There are many ways to identify the most lasting or best loved hymns among American Protestants. But what would we find by looking at all 28 hymnals published by mainline Protestant denominations from the late 1800s to the present? Out of almost 5,000 hymns, how many would appear in all 28 hymnals?
Why limit this analysis to mainline Protestant denominations? For one thing, a comparable series of hymnals from evangelical denominations from the late 1800s does not exist. And the hymnals most widely used by evangelical denominations in the past 40 years have been produced by independent publishers and therefore lack clear precedents.
The hymnals of mainline denominations have much to tell us. The denominations are home to many evangelicals—over one-third of Christianity Today's readers belong to mainline churches. And for most of their histories, mainline denominations were the bearers of orthodox Christianity in the U.S. Finally, though some of the denominations have taken a liberal turn on theological issues over the past century, hymnody by its nature is conservative ballast.
Perhaps there are clues, then, among the 13 finalists, as to which songs today will be around in 200 years. Robert T. Coote, senior contributing editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, has done the research and presents his findings to CT readers.
The Inventory surveyed for this essay totals 4,905 hymns, found in successive hymnal editions of the following six mainline Protestant denominations:
- Anglican (Episcopal), four editions, from 1892
- American Baptist, four editions, from 1883
- Congregational (United Church of Christ), five editions, from 1897
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, five editions, from 1899
- United Methodist, five editions, from 1878