Friday, February 02, 2018

Let’s get it right

“I was shocked when I learned this hymn was actually sung in Calvinist churches” – so says someone at ‘Truth and Song Christian Bookstore’ on Facebook regarding the following hymn:

We are the Lord’s elected few,
Let all the rest be damned;
There’s room enough in hell for you,
We won’t have heaven crammed![i]

But was it “actually sung” in Calvinist churches? Really? Many people seem to think so, on the scantest evidence. In Theology of the Reformers (p. 241) Timothy George calls it a Particular Baptist hymn (and many have followed his lead on that), as well as an example of “smugness and ugly exclusiveness.”[ii]

In the Holman New Testament Commentary - Acts, Kenneth Gangel calls it a cryptic poem and gives us an only slightly different version.

We are the Lord’s elected few.
Let everyone else be damned.
There is no room up there for you
We don’t want heaven crammed!

It is featured comedy in atheistic circles familiar with Christopher Hitchens. For example in his God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything Hitchens seems to indicate it is “an old English plebeian satire,” and renders it this way:

We are the pure and chosen few,
and all the rest are damned.
There’s room enough in hell for you—
we don’t want Heaven crammed!

Fact is, the hymn has been credited to Puritans, Particular Baptists, Calvinists, Exclusive Brethren, Bible Christians – take your pick or pick your poison. If by all, likely by none. The poem’s mocking tone suggests to me that it is a parody of the belief in election, reprobation, and particular redemption rather than an hymn composed and sung by such believers. I could be wrong; I have been before.

Many of the references that I found to this “hymn” simply pass off the information as valid without ever bothering to cite a source for it. An old mention I found online was from 1898. Even then the author wrote “a learned friend of mine avers” it was a hymn of the Bible Christian “sect, which, however, my own researches have failed to discover in the songs of the Bible Christian Sion.”[iii] (”What Was Primitive Christianity,” W. S. Lilly, The Nineteenth Century, Volume 44, No. 259, July-Dec. 1898, p. 503) There, as referenced by Lilly, it looks like this:

We are the sweet elected few:
May all the rest be damned.
There’s room enough in hell for you:
We won’t have heaven crammed.

I also located a secular ditty, appearing at least as early as 1893, of which the so-called “hymn” might be a parody (or vice versa, or both may have an earlier source). “We’re Saville Row’s selected few, Let all the rest be damned; The pit is good enough for you, We won’t have boxes crammed.” (The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, by Lady Isabel Burton)

Going back nearly 20 years earlier, the poem is mentioned in The Education Craze and Its Results (D. C. L., London: Harrison & Sons, 1878). Here it is credited to the Ranters – apparently meaning the Primitive Methodists – again without support. It is intriguing, though, that these two early mentions connect the “hymn” to Arminian rather than Calvinist religious bodies.

All this to say: Let’s get it right! For all the fun all y’all are having quoting this poem, let’s not claim either that this was printed in a hymn book or sung in churches, unless and until it can be shown that it was. If not, you’re possibly just passing on false information. Most likely this was satire intended to object to what is considered a narrow viewpoint.

[i] “Dogma Beyond Anathema: Historical Theology in the Service of the Church,” Timothy George, Review and Expositor 84, no. 4 (1987) p. 705; Describing what is said in the journal article, Peter Lumpkins tells us that  “George quotes a verse from a popular hymn sang in Particular Baptist churches.”
[ii] Which it would be if seriously intended.
[iii] Curiously, though the Bible Christians may have been exclusivists, they were not Calvinists but were Arminian in soteriology, an offshoot of the Methodists – founded by William O'Bryan (1778-1868). Their hymnbook available online – A Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the People called Bible Christians – does not include this hymn.

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