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A Review of the Hymnbooks

by Wayne S. Walker
Originally published in Torch, October, 1988

Please understand that my review is of necessity going to be biased by my own view of what constitutes good hymn selection. With that in mind, I shall begin by saying that I grew up using the old "brown book," Christian Hymns II (edited by L. O. Sanderson and published in 1948 by the Gospel Advocate Company), which I still think was a fairly good book. Before that book was available, brethren generally used Great Songs of the Church II (edited by E. L. Jorgenson) or Christian Hymns I (from the Gospel Advocate Company). Both of these were also pretty good once you got past the premillennial influences of the former. There was also a Great Songs of the Church I, and I am told that it was even more premillennial in the choice of songs.

When the "brown book" was no longer available, many churches replaced it with either Christian Hymns III (the Gospel Advocate Company, 1966) or Abiding Hymns (edited by Robert C. Welch and published in 1963). Again, both were fine books. In fact, the latter was, in my opinion, one of the best hymnbooks ever published among us, except that it was somewhat limited in usefulness because of its small size. Alas, all of the afore-mentioned books are now basically out of print, although limited copies of Great Songs II and Abiding Hymns may be available. Other books that have been used by brethren in recent years are The Great Christian Hymnal II (edited by Tillit S. Teddlie), Christian Hymnal (published by Gospel Teacher Publications), and The Majestic Hymnal II (published by Firm Foundation and replaced in 1978 with Hymns of Praise). It is my understanding that all of these books are also no longer being published. If I am wrong, I will be happy to make correction.

My home congregation replaced our old books with Sacred Selections for the Church (originally published in 1956 by Ellis J. Crum of Kendallville, Indiana). This is possibly one of the most popular books ever produced and was nearly universal among churches of Christ for several years. However, I have heard many song leaders and preachers remark that this book has done more damage to our singing than anything else. And after many years of experience with it, I have come to agree. Why? The reason is that it changed the focus of our singing away from psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to which we had been accustomed to the type variously identified as "jazzy gospel hymns" or "songs of the spirited quartet variety" or "singing convention style hymns."

This is not to imply that every song of this nature is totally unfit for worship. However, it is admitted by almost everyone that most of these hymns were not written for purposes of congregational singing but basically for entertainment at country music singing conventions. Thus, in the majority of them much more emphasis is placed on the parts, the rhythm, and other aspects of the music rather than on the sentiment of the words. I realize that a great deal of opinion and personal taste are involved here, but I am not alone in this assessment. My problem with Sacred Selections is two-fold. First, it omits many of the great hymns of the faith that have been loved and used over the years. And it is weighted down too heavily with "gospel songs" of the country music variety.

Sacred Selections is still available and many congregations continue to use it. It is not my intention to suggest that they are wrong in doing so -- it is a matter of judgment. But a large number of churches, including the one with which I presently work, have replaced it with Songs of the Church (published in 1971 by Alton H. Howard of West Monroe, Louisiana). Songs of the Church is better, in my estimation, than Sacred Selections not necessarily because it eliminates the "junk" but rather because, as a result of its larger size, it includes more of the older hymns of praise and devotion. It does disturb me that brother Howard wrote in his Foreword, "Of course, not every song will fit every occasion; therefore, this book is designed not only for congregational singing but for home gatherings, camp singing, and other Christian song activities." If a song is not suitable for praising God in congregational singing, what makes anyone think that it would be suitable for trying to praise God in any other setting?

There is one very practical problem that results from including too many of these "special selections." Most of them require a great deal of musical expertise in being able to read elaborate parts. I have seen it happen over and over that inexperienced song leaders will hear such songs sung in a large congregation where the people are able to sing them. Then, they will return home and try to lead them where neither the knowledge nor the parts are available to sing them. This can kill the singing and dampen the enthusiasm of people to try to learn new songs or improve their ability. Again, I am not trying to say that we should eliminate all songs with parts. Our musical heritage would be impoverished without songs like "Our God, He is Alive." But even with its special bass lead in the chorus, it is still a fairly simple song and is well within the reach of most any congregation.

Another songbook, Gospel Songs & Hymns (published in 1987 by V. E. Howard, also of West Monroe, Louisiana), is currently available, although it seems to me to be much inferior to Songs of the Church. While this article is not intended to be a complete history of hymnbooks published among churches of Christ, let me add a couple of notes. Several years ago, a number of books were published by The Marion Davis Company of Fayette, Alabama; Will Slater of Henryetta, Oklahoma; F. L. Rowe of The Christian Leader; and others which were very popular and much used at the time. I have serious doubts if any of these books are still available. Also, a new, revised edition of Great Songs of the Church has been published by, I think, Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. I do not have a copy, but I have seen one and verified that is it not printed with shaped notes. This will limit its usefulness among us as many through the years have been to taught to read hymns with the shaped note method.

Brother R. J. Stevens of Kemp, Texas, has done us a great favor by putting out his Hymns for Worship just last year. I am still somewhat concerned about the inclusion of a number of songs about which brother Stevens wrote, "This section has been provided for songs with more difficult music and different textual style. The usefulness of these selections is left to the discretion of each congregation and user." One could wish that some of these might have been left out and replaced with more actual hymns of praise. But at least we can be thankful for the warning. And besides that, it is an excellent book -- in fact, I believe it is the best book available to us today and I highly recommend it to any congregation looking for new hymnbooks. It has a number of good features which make it attractive -- easy readability, topical arrangement, larger print (although the book is heavy and holding it for any length of time is a chore), and a large number of old, familiar hymns. Thank you brother Stevens.

I will close by saying that I realize that much of this article is subjective. Any book review necessarily reflects the views and opinions of the reviewer. However, it is my hope that the remarks made in this article might be of help to churches trying to choose new song books. Please take the suggestions in the spirit in which they are offered, use what you feel is applicable to your situation, and discard the rest. But when we choose our books, let us use as our main standard the desire to have books that will help us to praise God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, offering the fruit of our lips and giving thanks to His name (Hebrews 12:28; 13:15). May our primary goal be to worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).