Friday, July 17, 2015

Ode to My Hymnal

by C.J. Chase

When I was a girl…no, wait, not even that long ago, congregational singing at church involved a piano, an organ, and a hymnal. The music leader would announce the next song and the hymn number, then we in the congregation would reach forward to grab the volume of songs from the rack on the pew in front of us. If you were daydreaming and missed the announcement, it was generally okay because most churches also posted the numbers on a board at the front of the church.

The hymns themselves were almost always in four-part harmony. Four verses and a chorus was a common pattern, although there were variations (like three verses and a chorus, or four verses and no chorus). At some churches, we sang all the verses all the time; at others, the minister would instruct the congregation to only sing selected verses—usually because he ran overtime on the sermon. (Later, as an organist, I discovered I had to pay special attention during this time. And yes, I am guilty of both the started-an-extra-verse after the congregation finished and the didn’t-start-the-last-verse while the congregation gamely tried to sing without me mistakes because I’d miscounted verses.)

I knew the era of hymn singing was coming to a close when I recently attended my mother’s very small, very traditional church in a yet-rural part of the country. The words are now on a screen and a bass guitar accompanies the piano and organ. While the congregation hasn’t yet exchanged the old hymns for modern praise music or added drums to the ensemble, I figure it’s only a matter of time. How much longer before hymnals disappear from sanctuaries altogether? I expect it to be within my lifetime.

And I find that rather sad. I always enjoyed checking out the hymnal when I attended to a different church. You could tell so much about a congregation just by peaking through those pages of songs, recitations, catechisms, responsive readings, and service forms. Do the stately hymns and precisely-worded forms suggest I will get a formal, liturgical service? Will the congregation recite creeds? Or are those pages filled with handclapping, power-in-the-blood, old-time-religion songs? And since I can read music, the printed notes and rhythms let me participate even if I encountered a new-to-me tune.

Typical hymnbooks were arranged by subject—all the Christmas songs together, for instance. In addition to the music itself, most listed the names of the composers and lyricists, sometimes with their birth/death dates. Oh, the names I saw over and over: Fanny J. Crosby, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Philip Brooks. Some books included a tune name (if the music was composed at a different time from the words), a suggested introduction for the accompanists, and the meter. Meter is the number of syllables per line—for example, “Amazing Grace” and “O God Our Help in Ages Past” both have a meter of 8 6 8 6. You could sing either lyrics to either tune and come out with the correct number of notes. (Go ahead, try it. It really works. In fact, the 8 6 8 6 meter is so frequently used, it’s also known as “common meter.”)

Hymn singing is on the decline, particularly among evangelical Protestants (I did a Google search on “hymn singing decline” and got almost half a million links), which is rather ironic given that the hymns themselves were designed to be sing-able. They had simple melodies and straightforward rhythms so ordinary people wouldn’t find the range beyond their ability or the rhythm too complicated for a group of people with widely varying skill levels. The music is relatively easy for a keyboardist of intermediate ability to play (a necessary quality from the time when many churches were small and lacked professional musicians), and yet, the songs are complex enough they can be arranged for virtuoso musicians with amazing results.

While I enjoy contemporary Christian music (in fact, I enjoy most music, except perhaps bluegrass, rap, and jazz), I feel like something valuable is rapidly disappearing from our culture. Protestants have been praising God through hymns for nearly 500 years, since Martin Luther penned “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” shortly after he nailed those 95 theses to the door. It was revolutionary at a time of Latin-only services—common people praising God in their native languages. During our Sunday singing only old hymns (from the screen, remember), I noticed that my younger two sons were a bit lost. I’m sure they’ve heard the songs since our church incorporates a mixture of music into services—but they just weren’t familiar with them like I was at their age.

I have somewhere around a half dozen different hymnals in my house. Sometimes I open them up to random pages and play favorites I haven’t heard in years. Here are two versions of a favorite (one of too many to list) I love to pull out and play. The first version, performed by a small a cappella group, shows the simplicity of the song. The second, an arrangement for virtuoso organ solo, demonstrates what a proficient musician can do with such a seemingly simple piece.

Please share some of your favorite hymns. I'll be happily humming them over the weekend.


  1. I know, CJ, I know. I also have a half dozen or so hymnals because I'm comforted knowing they hold the music of my soul.

    I can't read music. I can't play music. Heck, I can't even sing well. My voice cracks in odd places and I'm either too high or too low to follow the worship leader who is usually my husband and plays mostly contemporary and Hillsong-type songs.

    But when the pastor's wife leads Praise & Worship, it's mostly hymns because she has a hard time playing the new Hillsong-type chords. Even though the words are on the screen, she'll give us the page number so we can use the hymnals if we wish. I do. And somehow when I'm holding the hymnal and singing those timeless words that I've heard since my childhood, I follow the notes and I know when to sing high and when to sing low and my voice seems to reach up to the heavens and I don't care how I sound because I'm singing to God for God and that's all that matters.

    And it's after those hymn-singing sessions when people have come up to me and said they wonder why I'm not singing in front with my family because I have such a beautiful voice that I just shake my head and admit it's not always that way... only with the old hymns.

    I'm blessed to belong to a church where we have different P&W leaders who lead a variety of songs. One week it will be the hymns, another the contemporary cover songs, and another the country gospel sound. Or perhaps a mixture of all and always with familiar and choruses.

    Someday I'll hear you play, CJ. :)

  2. Anita, how interesting that the old hymns suit your voice so much better than more modern music.

    The minister this morning decided to add an extra song near the end of the service. (How Great Thou Art). Well, the poor guys operating the A/V equipment must have been scrambling to find the words to put on the screen, but they never got them up there. Having just written this post, I of course reached forward, grabbed a hymnal, and found the correct hymn number. Don't know why it didn't occur to the minister to find the number and announce it for all the poor people struggling to sing the song from memory.

    Hymnals for the win!


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