Singing the Old, Old Story
I have to confess that my heart sinks when we sing a song in church that's less than 30 years old. Hymns are one of the only remaining doors through which names, sounds, and words from the church's past enter congregational life, and I can't help feeling that each time the worship pastor passes over an old song in favor of a more recent creation, that door creaks toward shutting. Part of my frustration is personal (I've never been a big chorus fan), but mostly I miss the rich tradition we're steadily losing.
Five hundred years ago this week, on January 13, 1501, the first vernacular hymnal was printed in Prague. It featured 89 Moravian hymns in Czech, some penned by martyred reformer Jan Hus (the subject of our current issue). Though several of the hymns were based on Gregorian chants, for the most part the collection broke with Catholic tradition. Catholic worship at the time included only music written in Latin and sung by professionals; Moravians helped re-introduce the custom of congregational singing in a language all could understand.
Moravian, or Hussite, hymns often focused on themes central to the reform movement. Battle hymns like "Oh, Ye Warriors of the Lord" united communities, lifted soldiers' spirits, and proclaimed reforming beliefs. Other songs highlighted the Moravians' strong feelings about Communion—mainly that lay people ought to be able to receive the cup as well as the bread. One of Hus's hymns on the subject, "Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Savior," still appears in some Lutheran hymnals. It includes these stanzas:
Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior,
Turned away God's wrath forever;
By His bitter grief and woe
He saved us from the evil Foe. As His pledge of love undying
He, this precious food supplying,
Gives His body with the bread
And with the wine the blood He shed.
Martin Luther, in many ways an heir of Hus (see "The Reformation Connection" this week at www.christianhistory.net), also wrote and published hymns in the vernacular—in his case, German. With Johann Walther, Luther produced an important hymnal in 1524 that included early chorales (unharmonized and unaccompanied melodies) as well as derivations of plainsong, devotional songs, and secular songs. In general, German Protestants were eager to adapt the finest elements of musical art—including, after Luther, the organ and highly complex arrangements—for church use. It's no coincidence that J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel were both Lutherans.
In contrast, Calvinists in France, Scotland, and England tended to believe that anything not found in the Bible should not be found in Christian worship, either. Thus Calvinists sang only from the psalter, in unison and unaccompanied. The English psalter used only a restricted number of tunes and meters. Even so, songbooks like the 1562 collection by Sternhold and Hopkins and the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, published in Massachusetts, were widely used.
The psalter monopoly began to break up in the eighteenth century as British musicians became frustrated with the constraints imposed by the Church of England. As Isaac Watts complained, "To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air, that sits upon the faces of the whole assembly while the psalm is on their lips, might tempt even a charitable observer to suspect the fervor of inward religion." Watts, a Congregationalist, released his alternative, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, in 1707—the same year that Bach's first work became public and that Charles Wesley was born.
In 1735, Charles and his brother John Wesley encountered Moravian hymns firsthand while sailing to America on a missionary venture. German-speaking Moravian settlers onboard their ship sang hymns during a violent storm, which amazed the Wesleys. Just a few years later, John began translating German hymns into English, while Charles was writing his own Moravian-inspired hymns. These compositions and others appeared among the 525 pieces in the highly influential Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists in 1780. Even with this new option, though, the Church of England did not authorize hymn singing until 1820.
Today new, or at least revised, hymnals are issued all the time. Each reflects the biases of an editor and, often, of a denomination, and some give tradition more weight than others. Rejoice in the Lord, a Reformed Church in America hymnal from the mid-1980s, falls on the conservative side (including many selections from old psalters) but represents the tensions of current collections.
The editor, the late Erik Routley, explained in the introduction that some familiar pieces were omitted for various reasons: to make room for modern needs, because they were seldom sung, because they were nation- specific (patriotic), or because they were deemed "inappropriate" or "theologically dubious." Yet Routley felt that the volume solidly upheld tradition, as he wrote, "But in replacing the 'old with the new' we are not in fact merely replacing the ancient with the modern. Not infrequently we are recovering the ancient and inviting the less distinguished modern to make way for it. Our own prayerful guess has been that today, after a generation of rejection of the old, we are ready for exactly such a rediscovery." I, for one, hope he's right.
* Information on topics mentioned in this article can be found in Christian History issues 31: The Golden Age of Hymns, 68: Jan Hus, and our forthcoming issue on the Wesleys, due in February.
Elesha can be reached at cheditor@ChristianityToday.com.
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