Back to the hymnal problem

Thinking out loud, what would it take to produce a small hymnal suitable for the smallest fifth of Unitarian Universalist churches? (And by extension, new congregations and perhaps not a few overseas.) For the sake of argument, I mean the “UU mainline” that has a somewhat removed, but not exclusionary, tack towards Christian hymnody.

Later. A fact to help. I analyzed the certification numbers for congregations in the UUA looked at the smallest fifth of congregations by average worship attendence. For those that answered (and certified) the smallest fifth is all congregations with average attendance of 35 or less.  That itself is a common definition of a “family” sized church.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. In selecting hymns I would follow some of these principles…

    (1) They follow easy to sing hymn tunes

    (2) They can be sung with simple accompaniment, or without any accompaniment

    (3) That content-wise they reflect a progressive theological view

    (4) About 100 songs (not including any Christmas carols) might be a good target for a first edition

    I have a vague memmory of seeing (at the 1st Universalist Church of New Madison, OH) a children’s Sunday School hymnal that would almost fit this bill. Was it the 40’s/50’s era BEACON BOOK OF SONG?

  2. I’ve long thought the Beacon Hymn and Tune Book, a children’s chapel/Sunday School hymnal, had the bones for such a project. Good call.

    And I’d be tempted to hive off the Christmas songs (too).

  3. I don’t understand what problems you’re trying to address, or what kinds of production costs you’re considering. Are you looking for a small-church hymnal because denominational hymnals are too expensive? theologically off the mark? include music that requires a professional to perform? What are you getting at?

  4. too heavy
    too expensive
    arrangements generally too complex for musicians and small congregations

    in that order.

    Plus there is a general lack of options for hymnal choice and the grey hymnal is getting old. There should be room in the association for a paperback or small case-bound (printed on demand?) hymnal.

  5. Ah! In 1949 Beacon Press published the “Unitarian Fellowship Hymn and Service Book”; I have a 1958 edition, paperback, with 84 tunes and 89 hymn texts. (Old Hundredth always has its own handful of texts.) At the front there are 26 pages of prayers and readings. It seems to have been put together for just the sort of groups you’re interested in. Of course, congregations could also go looking for used copies of the green pre-“Singing the Living Tradition” paperback songbook, which has updated versions of hymns that had appeared in the 1964 hymnal. That’s the only songbook my first UU church used until “SLT” was published.

    The two biggest challenges I can think of have to do with obtaining permission for popular but contemporary texts and tunes and getting a good music editor to guarantee that the arrangements are both accessible and appealing. (When the LDS Church published a new hymnal in the 1980s, they really simplified most of the music — I remember thinking everything had ended up in F Major! — but because Mormons don’t employ professional musicians, the simplicity really helped amateur pianists and organists.) Then, of course, there’s the complexity of publishing and distributing such a collection. Without institutional support, in dollars and staff time, I can’t see it really happening, at least not if the book would be pitched toward mainstream UU congregations. With the professional musician-oriented “Singing the Journey” so new, I doubt there’s institutional interest in another hymn project for several years.

  6. A “classics” hymnal, featuring public domain tunes and texts, is of course feasible for print-on-demand and small print runs, but its attractiveness to congregations is likely to be quite low because of the pressures toward contemporary songs and themes. Such a collection would have to be a labor of love.

  7. My wife, Lori and I decided to rewrite the hymnal to be more appropriate for UU of St. Pete members. Believe me, choosing songs for the new books was not easy. Many of the old favorites just won’t please our congregation. We had to change a lot of the wording to make them fit with our UU style. Indeed, even the title of the new hymnal, Church Song Book, was chosen very carefully. We didn’t want to turn anybody off with threatening words like ‘Worship’ or ‘Hymnal.’ Among the titles included in the new UU hymnal, er, uh Church Song book:
    Amazing Grace, How Interesting the Sound
    Blest Be the Tie That Doesn’t Cramp My Style
    What a Possible Acquaintance We Have in Jesus
    Where He Leads Me, I Will Consider Following
    (In case anyone does not realize it, the above is fictional, just a small section of our lay-service GOD LITE.)
    Lary Crews

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