Fundy Love Day 2: Hymnody

Enter any fundamentalist church on a given Sunday and more likely than not you’ll find people using old-fashioned paper books full of lyrics enclosed in curious notations that tell people how to sing and play them. Hard to believe in this age of the slide show lyric. There’s no doubt that hymns are an inseparable part of fundamentalist worship, and I say “God bless them.”

Long after the greater part of today’s contemporary Christian music has lost the battle of relevance to a fickle and flighty culture, these hymns will still be used in churches. Luther. Wesley. Watts. I hope that when my children’s children come to worship that these grand old words will still feed the spirit and their familiar tunes comfort the soul. And if they do, it will be thanks in no small part to traditionalists like our fundy brothers who think that good music is worth cherishing and protecting.

Yes, fundamentalists often go too far and wrongly turn their admiration into a doctrine. Yes, they make the mistake of judging other styles of music out of ignorance and fear. And it’s true that they often embrace less than the cream of the hymnbook crop and engage in all manner of musical silliness. But out of all that, it remains that of the gifts that fundamentalism has given me, the ability to sing every verse of dozens of hymns from memory is among my most treasured.

I rest my case.

44 thoughts on “Fundy Love Day 2: Hymnody”

  1. Three posts in one day! You’re on a roll!

    Hymnody in fundy churches is a mixed bag; you get everything from solid ones like “And Can It Be” (GREAT choice – it’s one of my all-time favorites!), “How Great Thou Art,” etc., to ones born out of revivalism, romanticism, pietism, and all those other -isms that were instrumental in the development of fundamentalism (for anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, read Marsden).

    I’m kind of an odd one; it wasn’t until I was on my way out of fundamentalism that I began to have appreciate hymns. I did not enjoy singing them (or listening to classical music) as a fundamentalist. Nowadays I scour used bookstores, garage sales, etc. for hymnals and have incorporated them into my daily prayer and Bible reading. (I also enjoy voluntarily listening to classical music, right alongside my rock, of course!)

  2. I miss the hymns. At the age of 15, 40 years ago, I was shown the piano bench and guilted into filling the recently vacated pianist’s spot in this new IFB church. “Do it for the Lord.” I was inexperienced and scared, but I complied, and I have been playing for church ever since in one place or another. My dad was song leader in several churches over the years and he made it a point to use as many of the songs in the book as possible over the course of a year. I know a LOT of hymns after decades of following my dad’s leading.

    I miss the hymnbooks. Because I read music and have a large vocal range, I can sing every part as long as they give me at least four verses. With the words-on-the-wall praise and worship style I feel left out because I have no music to read when I don’t know the songs. So I stand there like a dunce. That has been an issue for me and I will admit to being a P&W snob. But I am getting over it. Our base chapel uses P&W and I am developing an appreciation for these songs. They seem to be writing them better these days. But I still stand like a dunce trying to pick out the melody from the gal leading the singing. She is an excellent singer; it’s just that the structure of contemporary music is different from the structure of the hymns and it’s hard to predict where the music is going to go or what the chord progression is. Give me a copy of the music, please, so I can join in!

    Singing in harmony in church has an interesting history. More than a century ago some churches that did not have instruments for accompaniment had hymnbooks with shaped notes. The shape of the note represented the tone the singer was to sing. Do, re, mi, and so forth. So folks did not have to be able to formally read music. I have seen a demonstration of shaped note singing. Very interesting. There are clubs or shaped-note societies where people have revived this old time practice.

  3. Now you’ve got “And Can It Be” stuck in my head. Thanks! (no, really). 🙂

    After leaving my fundie church, God has blessed me with a church that mixes hymns and well-written praise and worship music. Fortunately, they avoid the fundie trap of hymns like “Joy Bells,” “I’ve Got a Mansion Over the Hilltop,” and others. Blech!

  4. @Amanda I’m pretty sure this counts as post for Tuesday 5/11 even though it was posted late 5/10. Day 2 was my first hint. 🙂

    I’ve always appreciated Tony Campolo’s defending the wonderful tradition of (good) hymns I’ve been given. (best line: “If I get to heaven, and they have a projector, I’m checking out”). Although they didn’t discuss many specific songs. I’m curious what everyone’s favorite (or one of your favorites) hymn is? One of my faves is “Lead on, Oh King Eternal”

  5. It was after 11:00 p.m. my time and I didn’t figure anybody would read it until tomorrow anyway so I went ahead and posted instead of scheduling it. I guess I was wrong. 🙂

  6. @Rob: that occurred to me AFTER I posted my comment. I blame end-of-semester stress and insufficient caffeination.

    @Darrell: I’m in a later time zone, am a night owl (and an early bird – weird combination, I know!), and was procrastinating – I mean, taking a break – from studying for finals. I can delay commenting next time if you’d like. 🙂 But hey, it was meant as a compliment!

  7. Great post! As for a favorite hymn, there are so many absolutely amazing ones that it’s hard to pick. “Holy, Holy, Holy” (especially acapella), “It Is Well,” “Come Thou Fount” – I could go on and on.

  8. “But out of all that, it remains that of the gifts that fundamentalism has given me, the ability to sing every verse of dozens of hymns from memory is among my most treasured.”

    This. Yes!! I do admit that I often miss harmonization–it seems that in our current modern Sunday morning singing, most songs are done in unison (which isn’t bad–take a look at the intructions for many of the lyrical Pslams!). It makes me think nostolgically of the good ol’ days where the congregation would come up with six-part harmonizations to the hymns each morning. Lovely.

  9. I miss the old Lutheran Hymnal from back in the day. We really did sing some great old hymns. And everyone sang along because they knew the melody and the words.

    My Catholic church has a hymnbook used in the traditional service, but the melodies are unfamiliar and the songs lack substance. Therefore, we have the chior singing out the sons, and the people in the pews mouthing the words, or just listening.

    Our contemporary music service is better with the music having a beat and actually singable – although the lyrics are not really inspiring.

    Occasionally I will go to a non-denominational church, and God bless ’em, they belt them out when they sing. But when you get to the 15th repetition of the chorus, I want to tear my hair out.

    I do miss the old Lutheran Fundy hymnbook

  10. You have written about a topic that really strikes a chord with me. Though I will be the first to admit that there are some “old hymns” that are both theologically and musically poor, I think one of the major mistakes of the past 15-20 years has been this trend towards substituting these endless choruses into the worship service. These new songs generally have a half life that can be measured in weeks, and by the time that you learn how to sing them, they’ve been replaced with the latest hits from the Top 20. I’d like to emphasize that I’m not totally opposed to the gradual evolution and emergence of new songs. It’s just that there is something special to me about singing the same songs of my parents and grandparents.

    Personal favorite: “It Is Well With My Soul”.

  11. Here’s my favorite hymn:

    God of earth and outer space, God of love and God of grace, Bless the astronauts who fly. As they soar beyond the sky. God who flung the stars in space, God who set the sun ablaze, Fling the spacecraft thro the air, Let man know your presence there.

    God of atmosphere and air, God of life and planets bare, Use man’s courage and his skill As he seeks your holy will. God of depth and God of height, God of darkness, God of light, As man walks in outerspace, Teach him how to walk in grace.

    God of man’s exploring mind, God of wisdom, God of time, Launch us from complacency To a world in need of thee. God of power, God of might, God of rockets firing bright. Hearts ignite and thrust within, Love for Christ to share with men.

    God of earth and outerspace, God who guides the humjan race, Guide the lives of seeking youth In their search for heavnly truth. God who reigns below, above, God of universal love, Love that gave Nativity, Love that gave us Calvary.

    I’m pretty sure this hymn is an example of the fusion of Cold War ideology and evangelical Christianity ala the Moral Majority.

  12. After having reacted against fundamentalist music by completely abandoning hymns, I find myself coming back to them. I even find CD’s for my son that contain hymns sung by kids. I love it when he learns a new hymn that he didn’t previously know.

    I’m still can’t get myself to listen to classical even though I appreciate it. I had too many years of forced Vespers and Artist Series, I guess

  13. Love, love this song! I’ve been a lurker around here for quite awhile, being from a conservative Mennonite background, rather than a typical fundy background (but trust me when I say, they’re cousin- or sister-denominations- lots of the same silliness). But when the Altar of Praise Chorale (the Mennonite choir in this recording) is featured, I can no longer stay silent. 🙂 Thank-you for taking me back to one of the things I still sincerely miss and appreciate about the conservative Mennonite church. I’m another person who feels a little out of place with non-traditional worship songs and reading the words off the overhead. And I’m not even old- unless you think 22 is old.
    But, BTW, I’ve been in a few IFB churches and we Mennonites have got you beat when it comes to acapella. 😛

  14. I agree while disagreeing here. Yes you are absolutely right that they have preserved some of the greatest hymns in history. They vigorously fight for it. And my deep appreciation for hymnody was born out of fundamentalism. However, Their sin is in canonizing the hymnal. They’ve locked it up and bound it into essentially a holy book that can never be taken from and rarely added to. In doing so they stopped centuries of moment and minimize what hymnody was for all those centuries. Hymnody was primarily predicated on immediacy. That is why there were so many hymn writers and hymn compilers through the ages. They were writing for the people of their time, it just so happened that some of their words and some of the tunes were found to be so glorious that they transcend time and space to still be applicable and relevant all these years later. Fundamentalism makes that mindset taboo. Immediacy is viewed as suspect cause it could be “worldly.” By doing this they trample on and stifle the very tradition that made hymnody what it was through the centuries. The fight that they so vigorously fight has the unintended consequence of stifling the next hymn writer from being discovered.

    In essence what I am saying is that in their effort to preserve the tradition they ruined the present and future. Although I wouldn’t say that hymnody is ruined for good. Indeed it is alive in well just in circles outside of Fundamentalism (and yes I’d say contemporary Christian music fits the bill, after all what do you think the great hymn writers were writing in their day). The only thing that makes the hymn of Watts different then the hymn of Bancroft is the lens of time. We know Watt’s is beloved and timeless, but we don’t know if certain contemporary songs are yet. Fundamentalism’s insistance on traditional hymns and traditionalism fails to remain relevant, and even timeless creations loose meaning if they cease to be relevant (I’d argue the only reason they were timeless to begin with was because they remained relevant).

  15. I agree with you, Darrell. I have always appreciated hymns, especially when done in harmony. We visited an SBC church that put the hymns up on the projector screen, even though they had pristine hymnals in the pews! My hubby picked up the hymnal so he could read and sing the bass part.

    Another church we visited would sing some of the old hymns, all the verses, but would add lines of chorus to them that were unfamiliar. And no matter what the beat was, it always felt like they were changing it to suit their musical style–which came across as more modern folk than anything else. It was jarring.

    One year we went to a very, very fundy church on Easter… because I wanted to be at a church that would sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and really do it right.

    So, I do appreciate hymns and I suppose I’m a bit of a snob that way. Just one thing that I do love about fundamentalism.

  16. @Mark R Good post.

    My problem is not with the hymns in fundyland. Here in the south it was not so much hymns that were cannonized but “Southern Gospel Music.” The doctrine and the theology didn’t matter as much as the emotional appeal the song could evoke. The Rural southern fundy churches that I grew up in are still populated with those who went to “all-night singin’s.” I have a whole stack of vinyl from the early years of all those quartets, and family groups that made their mark in the 50’s-60’s and early 70’s (bought long before Bill Gaither cornered the market in Southern Gospel)… you know, the Old Paths days the fundy-world keeps preaching we need to return to.
    The consumate fundy hymn from the rural south, that I have sung with an antiquated, out of tune, pump organ in my GrandPa’s church, and have sung with guitar accompaniment, and have most often sung a capella, is “Brethern We Have Met To Worship” cira 1825.

  17. As someone who picks out the music for worship, I love hymns. But, I also love many new songs. I look for things that have theological integrity and singability. So, some of the old songs like, “I’ll Fly Away” are out and, “Your Love, Oh Lord,” is in.

  18. @Amanda. Hmm…we sound very similar! 😉 Night-owl…early-bird…Yep.
    And I’m the same way sort of. Didn’t like hymns when I was deep in fundamentalism. But after I got out, hymns took new meaning and now I love em. This one is quite splendid I must say! Come Thou Fount=All time fave.

  19. @Nathan: so in other words, it’s genetic. 🙂 Nights and mornings are great for me; afternoons are my down time. I think the night and morning thing may be partly because it’s quiet enough for me to actually think and thinking gives me energy.

  20. “Master, The Tempest is Raging.” Still love that one. We still sing all the others. A few of those fundy ones I miss.

  21. @ Kate, I can relate! I’ve been a church pianist since I was a teenager, and I feel lost when I don’t have the music in front of me. Funny thing is, I still do support putting the songs on the screen; otherwise we’d be limited to ONLY what’s in our songbooks and I don’t like to be limited. There are so many songs out there that I love singing aloud with other believers in worship! However, I do feel silly just standing there trying to figure out a song. I’d like to get the melody alone in the treble clef put on the screen as well at the bottom of the page. It might be too difficult, but it would surely help those who want to read the musical notation. Does anyone do this?

    @ Mark Rosedale, excellent point! Several years ago, my dad (IFB, KJVO) told me that there had been no good music in the last 30 years. I told him that I couldn’t believe that for my entire lifetime, not one musician had written an acceptable song about the Lord. I know he was purposefully exaggerating, but it did encapsulate his curmudgeonly attitude.

    I love “How Firm a Foundation” among many other beloved hymns.

  22. @Pastor’s Wife. My current church sorta does that. There’s the front screen for the congregation, but then there’s also a back screen. On it are the lyrics, chord progressions, and sometimes even sheet music on it. Pretty nifty setup.

  23. 2 things:

    @ Camille – I never sang “Master, the Tempest Is Raging” until at the BOB and haven’t sung it since leaving the BOB. Also, I love “And Can It Be,” but it’s a bear to teach to a congregation. Not kidding – really difficult!

    @ Nathan – I hope your church has the appropriate licensing for projected music. Those licenses are really expensive and most churches won’t spend that much money.

  24. I find myself torn between hymns and Praise and Worship Choruses. As a potential song leader, I feel there needs to be a balance of the two in order to attract both young and old. If I defer to one, I think it should be the one that is culturally relevant. Young people need to feel some familiarity when they attend church.

  25. @Daniel,

    My first church out of fundy land was in IL very close to the U of I campus. The church was an extremely progressive Plymouth Brethren church…progressive in worship, but still very conservative in doctrine. Their approach was to do 50% hymns and 50% new music. Now you could sing an old hymn to a new tune and that was fine as well. They also did a worship style without all the crap. There were usually two guitars and often some other string (cello, violin) as well as some form of percussion, though never a trapset or rarely. In the end the old people felt comfortable and had their likes, but so did the young people. I thought it was the perfect blend and proved fruitful. There were plenty of older people including the elderly attending each service, but we also had a very large student population.

    I personally don’t think you need to abandon the old hymns for the sake of relevancy, but I do believe you need to include newer tunes and new songs to remain relevant.

  26. It took going to an emerging church to make me appreciate the old hymns. Now, I love the old hymns more than ever. I don’t care whether the accompaniment is an organ or an electric guitar… just let them play 🙂

    I got tickled when I visited a Unitarian church once. (Got curious, had a good time, didn’t convert.) It was easier for me to jump in and sing their hymns than it is for me to do the same in a new contemporary evangelical service. At least the UUs used familiar tunes, so I was able to jump in and follow along like a pro.

  27. Do you know what a Unitarian is? An atheist who couldn’t break the habit of going to church.

  28. I visited a Unitarian Church one time. Didn’t get it. They said, “You can be a Christian or a Buddhist or a Muslim and be a Unitarian.” I said, “Then why don’t I just find a Christian church I like?”

    Did you hear about the Unitarians that moved to Alabama? The KKK burned a question mark on their lawn.

  29. How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?

    We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb for the next Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

  30. Sorry, Darrell, looks like I got a rabbit trail going!

    Still think it’s odd that the UU service was more familiar to this old ex-Fundy than the emerging services are.

  31. Having left the fundamentalist churches (whose community was only for the fundamentalists in that church) and moved into the Anglican Church, I am learning a new set of hymns. Some have familiar tunes, but different words. Some have similar words, but different tunes. But there is one that is familiar and the same. It was written by an Anglican priest many years ago named Fr. John Newton: Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.

  32. If I may share nearly a month after the post, one of the things I loved about our former music director at the church I’m attending now is that he loved to throw an old hymn into the worship set. This was one of my favorites:

    If you’re looking for some fantastic modern hymns, look no further than songwriter Brooke Ligertwood who has written beautiful songs such as “Hosanna,” “Lead Me to the Cross,” “None but Jesus,” “Desert Song,” and my personal favorite, “Lord of Lords.”

  33. Um…kinda agree, but disagree. Hymns are just like today’s choruses – some are good, some are bad. And while I wouldn’t completely agree with the assessment of CS Lewis, who said “hymns are second rate poetry put to third rate music”, sometimes he’s right. Some hymns are terrific, and we should sing them till Jesus comes back. Others completely stink, and if I had to sing “I Am Satisfied” or “Rescue the Perishing” one more time, I think I’d throw up my “three bean salad” at the church pot luck supper!

    So…keep the good hymns – the great theology, put to serviceable music. Chunk the rest, and stay open to the new stuff that’s actually good. And be careful making church a trip down memory lane. Holding on to the past too tightly is How some of our fundamental friends have become the way they are…just saying’…

  34. The older I’ve become, the more I’ve waxed nostalgic about the old hymns I grew up with — but that said, I’ve long been aware (and was aware even when I was a kid) that while some are great (yes, “And Can It Be”), some are truly awful (“Bring Them In”). There are others whose lyrics aren’t bad, but whose outdated tune needs to be dumped (“At Calvary”).

    On the whole, I’m much more critical about praise choruses, some of which are just plain vacuous — they amount to little more than repeated words and phrases. ENDLESSLY repeated words and phrases. It’s the dumbing down of worship. Not a good thing.

    My principal complaint about fundygelicals and their hymnody is that they limit themselves so badly. There are dozens and dozens of wonderful, orthodox hymns that are sung in Episcopal, Lutheran, and Reformed churches that most Baptists don’t even know exist — and they don’t WANT to know, either.

    1. While looking for songs in the old hymnal my childhood church used, I found this: “Trusting Jesus, wonderful Guide, In His keeping safely abide; Joys eternal, He will impart, Get God’s sunshine into your heart. {chorus} Get God’s sunshine into your heart, get God’s sunshine into your heart; it will cheer you all the day, drive the gloom of life away, if you get God’s sunshine into your heart.” To get the full “beautiful” effect you have to hear the 1920s tune too.

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