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The Hymnal: A Reading History by Christopher N. Phillips

Timothy P. Shafer

The Hymnal: A Reading History, by Christopher N. Phillips. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018, 272 pages, $39.95.

When one considers a hymnal, it is likely that what most commonly comes to mind is the large, hardbound musical aid to worship. For many, hymnals are the repository of some of their most treasured devotional material (both musically and poetically), and for the regular church-goer, hymnals are often associated with some of the most spiritual and emotional moments of public worship. But as author Christopher N. Phillips, an associate professor of English at Lafayette College, demonstrates, hymnals have a vastly and surprisingly wider scope of meaning than most realize.

Phillips’s book, The Hymnal: A Reading History, is an excellent historical compilation of the role of the hymnal in culture, education, economics, gift-giving, the home, courtship, literature, denominational distinction, personal devotion, and of course, church life. In addition to the interest piqued by many of these lesser-considered, but important, facets of the role of the hymnal in daily life, Phillips’s writing style is warm, engagingly personal, and eminently readable, adding greatly to the enjoyment of discovering the hidden history and impact of the genre. He weaves tales—some documented, some surmised from scant evidence—with skill, engaging the reader empathetically in the personal joys and sorrows of individuals from earlier generations. His ability to engage the reader's imagination in this manner is a great feature of his writing of what is, in essence, a history book.

Phillips’s ecumenical approach to the topic is also admirable. While much of his discussions naturally center on the Protestant hymnbook, he also gives considerable attention to Catholic, Jewish, and Mormon use of hymnals. Of note is his poignant inclusion of the impact a hymnal had on a particular slave as she decoded the text that provided for her a “click of comprehension” (106). He describes her joy when she understood from the page the words of a Watts hymn: “When I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies, I bid farewell to every fear and wipe my weeping eyes” (106). She at once comprehended her assurance of salvation as it was linked to the written word and rejoiced in her ability to understand it.

Phillips devotes an entire chapter (ch. 6) to the use of the hymnal as a literacy tool for teaching the young. In a description of a common practice of early reading pedagogy in the American colonies, he outlines the joyless practice of the “ABC method” of learning to read, where the students would recite the letters from a word divided into syllables, and afterward speak the sound of each syllable, eventually joining the syllables together to form and recognize the word. He juxtaposes the description of this tedious process with Watts’s stated goal of “using the pleasures of rhyme and image to motivate children to not only read, but memorize his texts” (107). Watts also encouraged parents to turn the duty of children (that of learning to read) into a reward by offering them their own personal copies of the books of verse.

Many more aspects of the hymnal are discussed throughout the volume, including descriptions of various practices of learning new tunes before printed tunes and musical literacy were widely available. These included the “giving out” of a hymn by the preacher and the “lining out” of the hymn by a lay leader (called a precentor) (68). Also of particular interest are Phillips’s carefully researched descriptions of the evolution of common features of our modern hymnals, including various approaches to layout, bindings, and subject and first line indexes (ch. 5).

Having myself just spent the previous decade on the joint Psalter Hymnal Committee for the OPC-URC publication of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, I learned two important things from Phillips’ book. The first is that the new Trinity Psalter Hymnal (2018), which is currently enjoying its first days of use in Reformed circles, is apparently the first major American Presbyterian Hymnbook to include a separate Psalm section since the 1843 production of Psalms and Hymns Adapted to Social, Private, and Public Worship in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (49). For the re-emergence of sung psalms in combination with hymns in corporate Reformed worship, I give thanks to God, for I consider both to be biblical. Secondly, Phillips’s work is a humbling example of just how much there is to learn about the history of the worship of our Triune God by the communion of saints over the centuries. It is a thoroughly engrossing and highly informative volume, free from large doses of musical and poetic technical jargon, making it a great pleasure to read for anyone with even a cursory interest in hymns. I highly commend it.

Timothy P. Shafer is a ruling elder in Resurrection Orthodox Presbyterian Church in State College, Pennsylvania. He is a performing pianist and professor of piano at Penn State University School of Music. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2019.

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