Prior to putting these hymn history stories together, the depth of social turmoil, violence, and loss of many lives throughout the centuries since Jesus’ death, over disagreements of how to “properly” worship him was only vaguely perceived by the editor.
Like many who grew up singing congregational hymns, the existence of hymns as part of Christian congressional singing was taken for granted as a normal part of everyday church services. It seems many Americans do not think about how hymn singing came to be a “normal” part of the services.
These hymn history stories about the dynamic and often violent context from which they evolved is a major “eye opener” to those who have not focused on these histories. It is unfortunate so little is commonly known of the complicated history of how current Christian church practices, Protestant and otherwise, developed to what they are.
Congregational hymn singing was not always an “everyday normal” event in church services! It evolved from the earliest practices in Christ’s time, empire versus empire, with many violent ups and downs within and between the various Christian factions, shaped by many very repressive political and religious forces in different countries in different centuries.
The struggles for the freedom to pursue individual worship practices and doctrines caused the deaths of many on all sides who passionately defended what they, or perhaps in many cases, their ruling monarchs respectively claimed was “truth.” The very existence of congregational hymn singing today as part of Christian church services is a testimony to the determination of many strong individuals who prevailed through those struggles.
The traditional, classic congregational hymns included in this collection of hymn history stories and the accompanying recording, represent a diverse, proud heritage of what historically would be considered relatively recent hymns, and related Christian religious songs, from the early 18th to early 20th centuries’. These are a small sample of the legacy our predecessors passed on to us. They were created by many dedicated people whose beliefs differed strongly from then established politics of their monarchs and the State-Church practices in their countries. They fought and died to be allowed to create new worship practices.
The importance Christian congregational hymn singing came to occupy by Protestants in recent centuries may have contributed to the return of its use as part of the Roman Catholic liturgy after Vatican II. The Roman Catholic church officially re-embraced congregational hymn singing as part of the liturgy in the 1960s after The Second Vatican Council. This is about 15 centuries they largely replaced congregational hymn singing in its liturgy with choirs. (There were priests, e.g., Frederick William Faber, who championed hymn singing, but it was not part of the official liturgy until after Vatican II.)
Note. It is interesting that some U.S. evangelical Protestant denominations now seem to be experiencing a revision in the form of musical structure used for the worship service that harkens back to what the Catholic Church did, beginning in the 5th and 6th centuries. Namely, to embrace the use of choir or other band performance as dominant music in the worship service, rather than congregational hymn singing.
Research for these hymn history stories found a comment about the lack of interest in hymnology on the website for the then Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE). ISAE closed at the end of December 2014. It had served as a center for research while functioning as a program of Wheaton College. In addition to conferences, the ISAE undertook longer-term research projects that funded a portion of the work of several scholars.(9)
Those projects included a study of American hymn singing. Presumably from that study they observed that -
“Sadly, this central aspect of the American Protestant experience [the hymnology, or history of the hymns] has been seriously under-studied by historians of American religion.”
There is a publication produced from material presented at one of the ISAE sponsored conferences titled Hymnody in American Protestantism. That credits generous funding provided from the Lilly Endowment. The material from that conference makes a strong case that hymns are both a fascinating and an irreplaceable type of primary source document for both intellectual and social religious history. It is titled Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology, March 2, 2004. It is available in paperback from Amazon books.(10)
While the public has not had a large interest in hymnology, numerous academics have produced very through books on hymns.(11)
The lack of attention by average Americans to the history of their hymns as part of their heritage may flow from the general lack of interest by the American public in history and how things in the past, even in other parts of the world, have substantially shaped what America now is. Those historical times and places are where theological and national movements developed that came to America contributing to the rich fabric of American life and religion.
The rich history of music in Christianity, and especially in these historically relatively recent 26 hymn history stories, and the companion recording, provide a glimmer of insight into the great complexity of how current Christian practices are shaped by national and world histories and their interactions with State-Churches. The hymns and related songs included in this collection were written within the context of these numerous national and world histories.
The men and women responsible for creating the older, traditional hymn texts explored in these hymn history stories and on the companion recording Hymns and Songs for Living, including the current hymn tunes used with these hymns, felt passionately about their beliefs and values. The passions expressed in these hymns and songs still resonate into our century.
Although the hymns in this collection have largely been replaced in many churches by newer hymns, they document how powerfully thoughts are communicated through the combination of words and musical expression. These hymns are much more powerful and lasting than long forgotten sermons, even sermons by some of the very same clergymen who wrote and composed some of these hymns.
Judging from sales of new hymnals with new celebration hymns, Americans, and perhaps others, may have entered a new period when large numbers of new hymns are being written and brought into worship services.
The role that copyright considerations by commercial businesses may have in driving the proliferation of new hymns that is transforming hymnals can be conjectured. One implication is it will become increasingly rare to hear the older traditional hymns contained in this collection as part of many regular protestant church services, because these hymns are not in the new hymnals. The evolution of Christian church practices continues; new hymns replace previous favorites. Congregational hymn singing in some evangelical churches is being replaced with celebration performing choral/band groups. As always, it would be a mistake for Christians to take what currently exists for granted.
(9) “Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals,” Wheaton College, https://www.wheaton.edu/academics/academic-centers/isae/, accessed 4-28-2019.
(10) Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll, Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Books, March 2, 2004), https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/080282160X/qid=1086711905/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/104-3810865-5227142?v=glance&s=books, accessed 3-12-2019.
(11) Dr. Paul Westermeyer, Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2005);
Dr. Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church and Music (Minneapolis, MN 55440: Augsburg Fortress Press, June 3, 1998, 1st edition hardcover.
Dr. Eric Routley, A Panorama of Christian Hymnody (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications,1979 and 2005);
Dr. Tim Dowley, Christian Music: A Global History (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011).