A Genealogy of the Hymnal: A Review Article

Michael J. Glodo
Associate Professor of Practical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

Christopher N. Phillips. The Hymnal: A Reading History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. xv, 252 pp. $39.95. Cloth.

Mention the word “hymnal” in a church context and reactions will vary between those who lament its loss and wish to return to the “good old days,” those who hope never to hold one again, and the blank look due to indifference or, quite likely, unfamiliarity (after all, contempt is difficult without familiarity). Enter Christopher Phillips who makes the mundane remarkable by weaving scrupulous details into a compelling case for our indebtedness to the hymnbook – books of hymns with lyrics but not music. Phillips, Associate Professor of English at Lafayette College, reflects an awareness of the nuances of British-American Protestantism and its cultural milieu in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and leaves a number of issues for contemporary Protestants to ponder, regardless of whether they are traditional or contemporary in their musical preferences. His reach goes beyond that of music in worship to include lessons on how we think about private devotion’s relationship to singing in public worship, the relative influence of the clergy and the laity on the canon of church music, the relationship of skilled musicians and the congregation in worship, the influence of larger cultural/philosophical trends upon church music, and the interaction between literacy and church music which is the central theme of the book. Because of the value of Phillips’s work, this review goes beyond brief description and assessment to somewhat of a narration of each chapter with the hope that it can raise sufficient interest to “take up and read” as well as provide a guide to reading The Hymnal since Phillips covers territory unfamiliar to many. It concludes with a number of lessons and observations that Phillips prompts.

Phillips’s purpose is to trace the history of the “hymnbook” in Britain and the United States from Isaac Watts until the advent of the modern “hymnal” as we know it. But rather than a narrow study in hymnology, Phillips illumines the private, familial, ecclesiastical, and cultural contexts by applying “social practice” theory to demonstrate how the hymnbook both reflected and shaped these spheres, not only in spiritual practices but with a profound impact on literacy. Along the way he chronicles the ebb and flow of hymnody in the church, the rise and development of poetry and its influence upon the hymnbook, as well as the hymnbook’s influence upon classic nineteenth century poetry. For, as his subtitle suggests, the hymnbook as well as the hymnal has been as significant for its being read as being sung.

His twin aims are ambitious, written “for interested readers who may or may not have an academic or church professional background” while aspiring for scholarly readers to be “an intervention in the field of historical poetics that seeks to bring together the study of poetry, book history, and lived religions” (ix), aims which Phillips fairly achieves. This is done in three major sections of “Church,” “School,” and “Home,” “the three most important spaces for the use of hymnbooks” (x) with four to five chapters on each and an interlude concluding each section.

Each chapter advances a particular thesis which contributes to the overall argument of the book. The prologue introduces the hymnbook as a personal and family possession utilized for devotional purposes as illustrated using several of prints of the time. While a family circle might show a single Bible in its midst, each adult and child of age might be holding their own hymnbook. The hymnal was small and affordable unlike its heavier, larger, and more expensive successor the hymnal which was kept in one’s pew at the church. One significant conclusion reached is that the hymnbook was not only devotional but social. Of the prints provided in the prologue, “only one…actually depicts a solitary reader” (9). It was out of this domestic familiarity of the hymnbook that the “singing reformers” of the late nineteenth century successfully introduced the hymnal to those who “remembered a culture of reading that had followed them into many of their lives’ most significant spaces and relationships.” Yet “[b]y 1978, that memory was gone” (2). Chapter one retraces Isaac Watts’ (d. 1748) influence in both the widespread adoption of singing hymns and paraphrased psalms in addition to psalms and the metering of music, such that the combined edition of Watts’ Psalms and Hymns “by 1819 had largely replaced the older psalmbooks in Reformed Protestant churches and brought hymns into all but the most conservative Calvinist circles” (13-14). Most developments from the origins of the “Watts entire” can and must be measured in relation to him. Even though not all congregations went the way of full “Wattsing,” it could be said in general that “Watts was one of the most important liturgical vehicles for the establishment of a congregational or denominational identity from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth” (14).

But as Phillips soon shows, Watts’ influence was not in hymnody only, His Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1751) began the thread which ultimately led to Hymns for Infant Minds (1831), a stepped reader providing moral instruction. The reading of hymns from the hymnbook, a common practice in the home, meant that hymn texts were widely used “in readers and spellers to teach literacy” (17) and hymnbooks “enabled these books to be read almost as if they were poetry anthologies” (19). Phillips illustrates the social importance of the hymnbook in the first of three interludes by tracing the role of a hymnbook in the 1850 play The Wide, Wide World in which the hymnbook has the virtual status of a character and whose intimacy with the main character obtained through reading enables “hymns to become a love language” for her and her household and memory to carry on when the physical hymnbook disappears from the narrative.

Chapter One, “How Hymnbooks Made a People,” begins Part One, “Church,” and the story of “how hymnbooks moved from the private to the public, even as they continued to inhabit and shape private spaces” (34). Various church traditions began to develop their own hymnbooks to reflect both their distinctives and how they engaged external developments in culture and belief. Numerous relevant details throughout the book provide added interest, such as the changeable status of John Wesley’s “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” traditionally the first hymn in the Methodist traditions, but “demoted” in some instances, especially as hymnbooks became organized more by topic. The development of these collections was the source of and reflected developing denominational identities. “As churches grappled with questions of cultural accommodation, the politics of their religion, and the role of emotion in worship, hymnbooks often became the sites for proxy battles in denominations, as well as the means of expressing the hopes and anxieties of a community in crisis” (43).

This trend is described further in Chapter Two, “How to Fight with Hymnbooks.” “The very creation, adoption, and promotion of these books often reflected, and at times drove, disagreements that often led to major schisms, particularly in American Protestantism.” Hymnbooks were “implicated and even weaponized in some of the most famous splits in American church history” (45). One Moravian compiler of the time lamented that the vast majority of their published hymns “are expressed to Jesus Christ alone” and “the hymns addressing the Trinity or the Spirit unduly emphasize the second person of the Trinity, so that ‘it may be fairly question[ed] of what use the Trinity is.” As the compiler concluded, “It is impossible to read the hymns in this volume without perceiving that their general tendancy [sic] inculcates Sabetianism & that Christ is the Sole Deity” (44).

Even the American Presbyterians, initially leaving the matter of a collection alone, established a study committee, chaired by Archibald Alexander of Princeton Theological Seminary, to evaluate the state of psalmody and compile a hymnbook with separate psalm and hymn sections. (45) Yet the hymnbook as a book to be read as well as sung is indicated by its publication within “the burgeoning culture of annual gifts books,” at least partly an indication that the publishing industry as much as the church of the time drove the market (46). Even within the Old School and New School division among Presbyterians hymnbooks played a prominent role on each side (48). Nearly a hundred years after his death, the now broadly accepted “Wattsing” provided a basis around which the Old School could rally since “the metrical psalm had fallen on hard times (49). The 1843 hymnal “would be the last time a major American Presbyterian hymnbook would include a separate psalms section” (49). The New School was a different matter with its own internal diversity such that “in 1863 no fewer than fourteen different hymnbooks were in use across the denomination” (51). It is during this period that hymnals became organized according to the attributes of God and when American Methodists for only the second relegated “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” from the first hymn to the section on Christian experience. The importance of the hymnbook as a personal possession is reflected in the efforts of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America to maintain a soldier’s pocket-sized pamphlet edition even as printing supplies grew scarce and expensive (56).

Chapter three, “Hymnbooks at Church,” gives account of personal notations in hymnbooks such as the dates on which they were sung as well as written conversations between parents and children, presumably when the sermon was being preached, and even passages of sentimental poetry, indicating “the thin line between sentimental poetry and devotional verse in the mid-nineteenth century” (63). The presence of children in worship being a given, the hymnbook provided a refuge for the young for whom the sermon was beyond their reach. “For children, privately reading a hymnbook in church held higher stakes, often used as a last resort to avoid punishment for public misbehavior” (64). One such child later reflected, “I was told to listen to the  minister, but as I did not understand a word he was saying, I gave it up, and took refuge in the hymn-book, with the conscientious purpose of trying to sit still” (64-65). Phillips notes that this “pointed to a difficult fact of Protestant liturgical life”—that of the three parts of worship – prayer, sermon, and song – the first two belonged to the minister and only the third primarily to the people, “making it crucial for establishing worshipers’ sense of engagement and investment in their religious rituals as well as anxiety-inducing for those ministers who feared the power of unruly forces in their congregation” (66). The increasing number of graduates of “singing schools” compounded this difficulty in that the music become commensurately more complex, “the general rule… [being] that the more musically adept the choir in early America, the quieter the congregation became. The clergy’s great liturgical problem of the nineteenth century became how to get the congregation singing again” (67-68). Hymns had gone from the material of private devotions to congregational song to the provenance of a few. Nevertheless, “the hymnbook lived not merely as a commodity or an individual keepsake but as part of the ties that bind in a community” as reflected in the practice of pulpit hymnbooks being placed as part of church dedications similar to the placement of the pulpit Bible (69).

Chapter four, “Giving Hymnbooks, and What the Hymnbook Gives,” recounts the gifting and re-gifting of hymnbooks, their bindings and inscriptions, and the archiving of important items within their pages (such as insurance coupons, bookmarks, ribbons, and embroideries) to indicate their important social role in addition to their devotional one. Hymnbooks “had a talismanic power for many owners, creating a bond through hand, eye, and voice to God, to worshiping communities, to friends and neighbors, and to family and departed loved ones” (70, 77). The passing down of a hymnbook from one generation to the next “was a material reminder of the communion of the saints through whom the present moment touched eternity.” (78) Their everyday and Sabbath day usage made them “an ideal carrier of memory” (81).

Part one concludes with Chapter Five, “Devotion and the Shape of the Hymnbook,” a description of how book design reflected the usage and development of the hymnbook with the addition of tables of contents, indices, and “crotchets” (brackets indicating optional verses of songs) as guides to their usage, enhancing both public and private use. Here Phillips mentions the concept of “hand piety,” evidence from surviving copies of the extent and the manner of their use both public and private, which reflected and helped shape their design. He traces the influence of Watts’ method in Hymns and Spiritual Songs in America as embraced by Cotton Mather, the significant attention given to its use in the home, its spread by George Whitefield, and its adoption by Jonathan Edwards given his sympathies with revival. Like Mather, Edwards emphasized hymns as a source of devotional reading. However, when Edwards returned from an absence and discovered his congregation in Northampton had ceased to sing psalms in favor of singing Watts, according to Phillips the resulting compromise was the “first fault line to form between him and his congregation” which would end eventually in his infamous dismissal in 1750 (93-94).

Interlude two provides an account of the “hymnbook riots” in 1844 Philadelphia involving primarily Protestant/Catholic tensions which to the agreement of both confirmed the hymnbook as a pedagogical, not merely devotional, tool in schools. With that, Part 2, “School,” takes up the theme of “Hymnbooks and Literacy Learning” in Chapter 6. The hymnbook was often a school book, a purpose Watts foresaw in his Divine and Moral Songs (1715) and The Art of Reading (1721), works which included inspirational poetry as well as hymns. “Watts’ prominence in the blending of hymnody and literacy was no accident.” (106) Dissenters both in England and America “largely drove the culture of learning to read in the English-speaking world of the seventeenth and eighteenth century.” (106-107) Ownership fueled efforts in both adult and children’s literacy such that “one of the largest distributors of Watt’s text by the close of the eighteenth century was the Sunday school” both in Britain and the United States (108).

Many selections celebrated the power of reading. Slaves learned to read from Watts and would see possessing a hymnbook as a reward, as movingly related in the account of former slave Belle Myers who painstakingly wrote out the title to a favorite Watts hymn, “When I Can Read My Title Clear.” While these words in the hymn refer to heavenly citizenship, for Myers they also signified earthly personhood (105-106). Before his presidency at the College of New Jersey (which subsequently became Princeton University), Samuel Davies was among those who promoted literacy among black slaves through the use of hymns, at one point raising a special offering to obtain copies of Watts, noting the extraordinary singing capacity of the slaves and remarking “there are no books they learn so soon, or take so much pleasure in, as those used in that heavenly part of divine Worship” (110, 111). For Davies, Watts possessed a “double power” of literacy aid as well as a physical token to reward attaining literacy.

Chapter seven, “How Hymnbooks Made Children’s Literature,” is a tightly developed account of how “Watts’s humble little book gain[ed] the dress of Victorian children’s literature” (117). Hymns constituted children’s literature long before the recent past’s defining it by the presence of illustrations. Phillips understandably can’t resist noting that arguably the most successful children’s literature of recent times, the Harry Potter books, lack illustrations. While most studies of children’s literature begin with John Newbery’s Goody Two-Shoes (1765), Phillips asserts that the hymnbook filled that role much earlier, noting that Newbury, as secular literature, shifted the reward of morality toward financial success rather than religion (118). Newbury, Phillips argues, marked not the beginning of children’s literature, but the secularization of it and placed children in the role not of the receivers of gifts but as active consumers (120). By contrast, Ann and Jane Taylor’s Hymns for Infant Minds (1810) continued to weave hymn and poem as they “took children seriously as readers, thinkers, and souls, and…created poetry especially for them in ways that would eventually lead their elders to wonder what it was precisely that made a hymn a hymn and a poem a poem” (124). As Phillips reflects upon the Taylors’ success he reflects, “the secularization of children’s literature and the move from didactic to imaginative writing should lead to a reconsideration of the premises of what counts as children’s literature and what shape literature has taken over time” (125).

Chapter eight, “How Hymns Remade Schoolbooks,” traces the effect of the hymnbook from literacy in general to school books in particular. What has been regarded by others as the secularization process in the literature and culture of the time in which hymnbooks are replaced by readers fails to recognize the increasing presence of hymns in those readers, according to Phillips. “What the index of secularization misses is the remarkable persistence, even the increase, of hymn texts over the editions” (139). One such influential eighteenth century reader, The New England Primer, while borrowing from Newbury in celebrating the financial benefits of literacy, retained Watts’ “Cradle Hymn,” an expression of Christian salvation (134). An 1801 reader introduced poetry to its youngest readers using hymns “as a fundamental benchmark of aesthetic and moral excellence” (137). This chapter relates the publishing role of the Lyman Beecher family and the eventual publication of McGuffey Readers which exemplified the role of hymns and sacred poetry in early education. The chapter ends with the introduction of Lowell Mason who “had helped build the nation’s first public school music program in Boston in the 1820s” and whose story continues into the next chapter.

Chapter nine, “Singing as Reading: or, A Tale of Two Sacred Harps,” tells the story of two “tunebooks,” which fall between hymnbooks and hymns, with the music printed at the top of a page and the lyrics below. One was a more folk-like and British version, while the other more European/Bostonian version was the product of a partnership between brothers Timothy and Lowell Mason, associates of Lyman Beecher. Both tunebooks drew upon Watts and shared much else in common, yet the differences were notable, one of which was the absence of Christ-centered atonement-themed hymns in the Masons’. Revival hymns had a greater influence in the other. The commonality of these two Harps reflected “a larger, more ecumenical canon behind the canon, anchored by Watts, [which] shaped church collections of hymns, popular tunebooks, and the devotional exercise of a New Englander far from home” (152).

The third interlude, “Henry Ward Beecher Takes Note,” chronicles Beecher’s effort at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York to get the congregation to sing by placing the music in their hands. Up to that time worshipers largely preferred reading along in their hymnbooks while listening “in silence rather than attempt[ing] to follow those intended to lead them in song” (154). This effort produced several different formats, but the cost of a printing a large number of hymns with music on the page was very expensive and would be a very large volume. The fact that it “would take a generation for the modern style of hymnal to become established,” replacing the tunebook in the hands of the choir and the hymnbook in the hands of the congregation was partial testimony to “how tenacious earlier cultures of reading and living with hymnbooks were” (157).

Part three, “Home,” begins with “Did Poets Write Hymns?” in Chapter Ten. There Phillips resumes his earlier assertion that the widely-asserted secularization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries doesn’t fully account for the place of the hymn in the literary history of that period nor gives full acknowledgement to both canonical (e.g. Cowper, Dickinson) and influential (e.g. Hemans, Hebers, Watts) poets. There were those such as Samuel Johnson who wished to strengthen the divide between hymns and poems by maintaining that the religious obligation of hymns precludes the inventiveness that is essential to poetry, although the appearance of William Cowper who successfully wrote both challenged that insistence (162-64). Discussions of Felicia Hemans, Rufus Griswold, and others who were fluent in both genres complete the chapter. Inserted into this discussion are attitudes toward the emergence of the women poets, such as Anne Steele, who were met with contempt by some (172).

Chapter eleven, “How Poems Entered the Hymnbook,” asks the question of whether a hymnbook can be a book of poetry. Samuel Longfellow, younger brother of Henry Wadsworth, and Samuel Johnson (not the Dr. Johnson) were Harvard divinity classmates and Transcendentalists who produced a hymnbook for a classmate’s Unitarian congregation which tested the boundary between hymn and poem and introduced theological innovations in keeping with the Romantic times. It and similar works reflect “a new spirituality of private communion with God,” placed a higher premium on aesthetic sensibility,” and reflected a greater focus on “nature and the goodness of God” and away from the penitentiary hymns and laments which were seen by some as not a suitable subject for gathered worship so much as for private devotion. “[T]he didactic and penitential hymns continued to fade through the nineteenth century until by the 1890s even Presbyterian hymnody, under the guidance of hymnologist Louis Benson, was dominated by uplift, a trend that has only strengthened since” (182). This gave renewed weight to the hymnbook as a devotional work primarily for the home which is the subject of Chapter twelve, “The Return of the Private Hymnbook.” Given the continued tension of the dual use between public song and private devotion and the increasing influence of the de-historicizing of Christ, increasing proportions of inspirational poetry from the likes of George Herbert and John Done made its way into hymnbook revisions in the late nineteenth century that returned it more and more to its private use, though substantially changed from its original form (185). Two primary influences that abetted this progression were the growth of the evangelical publishing industry and the Oxford’s movement whose high church sensibilities placed greater weight on aesthetics (186). As one’s faith became more privatized it facilitated the ecumenism that tended to flatten theological distinctives as they had been reflected in the denominational hymnbook traditions. “It was precisely the private domestic space that provided a more universal view of the church in a congregational book could, and materials drawn from many denominations and centuries came together to ‘tell that the Church is one’” (191). This led to the editing of many hymns which precipitated a corresponding interest in text criticism of hymns (192).

Chapter thirteen, “Emily Dickinson’s Hymnody of Privacy,” surveys how Dickinson was strongly influenced by her reading of hymns and poems by Watts, but much more in private reading at home than public singing in church. Dickinson liberally used the term “hymn” to refer to artifacts well beyond “Wattsing.” But in opposition to promoters of free verse poetry she and others steadfastly maintained that the form of the hymn with its metering was what made possible the freedom of poetry. Through examples, Phillips demonstrates how Dickinson excelled at the chief characteristic of both hymn and poem in which the horizon of the speaker and the reader collapse resulting in the “dramatic hymn” (200). As we read or sing the words of another, at a dramatic point we are voicing our own words. While her explorations of intense emotions lent themselves more to private reading, they also served to elevate Christian experience (201). “Dickinson understood the hymn as a form of hopeful communication, in which the lack of an evident audience is offset by faith in a spiritual reception. Hymns are not simply poems that are spiritually received; the reception is what makes the hymn.”

Phillips concludes with an epilogue entitled “The Hymnological Decade” (1860s). It is here that we come finally to the hymnal as we know it and the flowering of hymnology. Key factors were the rise of the private hymnbook, the development of the idea of the hymn as a literary artifact, and the rise of the hymnal itself (207). The initial printing of music with the lyrics in the hymnal made it bulky and expensive, thus making it more of a property of the church than the individual. Phillips acknowledges that the hymnal did contribute to the improvement of congregational singing, though the relative size of the hymnal caused one reviewer to comment “It takes an able-bodied man to stand and hold the average modern hymn-book for the singing of a long hymn” (209). First produced in 1880, Austin Phelps’ and Edward A. Park’s Hymns and Choirs of this period became the reference point for all subsequent studies in hymnology. The development of hymnology is illustrated by the fascinating story of the disposition and curation of the extensive collection of Lowell Mason of Yale Divinity School. The eventual division of Mason’s collection between the Music Library for works with musical scores and the Divinity School and subsequently the Beinecke Library for works with words only illustrates the larger project of Phillips’s story of the relationship of the hymnbook and the hymnal. Phillips laments the typical university’s exclusive interest in literature to the neglect of hymns as literature and the divinity schools insufficient resources to properly curate music such that insufficient research has been done in the area of hymnology (211). The conclusions of the epilogue are a dividend for attending to Phillips’s scrupulous work, the principal one among them in his concluding sentence: “If we keep the Sabbath at home with our poetic ancestors, it is only because hymn books helped to teach us how to do so” (214).

Numerous issues Phillips addresses will be familiar to anyone around the contemporary church. Is sacred music something to be read as well as sung? A good test for the literary quality of a hymn or worship song is to read it aloud. This practice can sometimes reveal how inane some contemporary song lyrics are. Are Christ’s redemption and lament proper subjects for public worship? Theologically we may readily insist that both are, but it has been observed frequently of late that our practice says otherwise when it comes to lament.

The ebb and flow of hymnbooks and hymnals between denominations with their distinctive identities and publishers with their mass marketing interests can help us realize how music forms (or not) the social fabric our traditions. While confessions and creeds can form self-conscious ties that bind, it is habit of worship and music that have the capacity to sustain and reinforce those ties. Worship in general, and music in particular, is often where the theological rubber meets the road to enable faith communities to cohere.

How does the proportional roles of skilled musicians, clergy, and the people affect the nature, function, perception, and quality of music in worship? Is the congregation’s role in worship to sing or to listen? Even as we live in a moment of greater appreciation for and understanding of the atoning work of Christ, our music often reflects a functional if not actual “Christo-monism.” The categorizing of the music canon which took place with the addition of indices to the hymnbook can remind us to think about what we sing in relation to various movements of the worship narrative.

A sign of health in worship is the presence of sacred music – at least in lyrical form – in the home. Martin Luther sought to restore the music of worship to the people which had been “stolen” by the monastic choirs just as he restored the cup of communion taken away by the medieval priesthood. He proposed to do so by teaching the children to sing in the schools so that they might teach the adults to sing in worship. As music has proliferated in our day through digitization, we sing less and are less musical. But it is hard to hide one’s voice around the family altar and it is a safe and happy place for children to first learn to sing.

Living in the midst, or shall we say the “wasteland,” of the digital revolution, we are confronted with dualism in uniquely powerful degrees and forms. In a century or two what will be the artifact that testifies to the transmission of faith and family ties that the physical hymnbook speaks of the previous two centuries? The presentation page of the family Bible with it history of births, marriages, and deaths is gone with the ubiquity of smart phones. And without an artifact, did it or will it even happen? What can play the role of the hymnbook passed down for generations?

Phillips does us the favor of reminding us that our attendance to sacred music is much more than validating the theological integrity of the lyrics or the “excellence” of the aesthetic as written and performed. It is a major part of “the tie that binds,” a sociological matter that demands greater awareness of all that is involved rather than minute focus on the details of the moment.

For those who follow the “American Bandstand” approach to sacred music – “it has a good beat and it’s easy to dance to” – Phillips will hold little interest apart from his potential to awaken them to the wide implications of music practices. He will reward most at least two other kinds of readers. Those nursed from early years by Mother Kirk where the hymnal provided the soundtrack, a tangible artifact, and a symbol of the family of God will be touched, even moved, by familiar anecdotes reminiscent of squirminess in pews when the hymnal was the nearest distraction or provided a firm desk on which to color one’s Sunday school papers or play hangman with a sibling. For the open-minded skeptic it will pose the possibility of a balm for the ache of transience, a longing for the communion of the saints, especially with “those whose rest is won.”