Why so many hymnals then?

Yesterday, Unitarian Universalist minister Steve Cook commented

As a late-in-life amateur singer, I’ve come to understand the issues of hymnology you raise with more appreciation than ever before. Stuffed into boxes in church closets, attics and basements, I’ve run across some of the more specialized hymnals for young people and so forth that we produced in earlier years. I wonder if, along with the expense, the vexations and blessings of theological diversity have militated against more than “one idea at a time” in our hymnal world? When our orbit was more “christotheistanaturism” out of the Western tradition, do you think it was easier to achieve consensus on a list of basics?

It may have been easier then, but I think it’s even easier to believe that there was more expressed disunity then, and we have an easier time managing it today. (That’s not necessarily a good thing.) Consider what’s changed:

  1. Today, every church and minister is a printer. It’s not an original thought (I’m trying to re-discover the citation) to say the mimeograph radically changed how new liturgical works were created. And on a practical basis, if you didn’t have a hymn book or service book, you weren’t going to have the words of worship for the congregation, and what’s in there was all you had to work with.
  2. A hypothesis: a generation of Unitarian ministers (much less so the Universalists, whose talents lie with prayers and debate) that created so many wonderful hymns were unlikely to be quiet about what was appropriate and what wasn’t. Some ministers had elegant or sophisticated taste (me) and others were surely tacky or pompous (you). And each wanted an appropriate hymnal. Not even to mention the East-West Unitarian division.

    Do you have Candy Crush Saga on that?
    Do you have Candy Crush Saga on that?
  3. At some point, hymnals went from being primarily personally-owned and bring-your-own to becoming a church fixture. Until that transition was complete, wouldn’t it be easier to keep them small, modular or both? Cheaper to produce and buy, easier to carry. One reason to think so: over the last two centuries, hymnals kept growing in size. An antebellum worshipper would look at her hymnal like her heir today would look at a smart phone; they were much the same size.
  4. Our ancestors sang more than we do today: at home, at Sunday School, in mission circles. Young and old alike. Some hymnals then would be called supplements today: a few standards with a bunch of new material. A variety of tastes: from chant to gospel tunes (if you look at the Universalists). Many of these volumes were paperback, and quite ephemeral.

Any other thoughts? Of course, I have my own (and different than these) reasons for having multiple hymnals today but that’s for another blog post.

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.


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