Hymnals: old, new, sometimes gathering dust

As a new song collection moves toward completion, generations-old hymnals are still in use — and a 2011 book is growing in popularity

Oct 23, 2017 by and

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How often does a church need a new hymnal? Every 25 years? Every century? Once for all time? Or are hymnals obsolete?

Among the diversity of Anabaptists in North America, there’s someone who would answer “yes” to each of those questions.

Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society’s 2015 Annual Music Night at Neffsville Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., featured the songs of Anabaptists around the world. — Jonathan Charles

Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society’s 2015 Annual Music Night at Neffsville Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., featured the songs of Anabaptists around the world. — Jonathan Charles

As Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada make a new hymnal to be released in 2020, Mennonite Breth­ren hymnals fade into obscurity.

Meanwhile, a 2011 hymnal grows in popularity among Beachy Amish and conservative Mennonites. On the very conservative end, Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church’s hymnals are around 100 years old, and some Old Order Mennonites sing from a book that’s more than 200 years old.

Then there’s the most venerable Anabaptist hymnal of all: the 16th-century Ausbund — which means “paragon” or “example” — still used by the Old Order Amish.

While some hymnals endure for centuries, another school of thought says every generation needs its own.

The denominations that preceded MC USA and MC Canada published hymnals in 1927, 1940, 1969 and 1992. Completion of the next one in 2020 will follow a similar interval.

“Hymnals are generational,” said Bradley Kauffman, general editor of the MC USA and MC Canada hymnal project. “They reflect the questions and challenges, the joys and struggles of the church in a given moment. . . . The words and tunes of 30 years ago may not be elastic enough to fit the pastoral needs of today’s church.”

However, he said his 13-member committee “works out of a place of great respect” for the previous hymnals.

The project — known as “Resonate” — includes a traditional pew hymnal, a digital edition for projection, a worship leader edition with expanded resources, an accompaniment edition and a smartphone app edition.

The pew hymnal is expected to be 30 percent larger than the current Hymnal: A Worship Book. But larger in song selection and other worship resources doesn’t mean larger in size, due to thinner paper, Kauffman said.

About half of the songs in Hymnal: A Worship Book will be included in the “Resonate” book, along with songs from the Sing the Story and Sing the Journey supplement collections.

The committee has received input from hundreds of people who have completed a survey at mennomedia.org/resonate.

“Once a generation, there’s space for new, creative spirit to come into the church this way,” Kauffman said. “With a new generation comes a new generation of voices. We’ve received submissions from sage elders and prophetic younger voices.”

What’s a hymnal?

In many Mennonite Brethren churches, hymnals, if present at all, gather dust, exchanged for contemporary song lyrics projected on a screen.

Bradley Vogel, chair of the music department at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., tours with Tabor’s concert choir each year, typically visiting six to 10 MB congregations per season.

He often sees hymnals in the pews but rarely observes their use, though some churches might use them in a “classic” or “traditional” service.

The most recent MB hymnal, Worship Together, was published in 1995. Vogel has been involved in the church music scene since 1984.

“I’ve personally witnessed that entire shift [from hymns to contemporary worship],” he said.

He saw this shift take place in the early 1990s.

“A lot of churches felt a need to adapt to culture, to adjust to what was going on in popular culture as a means of attracting people and staying relevant,” he said. “The churches went really contemporary, and people who really wanted a hymn text-based service just went to another church.”

Vogel is concerned that MB churches are losing a common body of music and liturgy.

Around 2008, he did a study of MB church bulletins.

“Up until the late ’80s and early ’90s, when you looked at bulletins from the Southern District, you’d see a common repertoire and a common way of doing things,” he said. “After that, they start going all different directions. . . . I’m concerned that we are not building a strong and shared repertoire for our people.”

Traditional but not old

While MC USA, MC Canada and Mennonite Brethren churches sing out of 20-something-year-old hymnals, many conservative Mennonite and Beachy Amish churches are embracing a 2011 book, Hymns of the Church, compiled by John D. Martin of Chambersburg, Pa.

A member of Shippensburg Christian Fellowship, an unaffiliated conservative Mennonite congregation, Martin said the people in the church were asking for a supplement to the 1927 Church Hymnal, which they had been using.

“I had 600-some selections,” he said. “I realized, ‘This is no longer a supplement.’ ”

The complete collection contains more than 1,000 songs. With a purple cover, it has been nicknamed “the purple Martin songbook.”

“I was very grieved at the trend toward southern gospel and even contemporary music among us,” Martin said, referring to independent conservative Mennonite congregations. “We were raising a generation of people who would not have known the great hymns of the church. . . . I wanted to take the focus back to a more historic, classical concept of church music.”

Hymns of the Church does not include many newer songs, although there are a few recent ones with texts Martin or his friends wrote. Asterisks in the index denote Anabaptist contributors, but most of the songs are from the 1700s to 1800s.

Martin aimed to maintain a strong emphasis on Anabaptist theology in the hymnal.

“The Mennonites tended to pick up songs from a section of the church we tend to vilify — the social gospel people,” he said. “Even though their theology was totally rejected by our people, they wrote a lot of songs about service and sacrifice.”

Martin said most people familiar with traditional church music should recognize about half the songs in the hymnal, while about half will be unfamiliar.

Contemporary direction

Several Mennonite groups have not published their own hymnals but have used existing ones that suited their needs.

Many congregations in Conservative Mennonite Conference used the 1927 Church Hymnal and the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal, said Kenneth Miller, director of public relations for Rosedale Bible College in Irwin, Ohio.

“By the time Hymnal: A Worship Book came out, many of our congregations were moving in a contemporary direction and thus felt little need for an additional hymnal,” Miller said in an email interview.

“Those congregations who were strong in continuing to use books were probably also the ones who had more objections to the text changes that came with the new hymnal and therefore were unlikely to use it.”

Miller estimated a majority of CMC congregations now use projected lyrics on a screen rather than hymnals.

Plain Mennonites and Amish use a variety of hymnals. Steven M. Nolt, senior scholar at the young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, lists these hymnals used by the larger groups:

Amish

The vast majority of Old Order Amish sing from the Ausbund, which dates to 1564, though other hymns were added in the later 1500s. A small number of Amish settlements use one of two variations of the Ausbund, the so-called “Baer book” (1860), used in Somerset County, Pa., Kalona, Iowa, and Arthur, Ill., and the so-called “Guengerich book” (1892) used in Daviess County, Ind., and several other places.

Old Order Mennonites (Weaverland Conference)

This car-driving group uses A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, published in Virginia in 1847 by Joseph Funk and reprinted many times. This book is popularly known as “Mennonite Hymns” because traditionally the spine says “Mennonite Hymns,” though the title page has a different and longer title.

Old Order Mennonites (Groffdale Conference)

This horse-and-buggy group uses the Ein Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch, originally published in Pennsylvania in 1804. Almost 20 percent of its content is from the Ausbund. The rest is from other German hymn traditions, including Reformed, Moravian, Brethren and Ephrata hymns, among others. It includes a lengthy section of the Psalms in German meter, taken from a Reformed hymnal.

Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (Holdeman)

The largest plain Mennonite group, the CGCM uses Christian Hymnal: A Collection of Hymns and Sacred Songs, originally published in 1959.

Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church

This group, which separated from Lancaster Mennonite Conference in 1968, uses both the Church Hymnal (1927) and the Church and Sunday School Hymnal (1911), two (Old) Mennonite Church hymnals.

Beachy Amish

The most common hymnal used in Beachy Amish Mennonite churches is The Christian Hymnary (1972), edited by John J. Overholt. Hymns of the Church (2011), edited by John D. Martin, is gaining in popularity.


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Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

  • Tim Schultz

    A Mennonite Church once gave me some nearly new praise hymnals that got use in two congregations. It would be good if there was a way to connect hymnal-using churches with those discarding or ignoring their hymnals. The hymnals could have a whole new life.

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