I was asked to share some thoughts about hymns in preparation for my church's hymnal dedication service, and the response was positive enough that I thought I would post my remarks here. Happy reading!
As many of you know, I spent six years working as the librarian and archivist at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and another three as the popular music archivist at Georgia State University. Those two jobs provided me with a lot of exposure to all kinds of music. I learned that many famous performers got their start singing church music, either alone, with family groups, or in church choirs. I also learned that some singers used hymns as inspiration for their pop music hits, such as when Ray Charles changed the words of “I’ve Got a Savior” and recorded “I’ve Got a Woman.”
As many of you also know, I now work as the head of special collections at Mercer University. You may not be aware, though, that Jesse Mercer, the esteemed Georgia Baptist minister for whom the school is named, compiled and published hymnals in the 1800s. These early hymnals did not include music, only words, and they were small enough to fit in a pocket.
As much as I love sharing trivia about music, though, most of my experiences with hymns are more personal. I ended up deciding to share a few memories with you today.
My father is a retired Baptist minister. I grew up in south Monroe County and was raised on the songs in the 1956 edition of The Baptist Hymnal. (We had enough copies of the 1976 edition for the choir, but not for the congregation.) The choir would occasionally mix things up and sing from The Country and Western Gospel Hymnal if the music director felt rebellious.
In months that had five Sundays, the fifth Sunday night was a “Singspiration” service. Instead of a regular worship service, there was special music by the choir, solos, duets, quartets, and so on. There was always a time for “congregational favorites,” and attendees called out the numbers or titles of their favorite hymns. You could almost always count on somebody requesting “The Old Rugged Cross” or “At Calvary” during that time. The music director would jot down five or six songs, and we would sing the first and last verses.
Speaking of that, I don’t know the third verses of most of the hymns I learned as a kid. We always sang one, two, and four. Except, of course, if we were having revival. Then we sang through all six verses of “Just As I Am” until everyone was hoarse.
The hymns I grew up with are still some of my favorites. The lyrics and music have stayed with me, and I still think of them from time to time, not just when we sing them here. Nothing is more comforting than remembering “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” if you’re feeling low.
I’ve enjoyed singing hymns from the new hymnal. It’s got a nice mix of old favorites and some newer songs that aren’t just repetitive choruses but really have some theology in them. I’d like to encourage all of you to come back tonight and bring some friends for a time of worship through song. Thank you.