My heart is racing and I can’t sleep, so at midnight I rise and go to my study. I sit at my desk and reach for an old, brown volume titled, Favorite Hymns. Slowly I leaf through the pages, reading the titles and lyrics of hymns like, “Be Still, My Soul,” and “God Will Take Care of You,” and “It Is Well with My Soul.” My breathing slows, and soon I trudge back to bed, where I drift into deep slumber.
Tranquility is just one of the many virtues buried in the old hymnbooks. Much of what I know and love came from this treasure chest of tunes.
I Learned to Read
My public school readers were so bland and vapid that I hungered for richer words. I found them in the hymnal, during church, and I constantly bothered my mother for definitions.
“Mom, what does languid mean?”
“Languid? Oh, well, it means to be sorta droopy, like you are when you first wake up.”
The rest of the day I went around using the word in conversation. “You know, this weather is kinda languid.” And, “This celery is old, it’s getting really languid.”
I Learned to Write
Early in life I noticed there’s more than one way to say something, and I liked the way songwriters said things. I used to copy down some of my favorite hymn phrases during worship.
“Breathe through the heats of our desires . . . ”
“In work, that keeps faith sweet and strong . . . ”
“Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness, cords that were broken will vibrate once more.”
Over the years I have noticed how many famous writers have used lines from the hymns in their stories or even for the titles of their books, such as John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Elizabeth Strout’s Abide With Me.
I Learned to Tell Stories
Many of the hymns tell a story in just a few words, a real trick. Like the hymn “We Saw Thee Not” which covers the whole life of Christ in just four stanzas!
Or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which tells the story of how he lost his faith during the Civil War, only to find it in the end. “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep; God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” It was all there, in just 134 words, the problem, the plot, the denouement.
I Learned to Sing
Even though I could not read music, I could see that the notes went up in places and down in others, so I winged it. Turns out I had a good ear, and soon I was able even to sing parts. I would sing melody on the first stanza, alto on the second, and bass on the last stanza.
I am a very physical person who likes to use his hands, and the hymnbook gave me something to engage my hands while I sang. When my girlfriend sat next to me, I held the book so she could see it. My hands trembled from this daring, romantic gesture, but afterwards she rewarded me with a smile, and I could hear the sound of violins.
I Learned to Laugh
Song titles were often amusing to me.
“O, for a Faith that Will Not Shrink,” sounded like an ad for permanent press clothing.
“Must I Go, and Empty-handed?” reminded me of the church restroom that was always out of paper.
“How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours,” reminded me of public school.
Some hymns were hilarious to sing, like “The Church in the Wildwood,” whose counterpart consisted of one word, over and over: “Come, come, come, come, come, come . . . ” which I belted out like a sergeant. The rest of the day I went around the house singing, “Come, come, come, come,” until my mother grabbed a broom and chased me outdoors. “Go! Go! Go! Go!”
If song titles were funny, the names of the authors were just as amusing.
“Louis Gottschalk” must be a teacher, since he has the chalk.
“Gottfried Fink” must have gotten too close to the fire.
“Wendell Loveless” is ugly, I’ll bet, and “Catherine Winkworth” is a cutie.
“Fanny Crosby’s” name was everywhere in the book, and I was scandalized because “fanny” was one of the words I was not supposed to say.
I Learned About God
Above all else, the hymns taught me what God is like.
“Fairest Lord Jesus” compared Jesus to a garden in spring. I have been a gardener since childhood and I could appreciate Jesus as “The Rose of Sharon.”
The majestic song, “God of Our Fathers,” portrayed God as our commander-in-chief, leading us into battle, and it gave me chills to sing it.
“Holy, Holy, Holy” made me think of my sins, and how sorry I was about them.
Hymnbooks are alive and well, popular all over the world, in spite of changes in worship styles. New hymns are being written, and new hymnals being published as part of the renaissance of hymns in the modern “Hymn Movement.” Here are two examples:
African American Heritage Hymnal, released by GIA Publications in 2001, includes traditional hymns, plus Negro spirituals, plantation songs, litanies, and African-American observances (1,100 pages).
The Kids Hymnal, with accompanying CD, is available from Hendrickson Worship.
Other Uses for Hymnbooks
Homeschoolers use hymnals to teach music, vocabulary, history, biography, and church doctrines. What better way to learn about the doctrines of Calvinism and grace than by studying hymns like “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior,” and “Grace Greater Than Our Sin”?
Care groups use hymns to trigger memories for discussion and application of Scripture. “Find a hymn that reminds you of a happy time in your life, and tell why it was happy.” Or, “Find a prayer hymn that says what you are feeling right now in your life, and read it aloud.”
A small hymnbook tucked into your purse or briefcase can make a good devotional book to read at lunchtime. Or keep one by your bedside, for comfort at night.
Dan Schantz is professor emeritus at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.