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Church History in Music

Following a recent worship service one woman commented, “The person sitting next to meet said that she wishes we would sing more traditional hymns.” Within five minutes another woman observed, “The words to today’s hymns were wonderful!” And the debate over church music, in general, and choice of hymns, in particular, goes on. Whenever a new hymnbook is published, the embers of controversy over which hymns are included and which are excluded are stoked once again. I grew up on “the old red Hymnbook (actually, it’s burgundy). It’s still one of my favorites as it includes many fine hymns which did not “make the cut” in subsequent hymnals. In a couple of generations we have had The Worshipbook, The Presbyterian Hymnal, and now Glory to God. I was stunned to read recently that “more hymns have been written in traditional forms in the past generation than in any other period in Protestant history, with the possible exception of the last several years of Charles Wesley’s life” (John D. Witvliet’s Preface to A More Profound Alleluia, edited by Leanne VanDyke, p. x). Although the adjustment has taken time, I find myself liking “Glory to God” more and more. Not only does it include many more hymns (over 850 hymns with some old and some new), but many of the new hymns are also set to familiar tunes. In addition, the growing linguistic diversity in the Presbyterian Church is reflected in providing various languages with some of the hymns. What has fascinated me for many years is how ecumenical we are when we sing. Our hymnbooks include such 19th century gospel hymns as Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!” and “To God Be the Glory” as well as Isaac Watts’ 18th century hymns, “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, the 12th century “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts” as well as Marty Haugen’s “Let Us Build a House” (1994), spirituals as well as chants from the Taize community in France. In addition, these hymns can be a wonderful lesson in church history. While good hymns are universal and not limited in their message to the time in which they are written, they can nevertheless be a reflection of their time. Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale College, was a leader in the Second Great Awakening in this country when he wrote “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord” in 1800. Dwight’s grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, part of the First Great Awakening in the 1730s in Northampton, Massachusetts. And yet, Mel Bringle’s 2000 hymn “When Memory Fades” (tune: FINLANDIA) addresses the contemporary issue of dementia, but does so in the context of God’s unfailing love and faithfulness. Hymns reflect the breadth and depth of theological traditions. “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “Standing on the Promises” come out of a different time and tradition (19th century gospel), and yet many still draw great comfort in them. Just as much comfort is taken, however, in such hymns as “The Church’s One Foundation” and “For All the Saints” which are much more in line with the Reformed tradition. As we make history today, may we praise God through the hymns that we sing, but may we also listen to the words and grow both in our appreciation of the faith and for those who are able to express that faith through words and music.

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