Since we are focusing on hymns in worship this summer I thought it would be worth asking, what are hymns? Why do we sing in worship? Why do we have a hymnal? What makes our hymnal different from other hymnals?
In short, hymns are songs of praise to God. We still have the original hymnal of the church, it’s called the Book of Psalms. And for much of church history, the faithful made do with that. Even as recently as four centuries ago, the psalms were the primary hymnbook of the church.
Some hymns we have come from sacred poetry and was set to music later, sometimes much later. “Be Thou My Vision” originated as an Irish battle prayer maybe as far back as the 6th century and then was translated and translated and then finally set into the hymn form we know in 1919. Likewise, “Amazing Grace,” was first penned as verses by John Newton in 1779, but wasn’t written to music. It has several tunes that paired with it, but was attached to the tune we know best, “New Britain,” around 1847.
Some hymns come to us from the African-American spiritual tradition and have no specific hymn writer for words or music. “There Is a Balm in Gilead” is an example of such a hymn.
Some hymns, but surprisingly few, were written, words and music, by the same person. In this day of singer-songwriters, we often think that the person who writes the words, writes the music, but that happens only in a few cases, and most of those are fairly recent, in the last hundred years or so. “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” by Doris Akers, is an example of this kind of hymn written in 1962.
A lot of this information can be found in our hymnal. Check out the fine print at the top and body of the page. There are stories there.
Hymns praise God, but they also convey ideas about God. Because of this, they can be considered theological. Theology is just a fancy word for how we understand God. Because of this, there can be a lot of disagreement about hymns and what are proper hymns for worship and what aren’t.
Because hymns express our theology, we create hymnals. The Presbyterian Hymnal is a set of hymns that have been vetted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and has the stamp of approval from the church for worship. This is a hard job and anyone who has served on a hymnal committee will tell you that it is a stressful and thankless job. Most people are mad that you’ve included a hymn that a) uses male metaphors for God, b) uses female metaphors for God, c) uses language that is too violent or militant, d) any number of “praise songs,” e) hymns from other cultures, or any number of other reasons. You also get dinged for not including “old favorites” for whatever reason. It’s hard to win.
Because of this, and other reasons, many churches are ditching hymnals and going to projecting hymns onto a screen at the front of the sanctuary. While there are many good reasons to do this, I still love my hymnals because they express something about our faith. A hymnal is like a family snapshot, it shows who we are at this moment in time. It needs to be updated regularly, for certain, but it says something about who we are right now.
The way a hymnal is organized also says something about our expression of faith. If you look at the table of contents of the Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) you’ll see that the hymns are organized into four broad categories: Christian Year, Psalms, Topical Hymns, and Service Music. The Christian Year is then broken down into the various seasons and holy days of the liturgical year, from Advent through Christ the King Sunday. Topical Hymns consist of such theological categories as the parts of the trinity, the life of the church, hymns for sacraments and ordinances, etc. This tells us we are an orderly, theological, sacramental, and liturgical community.
There are other ways to organize hymnals. Some are simply alphabetical by hymn title. Some are topical but don’t recognize the liturgical year. How you organize your hymnal says something about your faith.
The hymnals we use, the Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) and Sing the Faith (2003), are good snapshots of our denominational heritage. I also highly recommend our “new” (almost 5 year old) hymnal, Glory to God (2013), which incorporates new hymns and includes some beloved hymns such as “Rock of Ages” and “It Is Well with My Soul” which are not in either of the hymnals we are currently using.
I am looking forward to preaching on hymns you have suggested this summer. This month, I’m going to be preaching on the following hymns:
June 3 – “Here I Am, Lord”
June 10 – “Lord of the Dance (I Danced in the Morning)”
June 17 – “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
June 24 – “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”
It’s not too late to suggest hymns for the rest of the summer. Look for slips to recommend hymns on the Information Table in the Reception Hall.
Pastor Lawrence Lee