Hymnals are among my most favorite books. They have always been with me and are an important part of my life. I have learned and continue to learn much from hymnals. To me, a hymnal is music, word, scripture, inspiration, comfort, joy, awe. My library is full of hymnals of every shape, color, size, and denomination from a hand-copied hymnal of 1807 covered in soft leather to the Glory to God hymnal with its crisp new pages. My students and friends give me hymnals old and new.
I grew up in the Methodist church and singing hymns at home on Sunday afternoons around the piano and organ was a usual occurrence. In 1964, a “new” Methodist hymnal was published. What a treasure! My best friend, a flautist, and I decided to play through all the hymns in the hymnal. Since we were playing for the Sunday school gatherings by then, it seemed natural that we would take on this project. Somehow #526, For All the Saints, became our favorite “new” hymn and my, could we play it at a very very fast tempo. So fast, in fact, we were admonished to “slow down” at several Sunday school sessions. To this day, that hymn, “For All the Saints,” learned as a ten-year old is still my favorite hymn. Many others since then have vied to take its place but none have yet succeeded.
Why, then, are hymnals such treasures? Combining my thoughts with those of other respected writers in the field of church music, I’d like to share some of those with you.
Hymnals teach music. Amen and Amen! Don’t you think I learned just a bit about 4-part reading, harmony, voice-leading, melody, and
rhythm by playing through that new Methodist hymnal in 1964? As a society we’re making less music than ever before. We consume a lot of it but few actually make music. However, even an untrained musician can look at the words and music in a hymnal and learn to follow melodic direction and rhythmic value. How often have you heard, “I don’t read music but I’d like to sing in the choir?” If this person grew up in the church singing hymns every Sunday, they inherently “know” music.
Hymnals involve tactile action. Hymnals make people work. It is part of the “work” and worth of worship. Picking up the hymnal, finding the right page, and holding it up to sing, and lifting your voice in song grounds and centers you in worship with your fellow congregants.
Hymnals are a theological textbook. There is no perfect hymnal, but well-crafted hymnals are reliable sources of theological information. The students of my organ studio come from a wide variety of denominations. By working with them on the hymnody for their upcoming services, through the texts of the hymns, I have been exposed to beliefs and ideas different than mine. What a marvelous way to learn of the beliefs we each hold so dear – to ask questions and share answers.
Hymnals are as helpful as the singer (or player) needs them to be. There are times I must pay close attention to the hymnal. For over twenty years, I served Presbyterian churches so grew to know and love The Presbyterian Hymnal of 1990. For the past several years, I have served an Episcopal congregation and have been in the learning mode paying close attention to my hymnal. However, if and when we do sing, For All the Saints or How Great Thou Art, I may have the hymnal open but not look at it, because all those many years ago as a ten-year old I internalized every note and word of these hymns and made them my own.
Hymnals give voice to the congregation. Holding hymnals symbolizes the fact that the voice of the congregation is the primary instrument in corporate worship.
Hymnals give validity to new hymns. New hymns are often defined by the “company they keep.” When new hymnals are published, they introduce new songs to be added to the ranks of hymnody. The fact that in the new Glory to God hymnal you can find the new hymn Womb of Life and Source of Being sandwiched between Come, Thou Almighty King and Holy God We Praise Your Name adds to its validity.
Hymnals confront us with “new” songs. Hymnals make it relatively easy to stumble on and fall in love with good music you never thought you would like. We tend to go back to our favorite hymns often. It can be easy to fall into a rut and get just a bit perturbed if the pastor or musician chooses something “different” for a service. Our hymnals, with their musical and textual diversity, are designed to help us meet, discover, and come to love a wide variety of hymnody. Why not break out of that rut and learn a new hymn or two?
Hymnals offer a balanced thematic diet. Open any hymnal and you will find songs for both praise and lament, for both Christmas and Easter, for morning and evening prayer, for confession and baptism, for adoration and stewardship and a hundred other key themes. A hymnal gives people access to a balanced musical diet, full of texts to sustain the life of faith.
Hymnals are useful worship resources. As an organist, choir director, and worship planner, the hymnal is my “go-to” resource. Not only do I plan my organ voluntaries on the hymns of the liturgical season and day, but I often use hymns to create anthems for my small choir. Where else can you find four-part harmony for over 800 pieces of thematically arranged music? Truly amazing when you think about it!
Hymnals give people access to a “cultural memory bank.” It’s hard to think of a more poignant and accessible way of engaging history than by singing the songs used by Christians across the centuries. Using a hymnal we can sing the Trinitarian words of Ambrose, the memorable hymns of Watts and Wesley, Orthodox prayer refrains, and passionate revival hymns from Asia and Africa.
Hymnals can be an effective catechism for both new and lifelong Christians. Hymnals offer pithy, memorable, poetic answers to a host of questions that people have about the Christian faith. They summarize vast, sweeping Biblical themes in the space of a single page, often with remarkable nuance. A hymnal is a powerful tool for learning about the faith for people at every stage of their faith journey.
And, the best part is –
we don’t just read those words of faith –
we SING THEM.
Aigner, Jonathon. 15 Reasons We Should Still Be Using Hymnals. Patheos blog, July 2014.
Witvliet, John. Ten Reasons Why Hymnals Have A Future. Reformed Worship. June 2013.