U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Gleam Across the Wave

Last year I wrote a post encouraging scholars of American intellectual and cultural history to give the Bible its due.  I’m following up that post, almost a year to the day later, with another exhortation:

“Open your hymnals…”

I would argue that hymns are a crucial resource for American intellectual history, especially for those historians who are interested in broadening their scope of inquiry beyond a narrow list of canonical, “complex” texts.

That is not to say that hymns were not complex texts or that they did not convey complex ideas.   To the contrary, hymns might have surpassed sermons in their utility as means for communicating theological affirmations to assembled congregations. And hymns traveled better and farther than sermons ever could.  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is perhaps the most famous sermon in American history, and lots of people know of it.  But how many still know it by heart? (Poor souls!)  Compare the renown of Edwards’s famous sermon to a hymn like “Amazing Grace” or “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” texts that are roughly contemporary with Edwards’s “Sinners” but are still alive for millions today.

How these and other hymns are or were “alive” to people is something that might be understood by looking at diaries and letters and private papers, at newspaper reports of public gatherings, at orders of service for funerals.  And, of course, at hymnals.  Wherever you look, if you want to know what people thought, what people believed, what people longed for, in any era, you had better look at the songs they knew by heart and took to heart.

I think a recent serviceable, chronologically broad introduction to the subject is a volume edited by Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll, Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History & Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004). But I should warn you:  some of the essays in this volume stray far beyond “confessing history” and enter the territory of “testimony.”

Some of the chapters, however, are quite excellent and useful.  In addition to Noll’s introduction (3-16), which keeps the confessing to a merciful minimum, I would recommend the following chapters as especially helpful for American intellectual/cultural historians:

“We’re Marching to Zion”: Isaac Watts in Early America, by Esther Rothenbusch Crookshank  (17-41)

“I Found My Thrill”:  The Youth for Christ Movement and American Congregational Singing, 1940-1970, by Thomas E. Bergler (123-149)

“Protestant Hymnody in Contemporary Roman Catholic Worship,” by Felicia Piscitelli (150-163)

One of the most interesting finds for me in this book was Kevin Kee’s chapter, “Marketing the Gospel: Music in English-Canadian Protestant Revivalism, 1884-1957” (96-122). The whole chapter has much to recommend it, not the least of which is the author’s description of “a vein of irenic Canadian fundamentalism.” In Canada, it seems, even the fundamentalists are chill.

Also of great value are the appendices, including a list of the most frequently printed hymns from 1737 to 1960, a separate list the most often reprinted hymns in Roman Catholic hymnals (there is some overlap between the two), and a  list of those hymns in Catholic hymnbooks which are “recommended for ecumenical use.”

With some reservations, I would recommend this volume for general academic use.  I won’t detail all my reservations — some of them are scrawled rather vigorously in the margins in one or two of the essays.  So I will spare the reader my unfiltered judgments. Well, all except one…

In the concluding essay of the book, Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, sets out to challenge the work of Sandra Sizer, Gospel Hymns and Social Religion (1978).  That seemed like a promising beginning. But I realized pretty quick that I was in for rough sailing when, in the second paragraph, Mouw whips out the scare quotes.  Of Sizer’s approach he writes, “I find her ‘rhetorical’ analysis of nineteenth-century hymnody to be both creative and illuminating” (234).  I’m not sure what is scary or iffy about rhetorical analysis, but I know that when a conservative evangelical commends someone for her creative analysis of a text, it’s not strictly a compliment.

Indeed, Mouw goes on to warn us that he has “serious questions about what [Sizer] sees as the social implications of the rescue imagery employed by nineteenth-century hymn writers.” What follows is an exercise in dehistoricizing, beginning with his “personal acquaintance” with the use of these hymns at “skid-row rescue missions” during his childhood as the basis for his skepticism “about any claim that these musical expressions have some sort of intrinsic connection to unworthy social goals” (234).  Good testimony; bad history.

But there is some good history that has been written about hymns in American intellectual and cultural life (note to self: read Sandra Sizer’s book and report back).*  And there is certainly good history waiting to be written. At one point in Mouw’s essay, when a priori claims like sea billows rolled, I scribbled in the margin:  “Oh mercy.  Missed the boat entirely.  But a secular historian sure could make hay out of this.”

That’s the real takeaway:  there’s plenty of room for the “non-confessing” historians to look at American hymns as important texts and contexts for intellectual history.  Besides, I bet those confessing historians would appreciate the company. Iron sharpens iron.

So if your dissertation or your article or your book chapter on (fill in the blank) in American cultural history is dead in the water, look to a hymnal and see what you find.  Some poor struggling, fainting argument you may rescue, you may save.


*For a different perspective on liturgical / congregational music in American life, see Philip V. Bohlman, et. al., editors, Music in American Religious Experience (New York: Oxford UP, 2006). I especially appreciated the chapters by Stephen Marini (on early American evangelical hymns), Edith L. Blumhofer (on Fanny Crosby and Protestant hymnody), and Philip V. Bohlman (on music and individualism in American religious experience).

If you want a history of Baptist hymns and hymnals in America — and who doesn’t! — see David W. Music and Paul A. Richardson, I Will Sing the Wondrous Story”: A History of Baptist Hymnody in North America (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2008).

For a sturdy, stately study of English-language hymns as literary texts, see J.R. Watson, The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study (New York: Oxford UP, 1999).

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Exactly. The secular humanist left should think twice before plowing under what’s left of American religion.

    Onward Kantian Soldiers just ain’t gonna get it done.

  2. To the contrary, I would encourage secular academics to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves, and to spoil the Egyptians while they’re at it. Secular historians make a mistake to bypass a rich field of inquiry because it has seemed to yield too much in the way of the hagiographic and devotional. Bring your own tools and start digging, folks. You’ll hit gold.

  3. Great post, L.D. I totally agree about the richness of hymns as sources.

    I’d also recommend chapters 7 and 8 of Candy Gunther Brown’s _The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880_ (UNC Press, 2004) for a wonderful analysis of hymns and their role in American evangelical culture during the nineteenth century.

  4. Thanks, Michael. Word in the World was almost on my USIH reading list, but I ended up putting it on my AmLit list. More on that later, maybe. For now, it’s “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

  5. For me, sources like hymns are interesting because they acquire doctrinal significance for many people. That is, the text of hymns becomes an easily remembered shorthand or even replacement for the underlying scriptural sources. So you get “in the words of the old hymn…” rather than “as the Bible says.” It is easy for many people to confuse lyrics for direct quotes of BIble verses, which makes interpreting popular religion more complex. Hymns, then, are important not only as texts, but also as hermeneutics and as performances.

  6. Absolutely, Charles! I wrote above that “hymns might have surpassed sermons in their utility as means for communicating theological affirmations to assembled congregations.” I would say that this process has worked “in reverse” or “in the round” — hymns provided a shared vocabulary through which people learned and expressed very complex ideas. And, like any book, a hymnal can be a tool in the hands of its reader to accomplish a purpose that the authors/compilers did not envision. At the very least, the hymnal provided generations of children with unobjectionable reading material when the preacher got boring (which could very well have been every. damn. Sunday.) The hymnal is vanishing from the pews of many evangelical churches, though, so I don’t know what kids do in church these days — play Angry Birds, I guess.

  7. Excellent post, Lora. There is a rich vein to tap in American hymnology. I’m curious if either of the books you mentioned stick to a literary analysis of each hymn or do the authors also provide the historical background to what inspired the writing of the hymn. Either way, this would be a great study on a sociology of religion!

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