This week I’ve been teaching and learning a great deal about George Frideric Handel, the great German composer who became, over his long life, a great British one. In discussing Handel and other Baroque composers with my students, we also veered into the world of hymns.
Hymns were and are important in Protestant congregations as simple, memorable tunes with theologically rich texts. Hymn melodies are often based on folk tunes or popular compositions. In some cases, such as the lovely Christmas carol “Silent Night,” the text is written first, then set to music (indeed, most hymns, being based on Scripture, evolved this way). Sometimes the tune is written, then an enterprising poet sets the text. Such was the case with Isaac Watts, who set his text for “Joy to the World” to a Handel melody. And, of course, there are hymns written and composed by the same person.
In talking about hymns, I brought to my students a slender little hymnal in my small collection of them, The Cokesbury Worship Hymnal. From what I can gather, my copy was published in or after 1966, when the copyright from 1938 was renewed. There is a stamp on the inside front cover stating that the hymn book once belonged to Carteret Street Methodist Church, which I thought was in Charleston, but appears to be in Beaufort, South Carolina. The hymnal includes 296 hymns, with fifty responsive readings—a good collection, but slim by the standards of a pewback hymnal.
I can’t remember how I came into possession of the Cokesbury (likely I got it at a large annual book sale in Aiken), but I’ve been using it for years with students and on Christmas gigs, as it has most of the standard Christmas carols. Also, it’s small size makes it easier to keep open on a stand than the bulkier Free Will Baptist Hymnal I also have at home. It’s portability also makes it easy to carry in my bag, ready to pop out should I have a sudden need to play hymns.
In leafing through the pages of Cokesbury, Handel gets at least two credits among the Christmas carols: the aforementioned “Joy to the World,” and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” a carol that seems to be falling by the wayside in popularity (perhaps I can revive it this Christmas season). Felix Mendelssohn, the great Romantic composer, gets credit for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” one of my personal favorites, and none other than Charles Wesley wrote the text.
Many hymnals are written for a specific denomination, though there are some used across denominations. In researching the Cokesbury, I found that the hymnal is Methodist (the “Carteret St. Methodist” stamp should have clued me in). According to Hymnary.org, the hymnal is designated specifically as belonging to the Methodist Episcopal Church – South. That denomination split from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844 over the issue of slavery, specifically regarding a bishop who, through marriage and inheritance, owned two slaves (the bishop kept the slaves for their own protection, and allowed them to live freely in practice, if not legally).
It seems now it has been adopted more broadly among Methodist churches. I know I am thrilled to have my copy (you can buy your own for $12). Apparently, others enjoy their personal copies, too. A reviewer on GoodReads uses it as a devotional.
That’s a powerful point about hymns: they are meant to convey the Gospel and the rest of the Word of God in beautiful, memorable ways. Music works its way into our souls, and the repeated singing of these hymns work the Word of God deeper into the warp-and-woof of our lives. There’s no substitute for reading Scripture, but hymns use the power of music to write those Scriptures on our hearts.
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