Heritage Song Resurrected
By Carl Stagner
Barney Warren would be proud. Proud, of course, of his God, who gave Warren the gift of songwriting. This year in particular, Warren would be amazed at the reach of his ministry. Yes, Church of God people continue to be blessed by his songs today, but there’s more. What appears to be a first of this magnitude is one example of how the Reformation Movement is seeing its original message of unity and holiness come to pass. While there is much work yet to be done, Church of God influence has permeated other traditions, denominations, and cultures—and, it continues to do so today.
The Church of God has already seen its message bear fruit of several varieties. One example of the manifestation of unity is the spreading of heritage hymns outside the movement. While Baptist and Methodist hymns make up a sizeable portion of the most recent Church of God Hymnal, Worship the Lord, hymns written by early Reformation Movement pioneers have seen only select pages of other hymnals. Nevertheless, the Church of God has witnessed its message carried outside the movement through songs such as “It Is Truly Wonderful” and “I Know My Name Is There.” Perhaps the heritage hymn that has become the most popular outside the movement, though, is Barney Warren’s “Joy Unspeakable.”
Of the more than seven thousand hymns credited to Warren’s pen, “Joy Unspeakable” might be the most well-known. The song has made its way into several other hymnals, including—but not limited to—Sing His Praise, the hymnal of the Assemblies of God; Sing to the Lord, the hymnal of the Church of the Nazarene; the All-American Church Hymnal; Favorite Songs and Hymns; Heavenly Highway Hymns; and The Celebration Hymnal. Remember Sam the Snowman in the animated Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? The voice behind “Holly Jolly Christmas” also recorded “Joy Unspeakable.” Other artists have recorded Warren’s classic, including Jimmy Swaggart, Lauren Talley, and pianist Roger Bennett, to name a few. Of course, our beloved Bill Gaither has also blessed countless lives with Barney Warren’s work of art. But Warren’s words have most recently been recorded by a mainline contemporary Christian artist. His name, Todd Agnew.
Known for his mega-hits, including “Grace Like Rain” and “Our Great God,” Todd Agnew has solidified his name among Christian rock artists. His style often blends the sounds of rock with traditional gospel and soul, a feat which proved successful when he penned “Grace Like Rain,” an adaptation of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.” So when he got married in February of 2008 and discovered a new God-given joy, it was only natural for him to reach for the words of Barney Warren, originally copyrighted in 1900 by the Gospel Trumpet Company. “It’s so amazing to see this relationship, this gift that God has given me with my wife, that we have walked through this period of life together [with] some great high points and some difficult things,” Todd explains. “And that the joy of being married has been a part of all of those things and to start to understand that was Christ’s plan for his Bride all along. That we would walk through life together and we would walk through the high points, and we would walk through the low points together. And that there is a joy that passes all understanding that is in the midst of all of those things! There’s a joy that’s unspeakable that our words cannot describe.”
Todd Agnew’s modern rendition of “Joy Unspeakable” was the first radio single from his album Need, which was released late last fall. The single made a strong appearance on Billboard’s Christian Songs chart and is still playing on contemporary Christian stations across the country and beyond. Who could have guessed that a Church of God heritage text would break down cultural divides and reach an unprecedented number of souls in the 21st century? The message of the Church of God is getting out, and in more ways that we could probably ever know.