History of Hymns: Hymn celebrates role of music in worship

By Benjamin Anderson Hensley, Special Contributor

“When Words Alone Cannot Express”
John Thornburg
Worship and Song
, No. 3012

When words alone cannot express
all that our hearts ache to confess,
bring music! Alleluia!
Bring melody and rhythmic fire!
Bring instruments, bring bells and choir!
Bring music! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! *

Even though it is a 21st-century hymn text, it is hard to separate “When Words Alone Cannot Express” from the familiar 17th-century hymn tune for which it was written—LASST UNS ERFREUEN, a tune often associated with the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.” The Rev. John Thornburg’s hymn uses this singable and triumphant melody to provide an explanation of the role of music in worship.

The hymn was written by Mr. Thornburg (b. 1954) in celebration and appreciation of the work of United Methodist composer Jane Marshall (b. 1924) and her colleague, Lloyd Pfautsch (1921-2003), longtime director of choral activities at Southern Methodist University and founder of the Master of Sacred Music program at Perkins School of Theology.

John Thornburg

Ms. Marshall, a member of Northaven UMC in Dallas, has been a longtime collaborator with Mr. Thornburg in the composition of hymns, especially when he was pastor at Northaven from 1991-2001. “When Words Alone Cannot Express” was first published in 2003 and appears in the newest UM hymnal supplement, Worship and Song (2011).

Mr. Thornburg, a fourth generation Methodist minister, was born in Southampton, N.Y. He graduated from DePauw University and Perkins School of Theology, and served 22 years in parish ministry before launching his own ministry of consultation in worship and congregational song. The immediate past president of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, he recently accepted a position as area consultant for North Texas for the Texas Methodist Foundation.

He has been contributing to congregational song since the early 1980s, and his songs are infused with rich theology, vivid imagery, striking narrative and convicting perspective. On his website, A Ministry of Congregational Singing (www.congregationalsinging.com), Mr. Thornburg asks, “What MUST we sing in order to be the church God is calling us to be?”

In this hymn, we address the why and when of that question: When speech erodes and tempers flare, / when peace gives way to idle dare, / . . . Let psalms restore our memory / that God has made us to be free!

Amid all the discussion of appropriate worship styles and music genres in our churches, we are called to remember that our song is a part of our congregation’s identity. Our song is a most excellent offering to lift to God. Our song unites our past to our present.

In worship, we sing our theology, our praise, our laments, our pleas, and we sing them together. The inexpressible can find its way out of us in song—be it in the Eucharist, the birth of a new life, the death of a saint, or spiritual epiphany.

Speech alone often is not sufficient to fully and honestly express to God the range of our experiences, struggles, joys, doubts, confessions and frustrations. Music serves as a language we can share with our Creator to pour out those things “our hearts ache to confess.”

This hymn employs the first-person plural tense: “our,” “us” and “we” instead of “your,” “mine” and “me.” Music is rarely a solitary exercise. The best music is made in communion with others, and what a spiritual force it is! When we encounter Christ the Lord, bring music! A church could make such use of this hymn as a statement of unity and celebration.

“When Words Alone Cannot Express” is an eager, exultant invitation to worship. The hymn may be used throughout the Christian year, and, indeed, it calls for music “within each season of our lives.” It reminds us that music is constantly appropriate.

Mr. Thornburg punctuates the meaning he is expressing in this hymn with jubilant refrains of “Alleluia!”—almost as if the shouts of thanks cannot be stopped before each new thought begins. These shouts of thanks are also passionate examples of what we should be doing in our churches as often as we can: Bring Music! Alleluia!

© 2003 Wayne Leupold Editions, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Mr. Hensley is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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