In praise of the words-only hymnal

Anyone who has read my blog over the last few days can see I’ve been interested in hymnology, and particularly how it affects the lives of Unitarian Universalists. I keep looking for an ideal solution, particularly for those us who come from particularly small congregations of Christian Unitarian Universalists, and I will continue to look and comment on the subject.

To that end, I recently ordered two words-only hymnals. These are Voices United from the United Church of Canada, and Church Hymnary 4, from the Church of Scotland. Because both of these books are imports, I got the words-only editions because frankly they’re cheaper, new or used. They’re also smaller, which is also a consideration given how many hymnals I bought over the years. But there’s something more than that: these pocket words-only hymnals also serve as books of prayer and actualized theology.

Words-only hymnals are, essentially, collections of poetry, but unlike others in the genre they are intended primarily to be heard aloud and to be used in groups. Even so, I’ve found myself — from time to time — dipping into hymnals to better understand what I’m feeling and give some language to it, if not always a tune. I’ve found comfort and solace in hymnals, and disproportionately in the little ones, missing the music, where I might be intimidated by symbols I don’t comprehend well enough to learn from. And there have been times that a hymn has the power either structured or free prayer does not, and that leads to better understanding (not the same thing as a better explanation) than an idea of God confronted head-on.

It would be nice to offer — or at least locate — such a resource so it may kept in every home, in a day bag, and finally in the heart.

Categorized as Hymns

By Scott Wells

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


  1. The Episcopal Hymnal 1982 was apparently also issued in a small paperback words-only edition, but that was almost 30 years ago now and it’s no longer in print, so perhaps there wasn’t enough demand. Nowadays, of course, it’s considered more important for new hymnals to be offered in various digital formats than in the words-only version. As you’ve mentioned before, people no longer think of hymnals as something for them to own personally.

    I have not looked into the current state of print-on-demand technology (particularly with regard to cost), but it would probably be possible to compile and distribute such a resource. I can say, having compiled and edited a hymnal of sorts in the past that it’s a useful discipline to ferret out the “best of the best” from a wide historical span of material, and also to ensure that the texts say what you want them to say in order to reinforce (and perhaps expand on) the theology of the community, however that is determined.

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