Come, my beloved, haste away,
Cut short the hours of thy delay;
Fly like a youthful hart or roe,
Over the hills where spices grow.
Trust Him ye saints in all your ways,
Pour out your hearts before His face;
When helpers fail, and foes invade,
God is our all-sufficient aid.
David's Lamentation
David the king was grieved and moved
He went to his chamber, and wept;
And as he went he wept, and said,
“Oh my son! Would to God I had died
For thee, Oh Absalom, my son.”
I'm going home
I’m glad that I am born to die,
From grief and woe my soul shall fly,
And I don’t care to stay here long!
Converting Grace
As pants the hart for cooling streams,
When heated in the chase;
So longs my soul, Oh God, for Thee,
And Thy refreshing grace.
Oh, for converting grace, and oh,
For sanctifying pow’r;
Lord, we ask in Jesus’ name,
A sweet, refreshing show’r.
*NB: the scans are from the 1860 edition of the Sacred Harp and thus lack an alto line. This site has updated sheet music, though you'll have to download a viewer/MIDI player plugin to see it.
posted by The White Hat at 8:46 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't stop once I get started--

Why do we then indulge our fears,
Suspicions and complaints?
Is He a God, and shall His grace
Grow weary of His saints?
All is Well
What’s this that steals upon my frame?
Is it death, is it death?
That soon will quench this mortal flame,
Is it death, is it death?
If this be death, I soon shall be
From ev’ry pain and sorrow free.
I shall the King of glory see,
All is well, all is well.
Mear, finally, which I'll reproduce in its entirety due to its perfect lyrics.
Will God forever cast us off?
His wrath forever smoke
Against the people of His love,
His little chosen flock.

Think of the tribes so dearly bought
With the Redeemer’s blood,
Nor let Thy Zion be forgot,
Where once Thy glory stood.

Where once Thy churches prayed and sang
Thy foes profanely rage;
Amid Thy gates their ensigns hang,
And there their host engage.

And still to heighten our distress,
Thy presence is withdrawn;
Thy wonted signs of pow’r and grace
Thy pow’r and grace are gone.

No prophet speaks to calm our grief,
But all in silence mourn;
Nor know the hour of our relief,
The hour of Thy return.
posted by The White Hat at 8:59 AM on February 8, 2010

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