Monday, March 29, 2010

A Look at the Past to Discover the Future (pt. 8)

What will our next hymnal be like? This is Part 8 of a paper presented to the NAC Historical Society on the movement of Methodist hymnody in the United States. I've learned some amazing things about the creative tensions of the past that could guide us into the future.

I suggest reading from the beginning of the paper. Go to A Look at the Past to Discover the Future.

What Will Our Next Hymnal Be Like?

As we look forward to our next hymnal, we can embrace the new realities of both music and medium or we can bury our heads in the sand. But more than anything, I am proposing that we can not proceed as if these struggles are somehow new. Technology has changed the way it looks and the way it works, but the creative tension is the same as it’s always been, and the same as it always will be.

Creative dynamics become “worship wars” when fueled by ignorance of our own story and emotionally charged by our own preferences. Yet if we broaden our minds to embrace the whole, we find that layer upon layer of spiritual outpourings have developed worship full of passion for both vernacular, evangelical, contemporary singing and traditional, liturgical, time-tested song. We are “both/and” singers with a thirst for new sounds and texts as well as keeping one foot in the door of ancient ways.

There will always be churches that want a paper hymnal in their hands, and we benefit from a hymnal with the gems that emerge from each era of our spiritual history. Yet I was on the floor of General Conference when one delegate debated, “Why do we need a new hymnal? My church doesn’t even use hymnals!” Listening carefully, I realized we are playing out the same historical tensions between official liturgy and vernacular song, now fed primarily through a world of online resources.

I loved sitting in as an alternate delegate to cast my vote in favor of a new hymnal project. I found myself sitting next to Andy Langford in the only seat left on the bus on the way back to the hotel, recognizing him as the presenter. I gave him an earful of excitement about what a new hymnal might be like. He encouraged me to put my name in for consideration as part of the Hymnal Revision Committee. I got as far as being one of 10 representatives nominated by the Council of Bishops. I was struck from the final list due to considerations of inclusivity, which I agree with. But alas, as you probably know, in the end the project was cancelled due to the economic downturn and loss the funds the GBOD would have used for the project.

When new hymnal does in fact come, what will it be like? Though our last two hymnals sold 4.5 million copies each, I wonder if hymnals as we have known them in the past are doomed to be only marginally successful. The reality of vernacular song that is resourced online is that worship singing changes faster and faster. Like the time when bookbinding technology made hymnals possible and changed everything about congregational song, new technology is creating new possibilities. A new hymnal, if successful, will look forward as well as backward. How can we develop a hymnal that will not deepen the ongoing divide between what is officially in the hymnal and what we unofficially sing?

Toward a “Bridge Hymnal”

I propose what I call a “bridge hymnal”, a hybrid that is both a paper book you can hold in your hands and also an entry key into a vast buffet of online resources. The bound version would continue to be a common rule that forms us spiritually, keeping us grounded in the best of our many traditions and connected to others across the world. But the accompanying online resources would reflect our growing diversity with a larger body of offerings. They would be well organized, high quality, and available for print and legal use as inserts by virtue of ownership of a set of hymnals and perhaps a small annual fee. The advantage over our present day unbridled “fending for yourself” online would be that this would expand our offerings, but after having gone through a screening process that provides cohesiveness and connectional identity in our Wesleyan spirituality. In addition, by focusing on a particular body of offerings, we could develop an array of downloadable resources such as customizable arrangements in different styles or alternative tunes, PowerPoint slides, audio accompaniment, printable PDF files of music for bulletins and inserts, or anything else churches want. We would need to keep the site accessible, easy to use, relevant, and well maintained.

This would be a monumental historical shift in what a hymnal is for. If I have succeeded, I have shown that the officially published hymnal is only part of our creative story. New waves keep coming. For the first time in history, technology offers us the opportunity to publish a hymnal bridging the two sides of this creative tension in one creative effort. There would be no need for the expense of official supplements or unofficial alternatives. The online resources could be so well done, and continually revised, that it is a very attractive package for a new generation.
The role of the hymnal would fundamentally change, but the dynamics that call for it are the same creative tensions we’ve always had. For the first time, the hymnal would not be a limiting and excluding resource (people get more bent out of shape over what’s not in it than what is). It would be a formative rule, yes … but it would also be a formative gateway into a larger body of carefully selected resources capturing the best of our diversity. In addition to resourcing the more evangelical and vernacular edge of Methodist worship, we could also achieve a level of cultural diversity that can not be truly claimed by having a hymn or two from an ethnic tradition or subculture in a single-book resource. We could also go deep as well as wide, offering emergent liturgical resources for a new generation singing ancient song for the first time.

The technology of “print on demand” presents additional possibilities. Hymnals themselves could be customizable. The largest portion of the hymnal could be standard, with a small section customizable in content. It could be sheer choice, but more reasonably, there could be a few collections to choose from. Churches with a particular ethnic influence or spiritual flair could have a hymnal somewhat tailored to their needs.

We are due for a new treatment of the psalms. We are experiencing an emergent swing back to the contemplative, the experiential, and the simple. The “hymn explosion” of the previous generation, with writers of thick poetry such as Brian Wren, is giving way to this. One of my criticisms of the 1989 hymnal is that it needed to move farther past the “responsive reading” concept. The “red dot” method intended to make an entire psalm singable with the tune of the sung response is confusing and unusable. So psalms are read, if used at all in our increasingly multi-sensory world. Psalms should be sung and experienced, reclaiming the powerful heritage of metrical psalmody. A good model for how this could be accomplished is in the new 2006 Upper Room Worshipbook, which treats the psalms in different ways, rather than setting them all in the same way. I have copies to show with the psalm section in the middle. Consider the treatment of Psalm 42 using the praise song “As the Deer” and the use of everything from chant and metrical psalmody to jazz and blues.

You will also notice that the Upper Room Worshipbook presents an interesting swing back to the previous style of listing multiple texts with common tunes. This is older than what we have been accustomed to in recent hymnals, but comes simultaneously with the separation of text and tune due to digital projection. If we pay attention to what is already happening, the next hymnal will be different than the previous few in terms of tune being married to text.

There will be no reason to include topical, metrical indexes, and tune indexes in a printed hymnal, since much more thorough and updatable ones can be offered online. This would save money or make more space for hymns. I do appreciate the expansion of liturgical resources in the 1989, though our next hymnal could reduce the space given to this because we no longer need to offer the variances of former EUB and Methodist traditions. The baptismal liturgies need to be simplified.

These are a few ideas to ponder as we prepare for the next wave of the Spirit. We’ll see how history continues to repeat itself. It always does.

A hymnal that looks backward, celebrating our heritage but without any essential changes, might be marginally successful but could completely miss the mark as official hymnals did before the Songs of Zion and the Cokesbury Hymnal came out. Let’s pay attention to our own history. Ironically, the question is still whether to include what is going on in Nashville or not, because one way or another, what’s going on in Nashville will get to the people!

If we are not careful, the divide may deepen and the hymnal may be jettisoned from many churches as a relic of the past. But a hymnal that embraces new realities could be amazing, comprehensive, and bridge-building. Once again, the people called Methodist could set the pace for the Christian world with a revolutionary new hymnal that could fuel an evangelical awakening. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Copyright 2010 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Look at the Past to Discover the Future (pt. 7)

What will our next hymnal be like? This is Part 7 of a paper presented to the NAC Historical Society on the movement of Methodist hymnody in the United States. I've learned some amazing things about the creative tensions of the past that could guide us into the future.

I suggest reading from the beginning of the paper. Go to A Look at the Past to Discover the Future.

Wave #5 – The 1966 and 1989 Hymnals and “Contemporary Music” That Followed

I see the 1966 and 1989 hymnals as one fundamental shift. The hymnals seem so different from each other to those us who have been through both of them, but in the grand scheme of things they represent the same movement. They were the first ventures of our new denomination (the 1966 was just shy of union in 1968). They also shared the same editor, Carlton Young, and shared similar goals.

The 1989 hymnal did set out to correct and improve the previous one, especially in the area of inclusive language (one of the more controversial and difficult tasks of their assignment) and it included more ethnic diversity. The 1966 had been the first mainline hymnal to include a Native American hymn, “Many and Great.” The 1989 added verses of various hymns in other languages, a little sprinkle of the global. The 1966 hymnal was criticized for lack of African American spirituals (only 5 spirituals under the heading “American Folk Hymn”). In the 1989, 30 were included from the Songs of Zion tradition.

But both hymnals represented a shift toward the liturgical. Responsive readings melded into a Psalter with sung responses. There is clearly a pendulum swing back toward psalm singing. Liturgies for Morning and Evening Prayer were included, as well as an expanded number of creeds. Social gospel hymns were intentionally included. The 1989 represents a return to more ancient Eucharistic liturgy and patterns of worship than previous editions with a more Wesleyan flair.

You might guess what form of vernacular and evangelical resources I would highlight that have emerged following the official hymnal we presently use. There has indeed been another explosion, but this time, technological revolution has changed everything. We are not “bound”, if you will excuse the pun, to paper hymnals! The marketing of contemporary Christian music and, more recently, online licensing and internet resourcing has created a new world of legal access to a multitude of resources.

Now that video projection (what my friend calls “off the wall singing”) and licensing for printing of song words in bulletins is possible, hymnals are not needed to try new songs. This is a fundamental shift. Some complain that they miss seeing the music, and yet others feel freer to worship without music in a “sing-a-long with the radio” culture. We should notice that this is not new. It is a pendulum swinging back. Most hymnals of our history were words only, without music printed.

The genre of praise music was both a move toward vernacular language and popular sound and, strangely enough, a swing back to the mystery of singing simple words, a sort of new “metrical psalmody”. The irony is that praise music is in a sense more “traditional” than Wesleyan hymns with multiple verses and thick poetry. One of the criticisms I hear is that “we sing the same words over and over.” I gently remind others that in the grand scheme of things, meditative repetition is a more ancient way of singing than seventeen verses of “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” If some texts seem trite to an ear trained for lyrical theology, we should keep in mind that in church music, time is a great sifter. It weeds out poorer quality and leaves us with fine wheat that becomes part of our grand story.

Copyright 2010 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved.

Click HERE to go on to part 8 ...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Look at the Past to Discover the Future (pt. 6)

What will our next hymnal be like? This is Part 6 of a paper presented to the NAC Historical Society on the movement of Methodist hymnody in the United States. I've learned some amazing things about the creative tensions of the past that could guide us into the future.

I suggest reading from the beginning of the paper. Go to A Look at the Past to Discover the Future.

Wave #4 – The 1874 and 1878 Hymnals and the Cokesbury Hymnal that Followed
The 1878 Hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church shifted things once again because of the reform it represented, swinging back toward the liturgical side. The southern church had already published A Collection of Hymns and Tunes for Public, Social, and Domestic Worship in 1874 that included a number of songs from the Songs of Zion. These are the first hymnals that appeared with tunes in its first edition, a dramatic and lasting change which “wedded” particular tunes with texts. One of the criticisms of the southern hymnal was that it was too much like the Songs of Zion, so the 1878 northern hymnal became dominant and the southern hymnal short-lived. I have one of each.

The 1878 hymnal included liturgies for baptism and communion. An official order of worship was printed inside the front cover of the 1896 edition. This was a return to Anglican roots that was uncomfortable for ministers who for a century had concocted their own order of worship, influenced by camp meeting experience. The 1878 hymnal greatly expanded the repertory, with evangelical hymns, shape notes songs, Lowell Mason tunes, Handel and Haydn, Lutheran chorales, and Anglican chants. It had everything except the African American spirituals the southern hymnal had attempted.

More hymnals followed suit. The 1882 Methodist Protestant Church Hymnal A Tribute of Praise notes in the preface that “trashy and sentimental compositions have been discarded.” This led to a series of official hymnal publications that represented a cooperative with the two denominations. There was a shift toward the more formal in urban churches and the songleader was replaced by a choir and organ. In 1905, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South did their first joint publishing venture. Again in 1935 the two denominations published another hymnal with the addition of a third group, the Methodist Protestant Church. This was four years before the merger of the three. These hymnals introduced responsive readings as a new innovation.

However, what is most important to understand is that by now, a southern publishing policy of offering alternatives had developed fairly well. So the creative tension played itself again. This entire period saw the development of the “gospel hymn” during reconstruction days, never honored with official publications. The opposition to this was more southern than northern. Where, the voices demanded, was “Shall We Gather at the River” and dozens of other favorites? This led to the Cokesbury Hymnal, one of the best selling hymnals of all time.

This southern genre of the gospel hymn remains what is perhaps America’s most distinctive and popular song, emerging out of its roots in the camp meeting, singing schools, and African American experience. The greatest example of gospel hymnody is Fanny Crosby, who became a Methodist late in life, and was a blind writer and preacher who wrote about as many hymns as Charles Wesley. She wrote favorites such as “Blessed Assurance,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Near the Cross,” and “Tell Me the Story of Jesus,” dying in 1915. I have a copy of the original 1923 edition of the Cokesbury Hymnal. Notice that it is in shape notes. It is enlightening to read the brief preface, which notes that it was compiled by asking 250 clergy to report what people loved to sing the most. It is illuminating to read the more expanded preface of the next edition in 1928, The New Cokesbury Hymnal, which capsulates what I am trying to say about creative tensions. It reads, “five years ago, in presenting The Cokesbury Hymnal to the people, we said: ‘This book is an attempt to bring back the old hymns and tunes that people love to sing.” It continues “so that we may say that the hymns and tunes contained in it have been chosen ‘by the people and for the people’.”

The obvious implication is that the official hymnals being published did not represent what people loved. Carlton Young wrote that the hymnals between 1905 and 1939 “shunned the unique contributions of USA hymnody: African American religious songs and gospel hymns.” He added that these hymnals were mostly informed by choral and organ literature and hymn singing in Academic settings. So the Cokesbury Hymnal gave people their vernacular song. It sold a million copies in the first two years and went up from there, with the newer Cokesbury Worship Hymnal published in 1938, three years after gospel hymns had once again been left out of the official 1935 hymnal. Carlton Young notes that the controversy “succeeded in separating the church’s main hymnal from most of the people and their song.”

Now we have crossed into the memories of some of us and we can see how this has played itself out in our own lifetimes. In my childhood, often Sunday mornings were given to the official hymnal and Sunday nights to the Cokesbury Hymnal, just as previous generations had done with Pocket Hymn Books. Though these songs seem old to us now, at one time the Cokesbury Hymnal was the vernacular, contemporary music that people loved. It was delightful, rousing, and easy to sing. The twofold dynamics spanning Methodist history had played themselves out again.

Resources have also attempted to swing the pendulum back. The Abingdon Hymnal in 1938 followed by the Upper Room Hymnal in 1942 set out to preserve hymns from our rich past and include new ones. They are full of the historical and the new, but were alternatives to the gospel hymnal, swinging us back to the liturgical side in light of new sounds. This is similar to what the more recent Upper Room Worshipbook sought to do, finding common ground and depth in light of major waves in worship life.

By now, if I have been successful, we are beginning to see all these resources as one massive conversation! They mark the continual swing of the pendulum between both dynamic values of Methodist singing.

Copyright 2010 Stephen P. West. All Rights Reserved.

Click HERE to go on to part 7 ...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Look at the Past to Discover the Future (pt. 5)

What will our next hymnal be like? This is Part 5 of a paper presented to the NAC Historical Society on the movement of Methodist hymnody in the United States. I've learned some amazing things about the creative tensions of the past that could guide us into the future.

I suggest reading from the beginning of the paper. Go to A Look at the Past to Discover the Future.

Wave #3 – The 1821 Hymnal and the “Songs of Zion” that Followed
Another shift is represented by the 1821 Collection of Hymns for the use of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in part because it brought about a new ordering and standardization of tunes, but also because it showed that the recently popularized Pocket Hymn-books had already become the new rule. It is entertaining to read the preface, which begins “The Hymn-book heretofore in use among us, has been thought by many to be defective, partly on account of the mutilated state of many of the hymns, and partly because of it being divided into two books.” This refers to the 1802 Pocket Hymn book and its separate 1808 supplement, now the main hymnals of the new American church, having ousted Wesley’s collections.

The 1821 Collection still did not include tunes with the texts, but it cross-referenced an official tune book, which also began publication in 1821. I own 1832, 1840, and 1846 editions of this hymnal as well as an 1833 edition of The Methodist Harmonist. The subtitle of the tune book is “Containing a Collection of Tunes from the Best Authors, Embracing Every Variety of Metre” indicating to us its goal of expansion. Notice the meters listed in the hymnal to assist the musicians to cross-reference to the tune book, and notice the shape notes. This was the first Methodist shape note tune book. Shape note singing with its characteristic oblong tune book had become a part of American culture since singing schools rose in New England in the late 1700’s, but was storming the South and Midwest during the early 1800’s. These two books represent a fundamental shift, not only because it attempted overcame the freeform association between hymn books and tunes, but it was another attempt to bring the fold under one hymnal in a uniquely American format. But as always, a new development was brewing. Here came the twofold creative tension again!

The outdoor camp meeting movement was sweeping the country. It was a rural phenomenon and almost exclusively Methodist, yet its repertory was neither accepted into official hymn books nor spread through any sanctioned camp meeting or revival songbook. Two distinct bodies of folk hymnody intermingled and influenced each other, one being African American Spirituals passed on by oral tradition, and the other being the shape note singing of the singing schools. They came together to create the new “evangelical hymn.” Evangelical hymns that emerged from camp meetings include songs such as “Marching to Zion” and “I Am Bound for the Promised Land” as well as spirituals such as “There is a Balm in Gilead” and “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”

American tunes blossomed during the camp meeting period largely because of the father of American church music, Lowell Mason. He wrote tunes such as “Antioch” (“Joy to the World”), “Cleansing Fountain” (“There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”), and “Dennis” (“Blest Be the Tie that Binds”). Lowell Mason wrote 1600 hymn tunes.

The need for new resources was great while this movement was being completely ignored by official hymn books that favored Wesley hymns. The divergence of publishing houses was not between England and America this time, but between the newly divided north and the south. A hymn collection was published by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1847 followed by one in the northern church in 1849. I have a copy of both. They each had over 1,000 hymns. The preface to the northern hymnal tells us much about the creative tension of the time, saying “We urge you, therefore, by your regard for our Church, and for the authority of the General Conference, to purchase only such Methodist Hymn Books as are published by our Agents, and have the names of your Bishops.” This would only need to be said if people were still finding songs elsewhere.

Something very important happened here. Alternate publishing had begun in Nashville, and this opened the door to Nashville’s role in playing out the creative tension between the “vernacular and evangelical” and the “mysterious and liturgical” through the rest of our history. Influenced by the camp meeting movement, the southern church produced the first Songs of Zion in 1851. Songs of Zion has been an ongoing force ever since. Even as we were divided over slavery, a social issue the south was clearly wrong about, southern worship and camp meetings were multi-racial experiences. A large percentage of southern Methodists were African American, the majority which were of course slaves. It is important to note that it was the southern church that first published spirituals and camp meeting evangelical hymns, the new vernacular song of the generation after the Wesleys.

I have a subsequent edition of the northern church’s hymnal from 1857. This is a shift in itself, since as far as I can tell, this is the first time tunes appeared with texts. Notice that hymn numbers from the previous 1849 edition remain intact but are rearranged under corresponding tunes. The south followed with a tune edition three years later. This revolutionary new way to publish hymnals replaced the numerous tune books that song leaders, or “tune-smiths” as they were called, had to own.

Copyright Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Click HERE to go on to part 6 ...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Look at the Past to Discover the Future (pt. 4)

What will our next hymnal be like? This is Part 4 of a paper presented to the NAC Historical Society on the movement of Methodist hymnody in the United States. I've learned some amazing things about the creative tensions of the past that could guide us into the future.

I suggest reading from the beginning of the paper. Go to A Look at the Past to Discover the Future.

Wave #2 – The 1780 Hymnal and the “Pocket Hymnbooks” That Followed

In 1780, late in life and four years before the denomination was officially formed, John Wesley issued A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists. I have a copy of the 1805 edition and a later edition (date unknown) with an 1831 supplement. The vast majority of the 525 songs were of Charles, though there were a few from John, Isaac Watts, and others. John also published the tune book Sacred Harmony in that same year, 1780, to provide some tunes to accompany this large collection of texts. This is of profound importance because this hymnal represented a shift. This was a first attempt to solidify, into one book, the singing of Methodism.

John Wesley said in the preface that “it may be doubted whether any religious community in the world has a greater variety” of hymnals and noted that “people were bewildered in the immense variety”. There was desire for one book for all occasions. He continues, "It is not so large as to be either cumbersome or expensive; and it is large enough to contain such a variety of hymns as will not soon be worn threadbare. It is large enough to contain all the important truths of our most holy religion, whether speculative or practical; yea, to illustrate them all, and to prove them both by Scripture and reason; and this is done in a regular order. The hymns are not carelessly jumbled together, but carefully arranged under proper heads, according to the experience of real Christians. So that in effect this book is a little body of experimental and practical divinity.”

As a result of this move toward standardization, this became the new tradition to follow. So naturally, divergence began! Alternatives to the “Large Hymn Book,” as the 1780 Collection came to be called, were developed. “Pocket Hymn Books” were first published in England in 1785 and 1786 by Wesley, with more Wesleyan hymns. Shortly after in America, Pocket Hymnbooks were published in New York and Philadelphia in 1786 and 1802 using representatives from each annual conference, with a supplement in 1808 compiled by Bishop Asbury. These were cheaper and easy to travel with circuit riding, but each of them also notes they were “collected from various authors.” A divergence from British Methodism had begun and singing was taking on its own shape on our continent. The preface of the 1808, signed by Frances Asbury, Thomas Coke, and Richard Whatcoat, describes the reasons for divergence against older Wesley collections, the Large Hymnbook, and Wesley’s Pocket Hymnbooks: “The Hymn-Books which are already published among us are truly excellent…The Select Hymns, the double collection of Hymns and Psalms, and the Redemption Hymns, display great spirituality, as well as purity of diction…The large Congregational Hymnbook is admirable indeed, but is too expensive for the poor, who have little time and less money…The Pocket Hymn-Book, lately sent abroad in these States, is a most valuable performance for those who are deeply spiritual, but is better suited to the European Methodists … and at the same time [this] is so portable, that you may always carry it with you with you without the least inconvenience.” Our creative tension was playing itself out.

At times, even these were not available on the frontier. Historian John G. Jones reports that the Mississippi Conference commissioned Sellers’ Selection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1816 in pamphlet form, due to the lack of availability of official resources and the expense of shipping by sea when continental travel was not possible. Obviously, it bothered the leaders, because for much of Methodist history, prefaces included something similar to this humorous note in the 1808 Pocket Hymnbook: “We must therefore earnestly entreat you, if you have any respect for the authority of the Conferences, or of us, or any regard for the prosperity of the connection, to purchase no Hymn-books, but what are signed with the names of your Bishops. And as we intend to keep a constant supply, the complaint of our congregations, ‘that they cannot procure our Hymn-books,’ will be stopped.”

Copyright 2010 Stephen P. West. All rights reserved.
Click HERE to go on to part 5 ...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Look at the Past to Discover the Future (pt. 3)

What will our next hymnal be like? This is Part 3 of a paper presented to the NAC Historical Society on the movement of Methodist hymnody in the United States. I've learned some amazing things about the creative tensions of the past that could guide us into the future.

I suggest reading from the beginning of the paper. Go to A Look at the Past to Discover the Future.

Pictured is a window from Wesley's Chapel in London depicting Charles Wesley writing a hymn.

Wave #1 – The Wesleys and the Proliferation of Hymnals that Followed

Charles Wesley was the most prolific hymn writer of history thus far, writing over 6,500 hymns (some estimate as many as 9,000). Isaac Watts remarked at Charles Wesley's funeral that Charles’ poem, "Come O Thou Traveler Unknown,” was worth all the verses he himself had written. But what many do not realize is that it was John who essentially created the hymnal as we know it. He was a diligent editor and compiler of many hymnals before the denomination was officially born, practicing the editorial license we continue with every hymnal. It’s a good thing, too, or we’d still be singing “Hark! how all the welkin rings.”

As we have noted, England was rather void of contemporary hymns except for the recent works of Watts. The Wesley’s early experiences would have been psalm singing. But John became heavily influenced by the German Moravians’ religion of the heart. He was fascinated with the vernacular German hymn because of the heart-felt, emotive character of their singing compared to the metrical psalmody the British elite preferred. So touched by it, he learned German while still on the boat to America so he could translate chorales! His first hymn book, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, came out in 1737 (with a second edition in 1738), by a publisher in “Charles-Town” while Wesley was in Georgia. Among its 70 selections were a few of John's own translations of German chorales, as well his adaptations of a number of hymns by Isaac Watts and others. While the Church of England prohibited the use of vernacular hymns in formal worship, Wesley began a history of cautiously introducing them during the serving of communion, in addition to the acceptable personal use outside of services.

You may know that Wesley got into trouble related to Sophy Hopky before shipping off to England for good, the prelude to his Aldersgate Street heart-warming experience. What you may not know is that 2 of the 12 charges placed against him were grievances about his use of hymns in worship. One reads “by introducing into the church … compositions of psalms and hymns not inspected or authorized by any proper judicature.”

After the brothers experienced conversions, Charles became the prolific lyricist. John stayed the main editor and compiler of the movement, though each did some of the other. In 1741, John published A Collection of Psalms and Hymns. He published Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739, 1740, and 1742, collecting them in 1753 into one Hymns and Spiritual Songs, intended for the use of real Christians of all Denominations. This was the main Methodist hymnbook until 1780, with 24 editions issued. More and more of Charles’ hymns were included. In addition, Charles himself published a number of hymn collections on themes such as Redemption Hymns, Funeral Hymns, and Family Hymns. One of his most important collections was Hymns on the Lord's Supper. Wesley hymn books were the best instrument of popular religious culture Christendom had ever seen.

You may be surprised that both Wesleys played the flute. Charles was a more accomplished musician, training his two sons to become professional church musicians. But John used the flute in field preaching to teach tunes, “lining them out” since tunes were not printed with texts. He was a natural but untrained musician. He would sing lines and have the congregation repeat. The point was to make singing accessible, using simple and common tunes that a congregation could pick up without reading music.

In time, Wesley created tune books to supplement the text-only hymnals, but tune books were only for the musicians. He got material from folk music, pub tunes, Italian opera, and Handel oratorio – the contemporary music of the time! His first was The Foundry Collection in 1742. His words in the preface are entertaining: “I have been endeavoring for 20 years to procure such a book as this. But in vain: Masters of music were above allowing any direction but their own.” His second, Select Hymns with Tunes Annext in 1761, provided melodies in the back and assigned a tune for each hymn.

Wesley hymnals drew great criticism from the institutional church. It produced emotionally compelling, rousing singing frowned on by traditionalists. This fueled the movement because hymns were easy to sing, contemporary to the ear, and simple in language. Many were attracted away from the established church to this modern media phenomenon. We think of hymnbooks as “traditional” now, but at the time they were quite radical. John and Charles published some 65 hymn collections for various times and seasons.

Copyright 2010 Stephen P. West. All rights reserved.

Click HERE to go on to part 4 ...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Look at the Past to Discover the Future (pt. 2)

What will our next hymnal be like? This is Part 2 of my paper presented to the NAC Historical Society on the movement of Methodist hymnody in the United States. I've learned some amazing things about the creative tensions of the past that could guide us into the future.

I suggest reading from the beginning of the paper. Go to A Look at the Past to Discover the Future.

Pictured is a leaf from a Renaissance period hymnal, text in Latin.

Creative Tension Prior to Methodism

In order to understand how this creative tension between the "mysterious and liturgical" and the "vernacular and evangelical" plays itself out in congregational song, we should briefly trace this tension through many centuries of worship prior to Methodism. The Wesley brothers did not invent hymns. The word “hymn” comes from ancient Greek hymnos. Hymns are older than Christianity itself, not only as songs to pagan gods and leaders, but as songs found on the lips of Old Testament characters such as Moses, Deborah, and Hannah. In the New Testament, Luke records hymns, known as canticles, around the Christmas story and Paul quotes them in the epistles. Heart-felt hymns on the one hand, along with the Hebrew Psalter on the other, became the basis for the early church’s singing and set in motion this grand pendulum.

In early centuries of Christianity, creative tensions between vernacular hymn singing on the one hand, and stricter adherence to scripture on the other, evolved. A rich tradition of psalm singing developed, with Gregorian chant becoming dominant with new modes and ordering of music. By the fourth and fifth centuries, conservative monastics frowned on singing anything except psalms. The Council of Braga in Spain (561) forbade the use of hymnals!

But plainsong hymns swung back into the mix due to the influence of Benedict in the 6th century. Vernacular hymns in Greek had thrived previously in Jerusalem and Bethlehem despite rejection. Ambrose came along and founded the tradition of Latin hymnody, adopted by Benedict in his orders of worship. These two essential schools of singing, metrical psalmody and plainsong hymns, continued in creative tension.

Centuries later, the German reformation came, and reformers were prolific in Protestant hymnody beginning with Luther’s own hand (e.g. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”). He was not only a radical leader but a fine musician with a deep knowledge of German folk song. A number of great composers of German chorales followed. Common people loved the music because it was familiar and easier to sing than Gregorian chant, and the texts were in vernacular, common language. The dawn of the printing press gave common folks access to these hymns. The hymnal was officially born, though prior to this music leaves from the Renaissance period approximated the look of the hymn setting.

It is very important for Methodists to understand that before the Wesleys came along, German hymnody was blossoming, but English singing had been losing its appeal to the average person. Plainsong hymns did have some history in England, due in part to Thomas Tallis, who is well known for such writings as “Tallis’ Canon”. But their influence had declined sharply due to the strife between Calvinists and Armenians (the very struggle in the British landscape that gave birth to the derogatory term “Methodist”, used by Calvinists against Armenians). Calvin taught that congregational song must be scriptural, and the pendulum had been swinging toward metrical psalmody. In 1535, Myles Cloverdale published Goostly Psalmes and Scriptural Songes which included translations of German texts. In 1546, it was condemned heretical. For the next 150 years, singing in England was almost exclusively metrical psalms.

Isaac Watts, a “dissenter” just a little older than the Wesleys but still their contemporary, had begun the wave of bringing vernacular hymns back (e.g. “O God Our Help in Ages Past”). He used tunes were meant to be easily sung upon first hearing after a leader “lined them out,” as easily illustrated with his “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The English evangelical hymn had been reborn just before the Wesleys came onto the scene, and the stage was set.

Copyright 2010 Stephen P. West. All rights reserved.

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Monday, March 8, 2010

A Look at the Past to Discover the Future

What will our next hymnal be like? This is Part 1 of a paper presented to the NAC Historical Society on the movement of Methodist hymnody in the United States. I've learned some amazing things about the creative tensions of the past that could guide us into the future.

Pictured is a window in Wesley's Chapel in London depicting John and Charles Wesley singing.

John and Charles Wesley must have carried a Wesley hymn collection in one pocket and the Book of Common Prayer in the other. They were best known for “cutting edge” field preaching and circuit riding, but they instructed class leaders to attend Eucharist in the Anglican Church three times a week. This twofold, “both/and” spirituality remains the genius of Methodist worship.

If there has been a constant in the history of Methodist song, it’s been change. Yet if we observe change over time, the same vibrant passion for the creative and popular on the one hand, and the scriptural and historical on the other, plays itself out again and again.

I have no degree in hymnology, and we do not have time to comprehensively cover the 27 hymnals and 9 supplements that the United Methodist Church and its predecessors have officially produced, not to mention other Methodist denominations and a wide variety of unofficial resources that tell the rest of the story. What I can offer are insights of a pastor with a deep love for music, liturgy, and spiritual formation.

I hope to summarize the history of Methodist song, making reference to various hymnals including my personal collection. I have identified five (5) waves of the Spirit that will help us see the larger picture. Each wave includes an effort to find our formative center through official hymnals, but the movement of congregational song is larger than official hymnals. So each wave also includes a corresponding outburst of creativity through unofficial song collections. Finally, I hope this exercise will help us imagine what our next hymnal might be like. The best way to prepare for the future is to understand our past.

I’ve never seen this done before, so please forgive my imperfections as I attempt such a sweeping exercise. In embarking on this task, I have sought a better way to name and understand the ongoing, twofold dynamic of the movement of song than the words “contemporary” and “traditional.” These labels have been overused. All vibrant worship is both. It is rooted in history and “with the times”. Besides that, there are so many traditions and forms of contemporary experience that these words have no clear meaning.

I find it more helpful to identify this dynamic as the creative tension between the “vernacular and evangelical” on the one hand and the “mysterious and liturgical” on the other. If we pay attention, we will find that this tension is a strength that has always defined our worship. If we compare Methodist worship practice with the two denominations in our nation larger than ours, we find that one is clearly more vernacular and evangelical, and the other is highly mysterious and liturgical. We are vibrantly both.

Copyright 2010 Stephen P. West. All rights reserved.

Click HERE to continue to Part 2.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Henri Nouwen Messing With Me

Lord, Henri Nouwen has started messing with me today. He reminds me that where I am and what I am doing is not what makes me either miserable or happy. It is insignificant compared to keeping my eyes on you. If I walk with you, I am well. All manner of things are well.

He wrote, "I can be teaching at Yale, working in the bakery at the Genesee Abbey, or walking around with poor children in Peru and feel totally useless, miserable, and depressed in all these situations. I am sure of it, because it has happened. There is not such a thing as the right place or the right job. I can be happy and unhappy in all situations. I am sure of it, because it has happened.I have felt distraught and joyful in situations of abundance as well as poverty, in situations of popularity and anonymity, in situations of success and failure. The difference was never based on the situation itself, but always on my state of mind and heart. When I knew that I was walking with the Lord, I always felt happy and at peace. When I was entangled in my own complaints and emotional needs, I always felt restless and divided."

Today I am meditating on this picture I took on the trail up to the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. It's the trail, the journey that counts. Joy comes from walking in the way of Christ, not in success, accomplishment, or notariety.