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.

Singing in church with recorded music

I keep running into sites -- Unitarian Universalist but mostly not -- with MP3s or other files with hymn tunes ready to use as accompaniment for churches without an instrumentalist. Presumably ones that could be described with one or more of the following adjectives: small, poor, remote, fragile or disorganized. A church for which this is better than nothing.

These sound files follow CDs which did the same thing, and even special electronic players -- but these belonged to the 1990s and 2000s and were quite expensive. And a free option is better than none. Or is it?

So now we have a resource, and probably a need. But what we don't have are directions of how to use them. Am I supposed to cue them up on my phone, with a huddled few singing to a tinny MIDI? If not, then what? And what about the tempo. Or the number of verses.

Does anyone use these successfully? And if so, how?

This is a sincere appeal for ideas or resources.


Distributed activity: filling in Singing the Living Tradition at

If you look at the Singing the Living Tradition page at the über-useful site, you'd think it has two hymns in it.

I think the hymn-interested Unitarian Universalist community should fix that. So first, does any one have a clean spreadsheet or list of all the first lines? If not, can we build one?

But ideally it would include most (or all) of the following:

  • Hymn Number
  • Title
  • First Line
  • Publication Date
  • Refrain First Line
  • Original Language
  • Original Language Title
  • Notes
  • Text Person Name
  • Text Person Relationship
  • Text Year
  • Text Language
  • Text Copyright Statement
  • Text Source
  • Meter
  • Tune Name
  • Key
  • Tune Person Name
  • Tune Person Relationship
  • Tune Year
  • Tune Copyright Statement
  • Tune Source

Work to help the common good, if a niche common good. Anyone interested? I'd be glad to take the lead.

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.

The lost would-be Unitarian hymnal

The old joke that Unitarians believe in "one God at most" lives again in the paucity of resources we develop, projects we plan or visions we tolerate. Today, it's "one idea at most" -- and they're rarely new.

One option at most for anything with Unitarian Universalism, even though our ancestors both on the Unitarian and Universalist sides were able to produce a variety of hymnals and different worship resources for differing churchmanships and congregation size, and with fewer people and at higher cost. We even had hymnals for church schools and social groups. Imagine what they would do with word processors and an on-demand book publisher like The difference is will.

For years but particularly recently, I've been trying to figure out what would have been the trajectory of Unitarian (and) Universalist hymnody if it had not gone down a path lain down by Kenneth Patton, the influential editor of the "old blue" Hymns for the Celebration of Life. One practical reason is that such a hymnal might work better for Christian Unitarian Universalists.

And recently, I was in Massachusetts for friend, minister and blogger Victoria Weinstein's installation, and spent a day researching at Harvard Divinity's archives: I have and shall report out from those discoveries. But the library closed long before my train left Boston, so I went to the Harvard Co-Op to right a wrong. I had to buy the fourth edition (2007) of the Harvard University Hymn Book. I had opted against it the last time I was there.

When I came home, I started using old directories for background research, and look what I found. From the 1892 Year Book.


The Harvard University hymnal was once considered a suitable hymnal for Unitarian churches. "Of course it was," I mused. 2014-04-01 23.53.27

And the more I look at it, I see the new edition would work in a liberal Christian church, including a Unitarian (or) Universalist one, the name notwithstanding. But here are a few (and hardly exhaustive) things I like about it, both serious and frivolous:

  1. It's in very good taste and well typeset.
  2. It's full of Unitarian standards like "Holy Spirit, Truth Divine" "Lord of All Being, Throned Afar" and "Life of Ages, Richly Poured"
  3. It has a good assortment of "canonical" spirituals and gospel songs, like "Shall We Gather At the River" "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "There Is a Balm in Gilead." "What Wondrous Love" keeps the Lamb.
  4. In good Hymns of the Spirit (1938) style, "God of Grace and God of Glory" is matched to Regent Square, not Cwm Rhondda, which we see fitly with "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah."
  5. It has good hymns newer than 1938. "Hope of the World, Thou Christ of Great Compassion" and "For the Fruit of All Creation" -- ok: not many.
  6. Older hymns are altered more gently than say, in the UCC's New Century Hymnal, while newer hymns are more gender-inclusive. (I've not made a close read of inclusive language for human beings, which I think is a more pressing claim for revision.)
  7. No need to tip in "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands" (which always makes me cry) "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" and "We Three Kings"


  1. There's no responsive readings or service elements.
  2. No "Morning So Fair to See" "Eternal Ruler of the Ceaseless Round" or "O Life That Makest All Things New"
  3. I could do without the patriotic songs at the back.
  4. At $30, it isn't cheap.

Looking for the next age of hymnals

Long time readers know that I love hymns, and I love hymnals, but I've been buying comparitively few lately. There are fewer new ones to buy.

As it happens, I took hymnology in 1995 (or 1996?) while in seminary. In those days, the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada was housed at Texas Christian University, where I went to school. The place was right, but so was the time, as 1995 was at the end of the peak of the last great generation of hymn book publication.

The generation began --or was anticipated -- in 1980 with the Episcopal church producing its current hymnal. The wave began in earnest in 1989, when the United Methodists and the Christian Reformed Church produced theirs. In the early 1990s came ones from the Church of the Brethren, the Presbyterian Church (USA),  and a new edition of the Southern Baptist hymnal. The Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition (1993) is, of course, in that wave. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ's were just coming off the press.

After that, in the United States anyway, the attention turned to supplements. New hymns for and from ethnic and cultural minority communities. New hymns not in English. New hymns to prompt ecumenical and global concern. New hymns to vex the people in the pews. Lots of little books, but few grand projects. (The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Worship is an exception among the larger Protestant denominations.)

Later. I'd forgotten about Glory to God, a new (2013) Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal. Odd, since there was a kerfuffle about leaving out a favorite hymn that hit the hymnal-watching press.

A couple of hymnals, to consider our own New England tradition, can be considered votes of no-confidence for the UCC's current book, but that's but a footnote. We have to wait for the next wave. I've looked at them here and here.

What will a new hymnal look like for Unitarian Universalists? The current one is 21 years old. And because it's inadequate as a stand-alone book for Christian worship, Christians in the Unitarian Universalists are left without a good option. Use Singing the Living Tradition and supplement. Use Hymns of the Spirit (1938) and supplement. Use another denominational hymnal -- the Disciple's Chalice Hymnal, for instance -- and supplement. But this last choice works less well for any new Unitarian Universalist Christian church because they're two decades old, too!

I will be looking at two hymnals in coming days. Neither is ideal, but each has its own strength, and I've not heard either given serious consideration. Please stay with me, as I navigate this.


"A Hundred Unitarian Sunday Circles" (1895)

Moving back another generation from the Lay Centers I wrote about last week.


What is the next aggressive missionary movement for the Unitarians of this country to give their attention to? I believe it is the establishment of religious Sunday circles, or what I may call simple parlor churches, in a hundred--yes, in five hundred--communities where there are now no liberal religious churches or services.
Continue reading ""A Hundred Unitarian Sunday Circles" (1895)"

List of hymns in the League of Lay Centers hymnal

A listing of the hymns in the Service and Hymn Book for the Unitarian League of Lay Centers, by incipit and by section. The hymns themselves are unnumbered; the number is the page. (Nearly all are one page long and no more than one hymn is on one page.)

I've also outlined the book's liturgical offerings.

61. Let the whole creation cry
62. Be thou, O God, exalted high!
63. Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
64. Rise, my soul, and stretch thy wings
65. Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh
66. Sovereign and transforming grace
67. To thine eternal arms, O God
68. Father, again to Thy dear name we raise
69. We praise Thee, Lord, with earliest morning ray
70. Thou Lord of Hosts, whose guiding hand
71. Come, Thou Almighty King!
72. Thou, whose almighty word
73. O Thou who hast Thy servants taught
74. This is the day of light!
75. O God, whose presence glows in all
76. Gracious Spirit, Love devine
77. Out of the dark the circling fear
78. Father of me and all mankind
79. Shine on our souls, eternal God
80. Return, my soul, unto thy rest
81. Mysterious Presence, Source of all
82. By cool Siloam's shady rill

Worship and Service
83. Nearer, my God, to Thee
85. Wenn Thy heart, with joy o'erflowing
86. Life of Ages, richly poured
87. Eternal and immortal King!
88. God is love; His mercy brightens
89. Lord of all being! throned afar
90. Father, in Thy mysterious presence kneeling
91. Send down Thy truth, O God!
92. O everlasting Light!
93. As pants the weary heart for cooling springs
94. Awake, our souls; away, our fears
95. O God, I thank Thee for each sight
96. Abide in me; o'ershadow by Thy love
97. O God, beneath Thy guiding hand
98. O Thou, whose perfect goodness crowns
99. Glorious things of Thee are spoken
100. O Thou, in whom we live and move
101. Our Father! while our hearts unlearn
102. Let my life be hid in Thee
103. O Love Divine, Whose constant beam
104. One holy Church of God appears
105. Wherever through the ages rise
106. The Lord is my Shepherd, no want shall I know
107. O Spirit of the living God
108. Father of eternal grace
109. Oh, sometimes gleams upon our sight
110. Spirit of grace and health and power
111. O Blessed life! the heart at rest
112. Awake, my soul; stretch every nerve

113. Calm, on the listening ear of night
114. O Prophet souls of all the years
115. O Thou great Friend to all the sons of men

116. Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
117. Now, on land and sea descending
118. Abide with me! fast falls the eventide
119. Our day of praise is done
120. Softly now the light of day
121. Abide with me from morn till eve
122. Teach me, my God and King
123. Lord, dismiss us with Thy blessing

A hymnal from Fellowship Movement prehistory

Reading Bright Galaxy is making me re-visit the scattered history of earlier Unitarian efforts to organize lay-led congregations, including the League of Lay Centers. This was active, I believe, c. 1907-08.

[Correction: These were "Centers" and spelling changed;  but I believe there was another attempt with "Lay Centres".]

February 1908 issue of Unitarian Word & Work outlines the program.

I got in the mail yesterday a little find: Service and Hymn Book for the Unitarian League of Lay Centers. It's undated, and judging by the condition, never used. I hope to share as much of it as I can.

2014-04-02 21.13.18

2014-04-02 21.13.36

The forward follows:


The formation of a League of Lay Centers has grown out of a demand for a liberal interpretation of religion and for a simple form of worship in harmony with it, such as can be conducted without the expense and responsibility of the ordinary church organization. This Service and Hymn Book has been arranged to provide for services of worship under lay leadership. And while it is brief and free from liturgical complications, it is hoped that the responses, prayers, and hymns contain the strength, beauty, and dignity which will commend them to the uses of thoughtful and reverent worshippers. Familiarity is, however, the best avenue of attachment for such a book, and too much cannot be said in favor of making use of all the services and all the hymns.

The compiler take this opportunity to acknowledge his indebtedness to Reverend Thomas Van Ness for the service and psalm selections taken from his "Responsive Readings," and for many of the prayers selected from the Collections of the Reverends George Dawson and R. Compton Jones.

L. G. W.

The red hymnal on Earth 2

So, Hubby and I sometimes imagine a version of Washington, D.C. according to an alternative historical timeline, on a planet we call Earth 2. With today's realities a bit different, changed by what-could-have-been. The garden variety stuff of science fiction.

And somehow this thought brings me to the thought of Jewish liturgics. OK: I watched several hours of Yom Kippur services from Reform temples on streaming video, but I'll address that later. Now, I'm going to wade out into the liturgical habits and controversies of another religion, and that's usually a bad idea, so I ask your indulgence for a moment. Let it be granted that the liturgical innovations of the earlier Reform Jewish generations are commonly portrayed (fairly or not) today as imitating Protestant worship, particularly in predominant use of English, hymn singing; sometimes, rabbinical dress. Reform worship has, in succeeding generations, become more traditional in custom, particularly in its use of Hebrew. (There's a countervailing movement I'll try to get back to; again, later.)

But, being Protestant, I'm curious to see what they came up with.

And what did I find? A Reform hymnal contemporary to the 1937 joint Unitarian and Universalist Hymns of the Spirit ("the red hymnal"). Thus my Earth 2 moment. Really, it's also a parallel to the old Beacon Song and Tune Book: they both include fully-worked services for children. It's the Union Hymnal.

I've round references to the Union Hymnal in print until the 1950s. The one linked here, despite the earlier bibliographical information is from 1936.

It's not so unlikely a parallel development. There was a time (before this) when the most progressive Unitarians and Reform Jews made goo-goo eyes at each other. (Not sure off-hand if any Universalists joined in.) The 1937 joint Unitarian and Universalist Hymns of the Spirit ("the red hymnal") starts with a Jewish hymn: "Praise to the Living God", co-translated by Unitarian minister Newton Mann and Reform rabbi Max Landsberg. It's also found in the most recent Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition at 215.

And here it is; note there are more stanzas than we use.

The connection cuts both ways, with Unitarian-written texts in the Reform hymnal: here, here, here, here and doubly here. I'm sure there are more.

A resource to review, methinks.