The Social Life of Hymnals
Christopher N. Phillip’s The Hymnal: A Reading History
Daniel Silliman

A Presbyterian man picked up the hymnal in his pew. He opened it to the first blank page—the flyleaf—and wrote, “What are you laughing at?”

He passed the book to his daughter, Elizabeth Onderdonk. The two of them were sitting in a service at the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, Long Island, New York, sometime in the years just after the Civil War. It was not a short service, but Presbyterian propriety wouldn’t allow for a whisper, nor the laugh the young woman was trying to stifle.

She took the hymnal and wrote a note back to her father. “Bumble Bee,” she wrote, referring to another congregant in their secret family code, “has struck an attitude.”

The history of hymnals is filled with this sort of marginalia. Worshipers typically bought their own hymn books, for personal use, including private notes. Surviving copies of worship books, saved by antiquarian societies and aunts, archivists and amateur historians, are replete with marks that record fleeting moments in long-gone pews. “You ought to stay awake,” someone wrote in one hymnal in Massachusetts. Another person complained about a Congregationalist minister’s mispronunciations. The reverend kept saying “to” like “ter,” and it was very annoying. In another book, someone doodled a man with smoke coming out his hat. A Unitarian noted the place in one hymn where he cried when it was sung at his father’s funeral.

the hymnal

Hymnals are different from other books. They exist in a curious sort of social space, connecting worshipers to each other, to their tradition, and to God. The book is a religious object and can command a sense of reverence. But it’s also personal. It’s a private space and a place for thoughts to wander. It’s something to fiddle with when a sermon seems interminable.

Christopher N. Phillips talks about this as the “social life” of hymnals. “Hymnbooks,” he writes, “were part of the everyday social practices of hundreds of thousands of English-speakers across two centuries … Singing and reading from hymnbooks is obviously important in church, but the use of hymnbooks to carry things to and from church, to have silent conversations when speaking aloud is forbidden, and to remember departed loved ones, are also significant practices.”

Phillips’ new book, The Hymnal: A Reading History, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, is a study of these sorts of practices. He’s interested in how hymnbooks were handled. An English professor at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania, Phillips has looked at thousands of hymnals from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, examining “the combination of ephemeral wear and pious preservation.” He’s not interested in hymns as such, but religious reading and “historical poetics,” a field that combines the study of poetry reception with book history and lived religion.

This is, at times, a frustrating project. Phillips tells a very fragmented story. The “linked chapters” jump around chronologically and make different arguments that go in different directions. Phillips occasionally tries to pull everything together by making this a story about his research. He starts one chapter, for example, by writing that “In the Library Company of Philadelphia’s main reading room, if you request the title Picture Hymns, you receive a small archival box.” Open the box, and you find what the title says: cards with engraved hymn texts and decorative pictures. They’re in good condition and well cared for. There are no surprises. The Da Vinci Code this is not.

At other moments, though, something snaps into place in The Hymnal, and a whole history comes into view. It’s a history of contingencies and small choices, innovations and personal relationships, forming and transforming religious communities, spiritual practices, and the social reality of their religious lives.

That history starts, Phillips writes, with a kid bored in church in the 1680s. The bored kid was Isaac Watts. He grew tired of the psalms, which, at the time, English Protestants considered the only acceptable songs for worship. Watts’s father, a minister, challenged the boy to write something better. So Watts started writing hymn after hymn after hymn. By the time he became a minister himself, he was also an accomplished religious poet. He published Horae Lyricae (“Sacred Lyrics”) in 1706.

“Yet mighty God indulge my tongue,” he wrote in one poem. “Nor let they Thunders roar, / Whilst the young Notes and vent’rous Song / To Worlds of Glory Soar.” The poem was titled, “Asking Leave to Sing.”

This was experimental poetry, both powerful and well received. It wasn’t just the quality of the verse that captured attention of churchgoers, though. Watts also invented the technology of the hymnbook. As Phillips explains, Watts introduced “new crucial innovations” and “subtle paratextual additions” that opened up new “ways of using and living with the texts he made.” For example, in Hymns, the 1707 follow-up to Horae Lyricae, he came up with a system of cross-references, so that one poem might lead a reader to another, and then another. He also cross-referenced the poetry with scripture verses, so readers might move from Hymns to the Bible and back again. Another innovation, key to the future of hymn books, was the index of first lines. Now, as Christians read and internalized this devotional poetry, they only had to remember the first line to find the poem again.

Hymns was a big hit across the ocean in colonial America. The Puritan minister Cotton Mather started using Watts’s hymns as “paraliturgical texts”—that is, poetry to accompany a sermon. A hymn could be a sermon in miniature, repeating the main points of the longer disquisition, and doing it in easy-to-remember rhyme. Mather published lots of sermon pamphlets and started printing hymns alongside the sermons. He wrote some of his own religious poetry, but really loved Watts’s best. When he got a revised and expanded copy of Hymns in 1711, Mather wrote, “I receive them as a Recruit and Supply sent in from Heaven.”

Other Puritan ministers started publishing and distributing their sermons as pamphlets, too, and they also included Watts hymns. By 1740, there were at least seven ministers in Massachusetts alone who regularly published Watts. Puritan ministers like Jonathan Edwards couldn’t seem to mention Watts’s name without attaching a superlative like a title. It was never just “Watts,” but “the Excellent Dr. Watts.”

The sermon pamphlets and the accompanying hymns were typically read aloud at home. Puritan fathers used them to lead their families in devotion. Since they were at home, people also felt free to experiment with singing these hymns. In church, only psalms were allowed. There was no new worship music, no songs of, as Mather had once phrased it, “Humane Composure.” But at home, in that semi-private space, it seemed OK to try to sing these hymns and express new religious feelings. People found the experience incredibly moving.

A younger generation of American Puritans grew up singing hymns, and these songs resonated with them. In the language of the more recent “worship wars” that wracked American Protestantism in the twentieth century, the hymns felt authentic, the psalms too formal. The hymns spoke to and from the heart, the psalms for a tradition passed. When these young people got the chance, they brought their new music into church and made it part of their worship.

The minister Samuel Buell, for example, got invited to fill Jonathan Edwards’s pulpit while Edwards was away. Buell—young enough to be a little rash—decided to change the church’s music while he was in charge. His hymn singing was reportedly so thrilling that some were driven “to ecstasy.”

Edwards objected to the musical innovation, and when he returned, he tried to restore the old order. He couldn’t quite reverse the innovation, though. Hymn had their foothold. Edwards struck a compromise, and the Sunday afternoon service was given over to the new worship music.

“Hymnody,” Phillips writes, “was something of a rebellious youth movement.”

Hymnody was also a space where religious identities were crafted. As the practice of hymn singing became more accepted, and then institutionalized in various churches, the hymnbook came to be an object that connected people with a tradition. A hymnbook was like a membership card for a religious community. It signified your belonging. Methodists had their hymnals. Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists had theirs. And if a religious group didn’t have its own hymnal, could it even be a real church?

By the early nineteenth century, producing a hymnal was often a first official act of a new religious community. It was a declaration of incorporation: “We are now a people.” The African Methodist Episcopal Church, for example, was established in 1816. Within two years, the church had a published The African Methodist Pocket Hymn Book.

The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, similarly, made a hymnal a top priority. Emma Hale Smith started working on the hymnal in 1830, the same year her husband published the Book of Mormon. She borrowed hymns from other churches, but also collected new songs from the first few followers of Joseph’s special revelation. The work continued through the early persecutions, mob violence, and Smith’s difficult pregnancies. It was finally published in 1836. That year, the first Mormon temple was dedicated in Kirtland, Ohio, with an original Mormon hymn, “The Spirit of God like a Fire Is Burning.”

By the nineteenth century, hymnals came to be so strongly identified with a religious community that church splits produced competing hymnals. Phillips recounts how the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery produced dueling hymnals.

The Southern Methodists seceded from the church in 1844, forming the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In 1847, the Southerners produced a new hymnal, A Collection of Hymns for Public, Social, and Domestic Worship. In the preface, the new hymnal critiqued the Northern church and its tolerance for abolitionists. The new hymnal would be “truly Wesleyan, or rather Scriptural,” especially in “the prominence given to those subjects which are of the greatest importance in the Christian life”—a not-so-subtle jab at Northern Methodists’ concerns for what we might call social justice issues.

The Northern Church, in turn, organized a hymnbook committee in 1848, and produced a new and improved hymnbook the next year. Hymns for the Use of the Methodist Episcopal Church was notable, among other things, for being the first hymnal informed by modern textual scholarship. David Creamer, author of the first scholarly hymnological study in the United States, had a nearly complete collection of all of John and Charles Wesley’s verse, and was able to restore the original Wesleyan texts. In the process, he helped the Northern church assert its claim to the authoritative Wesleyan tradition.

“As each new faction of American Methodism was established,” Phillips writes, “its hymnbook became the site for its symbolic self-image.”

What was true of the churches was true, too, in the pews. When people like the Onderdonks, in Long Island, picked up their hymnal in the middle of a long service, they felt a sense of reverence for the religious object and they felt a sense of ownership, too. The book was theirs. The book was them. It was a record of their religious lives. After her father bought the hymnal, Elizabeth filled the margins with dates noting when their church sang a particular hymn. The practice annoyed her father to the point that he wrote next to one Watts hymn, “don’t mark this book anymore.” Then later he just gave her the book, and she kept it—a record of ephemeral wear and pious preservation.

Elizabeth Onderdonk died in 1917, a few weeks before her eighty-eighth birthday. Her hymnal with the note from her father—“what are you laughing at?”—would be preserved in the Long Island Historical Society for nearly a century until Christopher Phillips came along, looking to write a history of how hymnbooks were handled.

Daniel Silliman is a Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University. A U.S. historian, his research focuses on religion in American culture.

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