Hymnologists in an Age of Prose

by Jean Caffey Lyles

Ms. Lyles is Protestant editor for the Religious News Service in New York City.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 6-13, 1977, page. 614. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Hymn writers and other worshipers find themselves aliens is a period of social, theological and liturgical turmoil; Christians are discovering that they cannot, as Peter Gomes has said, “continue living off the dividends of the piety of generations long past.”

Church musicians, not surprisingly, often look to that hymnbook of the Old Testament, the Psalms, for their texts; and when the Hymn Society of America convened here recently, one passage from the 137th Psalm became a recurrent motif: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” That strange land in which hymn writers and other worshipers find themselves aliens is a period of social, theological and liturgical turmoil; Christians are discovering that they cannot, as keynoter Peter Gomes said, “continue living off the dividends of the piety of generations long past.”

Dr. Comes, a Harvard faculty member, called up an image of the church at worship as “the bland leading the bland, a sense of ordered inertia.” What worship should be, he said, is a “lively transaction between God and the church, a counterpoint between what was and is to be.” In an era when worship is, in the words of an 18th century inscription, “free from the taint of enthusiasm,” it has been music, Gomes argues, that has been the redemption of worship. But why has a century with “an embarrassment of theological riches” suffered from “a poverty of hymnic, and poetic riches”? Criticizing the past century’s hymns -- “the vanilla tunes of Barnby, Dykes and Stainer” -- is easy sport; but what, asked Gomes, has our own generation contributed? Each generation adds to the faith’s store of hymns, but from our own era, he predicted, there is little that will survive. “Ours is not an age of hymnody.” We are, in Comes’s view, “victims of an age of prose,” but the real reason we cannot sing the Lord’s song is because “we have lost the instrument on which to play it -- the imagination.”

Worship specialist Don Saliers of Candler School of Theology suggested that the frenetic pace of liturgical revision may or may not signal renewal -- that is, “root-and-branch return to what it means to be worshipers.” He sees the period of turmoil as generated not solely by “secular onslaughts” but as in fact the “work of the Spirit,” though where we are headed is not clear.


Poet Gracia Grindal, a member of the hymn text committee for the new Lutheran hymnal now in process, chided the writers of hymns for their manifold failures of tone and syntax. But the Christian poet doesn’t have it easy these days -- poets, says Grindal, write in images, and a church whose language has become sociological and managerial (“The Lord is my corporate manager”) is asking the poet to write hymns from abstractions. “Only rarely,” she said, “do you find a poem in which the poet wins.” Some of the texts with “cutting edge” images suffer from “syntax that would make Catherine Winkworth turn over in her grave.

Wheaton College’s Harold Best warned would-be composers of hymn tunes about the “tremendous odds” against success and advised: “First of all, look for a large wastebasket.” The composer should, Best indicated, have the patience to write dozens of tunes in order to find two or three that will work.

At Holy Name Cathedral, the Wheaton College choir premiered three new hymn tunes commissioned by the society, written by American Pulitzer prizewinning composer John La Montaine. The best of the three, which seems likely to endure long enough to find it way into hymnals, sets a 20th century translation of the 13th century “Veni Sancte Spiritus” to a flowing and singable melody, harmonized with unorthodox parallelisms, its rhythm marked by alternating measures of four beats and three.

Black music specialist Avon Gillespie brought along a contingent of singers for his lecture-demonstration analyzing black gospel music, Despite the seductive, infectious Saturday-night rhythms of the black church’s Sunday-morning music, Gillespie’s audience couldn’t get with it. Perhaps the dimly lit Presbyterian Gothic spaciousness of Fourth Church’s sanctuary intimidated the hymnologists: an uptight bunch of white folks listened attentively but for the most part firmly resisted Gillespie’s efforts to turn the place into a singing, clapping, toe-tapping, I’m-so-glad congregation.


At historic St. James Cathedral (Episcopal), Lutheran organist-composer Wilbur Held exhumed “Comes Autumn Time” and other organ works of the late Leo Sowerby on the very organ at which Sowerby held forth from 1927 to 1963. Stifling 90-degree heat lent an authentic but unwelcome note of 1927 unairconditioned discomfort; and the organ’s reed stops seemed not to have been tuned since the last time Sowerby played them. Only a hard-core Sowerby enthusiast could have endured to the end without wilting. One musician-wit, who long before the closing “Passacaglia” had sought a cooler refuge, gravely assured me that the untuned reeds were a concession to “authentic performance practice for that era.” In a final irony, the retired organ tuner who had serviced the instrument during Dr. Sowerby’s tenure was introduced to the audience, looking a bit chagrined as though he would have liked to climb up into the organ chambers and correct a few pitches.

Preaching at the final festival service, church historian Martin Marty recalled Alfred North Whitehead’s dictum, “Seek simplicity -- and mistrust it,” and contrasted the American spirit of seeking simplicity with a European penchant for complexity:

Salzburg’s rococo plaster “whose arabesques have arabesques and whose curlicues have curlicues”; Mozart, whose “trills have trills” A choir from Northwestern University, thoroughly mistrustful of simplicity, illustrated the point with a most complex and sophisticated arrangement of that unpretentious Shaker hymn, “Tis the Gift to Be Simple.”

Society president David Miller, dean of Wittenberg University’s school of music, offered a progress report: the 55-year-old hymn society, with 2,000 members -- including clergy, church musicians, poets and hymn writers -- was reorganized last year, has recently taken a spurt of growth and seems to have potential for further growth (one place the society is recruiting is among the ranks of the American Guild of Organists’ 24,000 members). Southern Baptist hymnal editor William Reynolds, a southerner of genial warmth, was introduced as president-elect.

The society’s giant project of compiling The Dictionary of American Hymnology -- a comprehensive index to the texts of every hymnal ever published in North America -- is perhaps five years from completion. Preparing a computer printout and a manuscript will require a quarter-million dollars. Suggested project director Leonard Ellinwood: “We need a rich widow who loves hymns.”

Despite its recent growth, the society still has certain image problems -- those unfamiliar with the organization tend to image its members as dusty archivists or “dotty Poetry Society ladies in flowered hats.” Up to now the society has often seemed a more conservative than innovative force in American hymnody, issuing pamphlets of “new” hymns redolent of a bygone era. A prime example is the society’s most recent contest. If the ten winning “Hymns on Aging and the Later Years” are the best of the 1,200 texts submitted, one would not want to see the other 1,190. There is a curious sameness of tone, language and sentiment, an abundance of pious clichés and archaic expressions. Their lines are littered with “blessings manifold,” “days of yore,” “snow-crowned years,” “sunset glow,” “falt’ring tread,” and “faith a-gleam.” A creaking 19th century deity is reminded that “Thou hast led us through the years/Where e’er our feet have trod,” and that “Thou wast ever by our side/ ... Aiding us whate’er betide,” and petitioned to “Keep us close to thee alway/ . . . Over all things have full Sway.” Well, you get the idea.

As Peter Gomes said, ours is not an age of hymnody. Still, hymn contests probably don’t produce the best hymns. Those who were at the society’s Chicago convocation were exposed to better examples of this generation’s hymnody, and saw a new vitality in the Hymn Society of America that its press releases don’t begin to convey.