‘Sentiment’ may be defined very simply as feeling or emotion.  ‘Sentimentality’ may be defined equally simply as feeling about feelings or emotion about emotions.  Sentimentality is a second order thing, a response or reaction to a more fundamental reality.

A commonplace example is that love or being in love is a sentiment, while being in love with being in love is a sentiment.  Sadness is a sentiment.  The form of self-pity that is miserable about being sad is a sentimentality.  The difference between sentiment and sentimentality is not rooted in the strength of the two.  Love, sorrow, anger, and pity all can be very powerful feelings, and sentimentality also can be very strong.  The difference lies more in the immediacy of sentiments as contrasted with the reflective, mediated, second order, self-regarding nature of sentimentality.

The distinction between these two is often particularly clear in hymnody.  Given the importance of hymnody and music to public worship, this matter is also important for liturgy.

It might help to give some examples of hymns with strong sentiments and of hymns that are strongly sentimental.

Two verses from the Passiontide hymn, the Vexilla Regis, are themselves a prayer of praise and express sentiments of gratitude and confidence:

            Blest tree, whose chosen branches bore

            The wealth that did the world restore,

            The price of humankind to pay,

            And spoil the spoiler of his prey.

                        To thee, eternal Three in One,

                        Let homage meet by all be done:

                        As by the cross thou dost restore,

                        So rule and guide us evermore. 

This hymn has doctrinal content.  Its doctrine is consistent with Scripture and with developed patristic and Church teaching.  The hymn is clearly centered on Christ and his work, with the speaker or singer of the hymn firmly placed in a secondary position as the recipient of divine grace.  The objective nature of the cross and passion, even when spoken of in figurative terms, is clear.  The hymn has implications for those who sing it, and these implications include such sentiments as gratitude.  Nevertheless, the singer is not singing about himself, nor is his attention centered on his own sentiments, but rather he is concerned primarily with the more fundamental source and ground of his salvation.

Consider in contrast a popular hymn – which might better be called a popular song often heard in certain kinds of Protestant churches – called ‘Come to the church by the wildwood’.  Here is its text, written in 1857:

Come to the church by the wildwood

Oh, come to the church in the vale

No spot is so dear to my childhood

As the little brown church in the vale.

How sweet on a clear Sabbath morning

To listen to the clear ringing bells,

Its tones so sweetly are calling,

Oh, come to the church in the vale.

Come to the church by the wildwood.

Oh, come to the church in the vale.

No spot is so dear to my childhood

As the little brown church in the vale.

There she sleeps close by the church in the valley,

Lies one that I love so well.

She sleeps, sweetly sleeps, ’neath the willow:

Disturb not her rest in the vale.

This text has no doctrinal content and does not refer to God at all.  The song is entirely centered on the singer’s emotions about a place and his memories thereof.  This is an almost pure example of the particular form of sentimentality that we call nostalgia, a longing for or attempt to recapture past feelings of enjoyment or contentment or the lost presence of ‘one that I love so well’.  Behind this sentimentality may lie genuine sentiments:  real love for a dead mother or sister or wife; the memory of past beauty experienced or community enjoyed.  But such genuine sentiments when they are refracted in the form of this verse are swamped in sentimentality.

While ‘Come to the church by the wildwood’ is often encountered in Anabaptist, Fundamentalist, and Southern Protestant churches, the hymnody of more magisterial or mainline bodies also is not immune from indulgence in sentimentality.  Here is an example of cloying sentimentality from The Hymnal 1940:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,

Come to the mercy-seat, fervently kneel:

Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;

Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.  (Hymn 483)

This verse sounds forth resolutely as a ‘song in the key of Oh!’  It swoons with emotional words and with words about emotions:  disconsolate, languish, fervently, wounded, anguish, sorrow.  This stanza – apart from the reference to the mercy-seat and the implicit presence of Whoever sits on that seat, the One to Whom one kneels and tells – is all about us. It is about the feelings associated with sinfulness, sorrow, or a sense of unworthiness.  These feelings in themselves are genuine parts of Christian being.  But this whole stanza, unwaveringly centered on human emotions, is a prime example of self-regarding sentimentality.  The later stanzas of this particular hymn do get a little better, with the last stanza even having some doctrinal content.  That content, however, is not worth the sentimental path one must tread to get to it.

Consider in contrast the next hymn (484) in the The Hymnal 1940.  This is a 17th century hymn, based on Psalm 24:

Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates;

Behold the King of glory waits!

The King of kings is drawing near;

The Saviour of the world is here.

This beginning is, once more, firmly centered on God, on the Advent or Second Advent of the Lord.  Christ is at the beginning and center of the text.  The hymn proceeds with verses that do clearly refer to us, but to us as those to whom the Lord comes.  The effects of Christ’s coming to us include objective, appropriate, and quite properly strong emotions.  But even as the text refers to ‘my heart’ and feelings, the emotion is centered in and is an objective consequence of Christ’s Advent.  The feeling is a secondary fact flowing from a primary reality outside myself:

Redeemer, come!  I open wide

My heart to thee:  here, Lord, abide!

Let me thy inner presence feel:

Thy grace and love in me reveal.

The emotional effects of Christ’s Advent in me are entirely secondary in importance, in their place in the hymn, and in their place as a consequence of prior, divine action.

I suspect someone more learned than I in matters musical could extend this contrast from a consideration of hymn texts to that of hymn tunes.  I will not myself attempt such an extension.  I will, however, add a brief note about prayer texts.

One of the chief virtues of the classical editions of the Book of Common Prayer is that they are almost entirely free of sentimentality.  The prayer book simply does not contain examples of what my late friend, Father Frank Irvin, used to call ‘sissy prayers’, filled with ‘Oh’s and exclamation points and ‘sweet’ and ‘dear’ and other gushing words and phrases.  Tudor prose is not without feeling, but it does not emote about feelings, whether religious or otherwise.  When I say in the General Confession of my sins that ‘the burden of them is intolerable’, I am describing an objective fact about sin, or at least about sin when reflected upon rightly by a Christian.  That is a first order reality.

The Prayer Book collects, like their Latin originals, consistently begin with facts about God, his attributes, and his work:  ‘Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires know, and from whom no secrets are hid’.  It is in the nature of the collect form, which begins with an address to God, often including facts about his attributes or work, that God does come first.  The second element of the form, namely the petition, then often turns to consideration of the persons praying and of the proper effects in those praying of facts or attributes of God asserted in the preceding address.  For example, the Almighty God to whom all hearts are open, desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, the omniscient God, can ‘cleanse the thoughts of hearts by the inspiration of [his] Holy Spirit’.  The possibility of sentimentality is fairly strictly limited by the form that subordinates human petition to a prior, theologically-controlled and accurate, address.

3 thoughts on “Sentiment, sentimentality, and hymnody

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