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Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land: Hymnody in the History of North American Protestantism

Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land: Hymnody in the History of North American Protestantism

by Edith L. Blumhofer (Editor), Mark A. Noll (Editor), Daniel Ramirez (Contribution by), Daniel Fuller (Contribution by), Christopher Armstrong (Contribution by)

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Music and song are important parts of worship, and hymns have long played a central role in Protestant history. This book explores the ways in which Protestants use hymns to clarify their identity and define their relationship with America and Christianity.


Music and song are important parts of worship, and hymns have long played a central role in Protestant history. This book explores the ways in which Protestants use hymns to clarify their identity and define their relationship with America and Christianity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This anthology is most original in reaching beyond . . . familiar lines of analysis to approach hymnody from various oblique angles rooted in religious history, sociology, theology, and evangelical studies."—Mel Piehl, Dean, Christ College, and Professor of Humanities and History, Valparaiso University

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Religion & American Culture Series
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

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Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land

Hymnody in the History of North American Protestantism

By Edith L. Blumhofer, Mark A. Noll

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5544-9


From Classical to Modern

Hymnody and the Development of American Evangelicalism, 1737–1970

Stephen Marini

From its origin in the Great Awakening to its most recent efflorescence in the late twentieth century, American Evangelicalism has been a popular religious movement. Interdenominational from the outset, the evangelical movement has persistently challenged the Reformation traditions from which it emerged. In America, evangelicalism has been especially polyvalent. It has supported both Calvinist and Arminian doctrinal systems, thrived in episcopal polities as well as congregational and presbyterial church institutions, and supported both conservative and liberal political causes and cultural styles. At its sectarian margin, American Evangelicalism has spawned new religious communities with radical forms of institutional organization, belief, ritual, and spirituality. Driven by frequent mass revivals, the popular energy of the movement has consistently outstripped the capacity of received ecclesial traditions to contain it.

What has held together this protean and enduring religious movement? What are its distinguishing marks as a religious culture? How has American Evangelicalism changed over time? These questions have challenged interpreters since the Great Awakening and continue to spark spirited debate today. Hymnody offers a unique body of evidence through which to consider these fundamental historical inquiries.

Since the mid-eighteenth century evangelicals have published an enormous outpouring of hymns and hymnals. Every aspect of evangelical culture, from worship, preaching, and revivals to Christian education and mission, has been saturated by the presence of hymns sung, recited, and prayed.

This ubiquitous medium of religious expression has attracted a distinguished legacy of scholarship, and the field of hymn studies is enjoying a renaissance at the turn of the twenty-first century. This chapter suggests the extraordinary promise of hymns as a resource for understanding the evangelical movement in America, but hymn studies have been deeply constrained by the absence of any reliable empirical account of the historical publication and availability of hymns upon which to base judgments about their religious significance. This chapter reports one effort to supply such evidence and makes a preliminary assessment of what it suggests about the historical development of American Evangelicalism.

Studying Hymns

Nineteenth-century British hymnologists began the critical study of Christian hymn texts, producing a vast literature on authorship, publication, and textual variation that John Julian summarized in his massive 1892 Dictionary of Hymnology. Succeeding generations contributed critical historical and theological studies of English language hymns, of which Louis F. Benson's The English Hymn: Its Use and Development, Horton Davies's Worship and Theology in England, and Erik Routley's studies of both texts and tunes have proved the most important. Since the 1970s English language hymn texts in their British context have received a broad range of cultural interpretation including the literary criticism of Donald Davie and J. R. Watson, the social analyses of Susan Tamke and Ian Bradley, the denominational inquiries of Madeleine Forell Marshall and Janet Todd, and the genre studies of Richard Arnold.

Major works devoted specifically to American Evangelical hymnody have been rarer. Over sixty years after publication, Henry Wilder Foote's Three Centuries of American Hymnody remains the preeminent study in the field. Since the rise of postmodernism in the 1970s, however, hymnody has attracted attention from scholars exploring the importance of popular American religious culture. Landmarks of this growing interest include Dickson Bruce's anthropological study of the antebellum camp meeting, Sandra Sizer's rhetorical analysis of post-bellum gospel hymns, the reconstruction of African American sacred song by Albert Raboteau and Jon Michael Spencer, Nathan Hatch's identification of hymnody as a central element in "the democratization of American Christianity," and Jane Hadden Hobbs's interpretation of "the feminization of American hymnody" between 1870 and 1920.

Despite the strength of this textual scholarship, however, music historians have done the most to secure a place for hymnody in the American cultural canon.

George Pullen Jackson pioneered the study of early American hymn tunes during the 1930s and 1940s. It was the publication of Irving Lowens's Music and Musicians in Early America, in 1964, however, that has inspired the two most recent generations of music historians to edit, document, and interpret the sacred music of American singing schools in the revolutionary and early national periods. In 1972 H. Wiley Hitchcock began producing facsimile editions of historic tune books in the Earlier American Music series. Seven years later Nicholas Temperley published The Music of the English Parish Church, the definitive study of the musical tradition upon which early American singing school compositions were modeled. Richard Crawford made a crucial contribution with the 1984 publication of The Core Repertory of Early American Psalmody, a compilation and critical edition of the 101 most frequently published hymn settings between 1698 and 1810, along with the hymn texts most often associated with them, and over the past two decades complete critical editions have appeared of the music of Williams Billings, Daniel Read, Stephen Jenks, and Timothy Swan, four of the greatest New England singing school masters.

The recovery of American singing school music is a scholarly achievement of first importance, and one of its most significant aspects has been the extraordinary level of documentation that it has provided for the circulation of hymn texts and musical settings in early America. In 1990 Crawford completed the work of Lowens and Allen Britton in American Sacred Music Imprints, 1698–1810, an exhaustive census and bibliography of 545 works. Karl Kroeger's 1994 American Fuging-Tunes, 1770–1820 identified the hymn texts originally published with 1,298 musical settings containing "fugues," a repeated refrain with serial, imitative entrances for each choral part that was the most characteristic feature of the singing school style. In 1998 Temperley, assisted by Charles Manns and Joseph Herl, achieved a quantum leap beyond these already impressive compilations with the publication of The Hymn Tune Index, a massive four-volume study that reports every tune setting of every English language hymn published between 1535 and 1820. The Hymn Tune Index identifies nearly fifteen thousand hymn tunes by name, key, time signature, and musical first line or "incipit," each presented with a complete listing of its publications including the first line of hymn text. Fully cross-indexed, the Hymn Tune Index represents the state of the art for recovering the structure of hymn text use by composers.

Through these critical editions, compilations, indexes, and a growing body of interpretive literature, the musical dimension of hymnody has become a staple element in the cultural interpretation of colonial and early America. Similar studies of postbellum and twentieth-century American hymn tunes have not yet appeared, but the musicological study of American hymnody has established a decisive lead over textual scholarship. That advantage exists in large measure because there are no comparable studies of hymn text publication in America to match those of hymn tunes. Music historians have measured the universe of Americans hymn tune publication within which individual works and composers can be interpreted. Textual scholars, by contrast, continue to work without knowing the basic dimensions of American hymn text publication and therefore lack basic data for assessing their historical availability, popularity, and religious significance. An approach to hymn texts based in the history of the book, an important new interdisciplinary field of research, offers the best remedy.

The Formation of an American Evangelical Hymn Canon

The earliest praise books used by evangelicals in colonial America were Psalters, translations of the biblical Book of Psalms prepared by Anglican, Congregational, and Presbyterian authorities for uniform worship in their churches. During the Great Awakening, hymn collections by English evangelical poets became popular. Most of these were also collections of uniform authorship, most notably Isaac Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) and The Psalms of David Imitated (1719). Early New England singing school books, beginning with William Billings's New England Psalm Singer (1770), also relied very heavily on Watts's hymns and metrical psalms.

The Methodists were the first to diversify evangelical hymnody across theological and denominational lines. John Wesley's first hymnal, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, originally published in 1737 in Charleston, South Carolina, contained seventy hymns, twenty-five of them by Watts and thirty-three by members of Wesley's family, along with a dozen of his own translations and paraphrases. George Whitefield's Hymns for Social Worship, a larger collection published in London in 1753 and reprinted at Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1767, followed a similarly eclectic strategy.

English Evangelical Calvinists published mixed hymn collections of Congregationalist, Baptist, Methodist, and Moravian texts beginning in the 1750s, culminating in Baptist John Rippon's massive 588-hymn collection A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, intended to be an Appendix to Dr. Watts's Psalms and Hymns (1787). In America, by contrast, Watts reigned supreme among New England Calvinists until after 1800, whereas the Methodists, after they organized an autonomous American church in 1784, rejected the principle of hymnodic diversity and used The Methodist Pocket Hymn-Book (1790, 1802) edited by Francis Asbury and William McKendree.

A decisive change in this American hymnodic insularity took place during the early nineteenth century, driven by the extraordinary energy of the Second Great Awakening (1798–1844). Nathan Hatch has provided the most important recent study of the Second Great Awakening in his 1989 book The Democratization of American Christianity, an interpretation that points directly to hymns and hymnals as important vehicles of religious change. Hatch argues that the Second Great Awakening's popular religious movements reversed the pattern of religious and cultural authority entrenched in the colonial Episcopal, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches. A crucial element in that reversal was a leveling strategy of sectarian writing and publication that appealed directly to personal judgment and attacked all forms of received religious authority. The result was a categorical rejection of clerical and institutional influence and the creation of "the sovereign audience" as the arbiters and creators of their own religious culture.

Hatch assigned a principal role in this democratization process to hymnal and tune book compiling and publishing. Like Wesley and Whitefield before them, many founders of the new American Evangelical sects, including Elias Smith, Alexander Campbell, Lorenzo Dow, and Joshua Hines, edited hymn collections designed for "the sovereign audience" of actual and potential converts. The new sects, however, were not often blessed with great hymnists and their hymnal editors routinely supplemented in-house hymns with those by Watts, Wesley, and their eighteenth-century English evangelical successors. Editors of the new sectarian hymnals therefore published many of the same hymns despite competing with one another for the ear of "the sovereign audience," and their colleagues in the older evangelical communions soon joined them in constructing a broadly shared hymn corpus. Baptist hymnals such as The Psalmist (1843) included numerous lyrics by Methodists, Moravians, and Anglican Evangelicals, whereas A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1820, 1832) featured many texts by Evangelical Calvinists such as Watts, Doddridge, Steele, Stennett, and Kelly.

Hatch's interpretation of these hymn collections emphasized texts that voiced the "democratizing" anticlerical sentiments and sectarian identities of the new religious movements. He did not, however, address the crucial role played by the rest of this hymn corpus. In the relentless give-and-take of sectarian competition and laicization, a deep structure of American Evangelical consensus on belief and practice gradually emerged through the continuous republication and performance of shared hymn texts. This developing core of shared hymn texts was perhaps the quintessential product of the democratization of American Christianity. The "sovereign audience" of American Evangelicalism found its collective voice not through any single leader, but through the hymns it sang day and night, in season and out, everywhere and always.

The process of hymn canon formation continued after 1860. The gospel hymn, introduced in the revivals of Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey during the 1870s and 1880s, exposed American Evangelical audiences to the English Victorian lyrics of Charlotte Elliott and Henry F. Lyte and made the blind Methodist poet Fanny J. Crosby America's most popular hymn writer of the postbellum period. In addition, advances in printing technology made it possible to produce hymn tune scores with complete text underlay, as opposed to the old singing school tune books, which could supply only a single verse or two under the music. With new gospel hymns, improved technology, and mass marketing techniques, hymnal publishing became big business, dominated by denominational publishing houses and independent companies such as Biglow and Main and Hope Publishing Company. Their products were specifically targeted to niche markets and were edited increasingly by committee rather than by individuals. These changes in hymnal production rationalized the postbellum hymn market and in the process expanded the evangelical hymn canon to include the new gospel hymns as well as the enduring favorites of the First and Second Great Awakenings.

To a significant degree, American Evangelicalism created itself through this democratically constructed canon of hymn texts. To recover that hymn canon is therefore to gain a new understanding of what "democratized American Christianity" has meant to its followers. It is possible to gain a surprisingly precise description of American Evangelicalism's popular beliefs, practices, and piety through the hymns that it held most in common. Recall John Wesley's definition of the hymnal as "a complete body of practical and experimental divinity." In that phrase is embedded hymnody's greatest potential for reconstructing the religious life of the people. American Evangelical hymnal editors have followed that admonition with singular fidelity. Their hymnals are comprehensive statements of Evangelical beliefs, rituals, institutions, and spirituality. No other single source provides this kind of information. Hymns also have the advantage of being relatively fixed texts whose circulation can be tracked by publication records. Editorial bias and denominational interest inevitably distort somewhat the picture of popular evangelicalism that emerges from its hymn collections, but the most widely published, interdenominationally popular hymns provide unexcelled textual access to the living religious beliefs and practices of American Evangelical Protestants.

The American Protestant Hymns Database

The American Protestant Hymns Database has been compiled to assist this hymnodic reconstruction of popular religion in America, especially popular evangelicalism. The database is comprised of three interactive databanks. The first contains individual records for each hymn published in 211 historic American hymnals, songsters, tune books, and gospel hymn collections, of which 200 are Evangelical texts beginning with John Wesley's 1737 Collection of Psalms and Hymns and extending to the Assembly of God's 1969 Hymns of Glorious Praise. More than 100,000 hymn texts in Databank I are identified by first line, hymnal, and page/hymn number and will eventually include data fields for primary and secondary subject, author, date, and original source bibliographic information. The second databank is devoted to bibliographic records for each hymnal, tune book, songster, and gospel hymn collection in the database. The individual hymn records in Databank I are cross-referenced to the bibliographic record of their sources in Databank II. A third databank is envisioned that will contain records for each tune printed with the database hymn texts and will be similarly cross-referenced to the Databank II bibliographic records.


Excerpted from Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land by Edith L. Blumhofer, Mark A. Noll. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Christopher Armstrong is Emeritus Professor in the Department of History at York University.

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