Let Me Make the Songs of a Nation, and I Care Not Who Makes Its Laws

Andrew Fletcher famously said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”

I’ve heard this and similar arguments many times, and I just read another example in a helpful book, Gordon Wenham’s The Psalter Reclaimed:

The words hymn writers and liturgists put on our lips in worship affect us profoundly: they teach us what to think and feel, the more effectively as they are put to music so we can hum them to ourselves whenever we are inclined. (105)

I want to believe Wenham is right. But experience teaches that—for me personally, at least—Wenham and Fletcher couldn’t be more wrong. There is never a moment during a worship service in which my mind is less likely to be engaged than when we are singing (well, okay, maybe the Ladies Missionary Prayer Group announcement). There is never a portion of the service in which it is more difficult for me to really focus on what I’m saying than when I’m saying that something with rhythm and pitch.

I hate to admit this. It isn’t right. But I know it’s true because of the many times over the years when, while singing a familiar song, even one I’ve memorized, a phrase’s actual meaning strikes me for the very first time. It just happened again recently with a Christmas carol and, true to form, I can’t remember which one it was…

The exception for me is probably when I sing as part of a small group like a men’s quartet, something I’ve done countless times over 20 years. During practice it’s very hard to think about the message of the song. Nearly impossible, even if I’ve just encouraged the other singers to do it. But when we’re actually singing to the congregation, I often get a sense that I’m saying something important and I’m somehow enabled to stop and pay attention to what it is.

I think my inattention is especially profound when I’m singing a congregational hymn I’ve sung 921 times before, beginning in 1982. I can’t and don’t blame old hymns. I do love so many of them (“And Can It Be!” is my favorite), all the more when their message squeaks through to my brain. But perhaps this is an argument for the importance of using at least some contemporary hymnody: maybe we (or just I?) need the shock of the unfamiliar to make us “sing with the understanding also” (1 Cor 14:15).

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

4 thoughts on “Let Me Make the Songs of a Nation, and I Care Not Who Makes Its Laws”

  1. I think you’re applying this quote too strictly to worship songs limited to Sunday mornings. I tend to daydream during hymn singing as much as the next person, but they still pop into my mind throughout the week- and I count that as a far greater song to come to mind than Lady Gaga’s Judas.
    Our culture is hugely influenced by the music we listen and sing along to and the images we see on our screens. It is the arts which have driven the most significant culture within all societies.

  2. Hey Mark. First, I want to say that I really appreciated reading your post. I found it while searching for a paper I am writing and could stop myself from reading because I was curious. I wanted to interact with your post because you got me thinking and I like that a lot. You said, “During practice it’s very hard to think about the message of the song.” Part of me wonders if you aren’t actually explaining exactly what Andrew Fletcher was talking about. The very fact that you can sing the words without thinking about them deeply almost seems to be part of the double edged sword of music. I know there are songs I sing all the time without completely thinking about the words yet I would guess that they are forming me in ways I can’t even see.

    Anyway, all that to say thanks for the post. I read it paused and have something to think about now. I would totally love to hear your thoughts if you are able otherwise I just want to say that I found your ideas thought provoking. Thanks!

Leave a Reply