Is it time for a new hymnal? (II)

Is it time for a new hymnal? (Part II)

Yes, say two prominent Adventists, Wayne Hooper and Bernard E. Seton. They feel strongly that the time has come for the 1941 Church Hymnal to be replaced.

Bernard E. Seton, Ph.D., now retired, was an associate secretary of the General Conference.

Yes! No man-made article is eternal, for which we should be thankful, since it enables us to improve each successive model. This philosophy applies to hymnbooks as well as automobiles. Each hymnal has its own self-sustaining life cycle that gives birth to its successor: (1) cautious but curious reception, (2) exploratory use, (3) general acceptance, (4) formation of a narrow choice range among its hymns, (5) relapse into tolerance and neglect, (6) gradual realization of the need for a new book.

The useful lifetime of even the best of hymnbooks is more limited than most of us realize. Some authorities declare that the effective life is twenty years. Mixing that idealism with a pinch or two of realism, we may expect to need a new hymnal every thirty years. The years that follow this point of time are increasingly barren so far as the hymnbook is concerned. Our present Church Hymnal, published in 1941, is now forty years old, and is overdue for replacement.

Most of us are allergic to changes. We like what we know and resist well-meaning efforts to acquaint us with the unknown. Further more, although we may know little about poetry and music, we do know what we like, and are fairly sure that we shall never love the unknown as ardently as we have loved our old favorites.

Some may reason that, since only a small number of the 703 hymns in our current book are being used, the volume's life span can be extended by encouraging the use of hitherto neglected hymns. That seems plausible enough, but it does not allow sufficiently for our human reluctance to revive the old by a search for the new. The suggestion has some affinity to flogging a dead horse—it effects no resurrection!

The analogy of the horse reminds us that the poor animal had seen its best days long before its decease, and that its frailties clamored for its replacement some time before its funeral became necessary. Our present hymnal has served for several decades, and we can be grateful for its ministry. But it has lived long enough for its short comings to be recognized by the knowledge able who have long since been looking for its successor. Mention of a few of its more obvious weaknesses by way of illustration may serve as a springboard for the launching of a worthy successor to the 1941 compilation.

1. In general, our present book reveals little evidence of its compilers' acquaintance with the wealth of standard hymnals used by other communions during the past century, and it has thereby impoverished itself and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

2. Our present book mixes clear categories of hymns, mingling the classical hymn with the gospel song and revealing an insensitivity to the quality of its hymns. For example, No. 35, "God Be With You," keeps company with No. 34, "Saviour, Again to Thy Dear Name," which is written for the close of a worship service, whereas No. 35 is almost invariably sung on a farewell occasion.

3. Several hymns are misplaced, appearing in incompatible sections. For example, No. 68, "Jesus, Lord, We Look to Thee," clearly does not belong under "God the Father—Love of God," but under "Jesus—Prince of Peace." (See also Nos. 5,116,117, 167, 368, and 379-390.)

4. The book omits standard classics that should be found in every well-rounded, conservative book, e.g., "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise," "At Even, When the Sun Was Set," and "Be Still, My Soul."

5. Some fine hymns are truncated from five or six stanzas to three (No. 52 is an example), while poor-quality hymns are allowed five or six stanzas, plus refrains, thus taking more than twice the space (see Nos. 610, 622).

6. Several well-known hymns are set to inferior tunes, though well-used and better quality music is available.

7. Some tunes are misnamed. "Italian Hymn" (No. 3) is known in most other books as "Moscow"; "Gethsemane" (No. 122) should be named "Petra."

8. There is no consistency in the dates of poets and musicians. For the same person, the full-life dates are sometimes given, and at other places the date of the publication of a poem or tune, or no information at all is provided. Some of the dates are of doubtful accuracy.

9. The format of the book is somewhat clumsy; it could be lighter in weight and easier to handle, while remaining durable.

Every good hymnal needs a presiding spirit to oversee its conception and production. James Moffatt, of Bible translation fame, watched over one of the finest of modern hymnbooks, The Church Hymnary; and Joseph Harker's solid musicianship brooded over our own The New Advent Hymnal and its predecessors. Our current Church Hymnal may have lacked that inspirational and unifying direction.

The production of a new hymnbook calls for five to ten years of unremitting hard work. This means that our present one may be half a century old before we hold its successor in our hands. The project calls for the formulation of a guiding policy that will determine the type of book that will be produced, the collection and selection of perhaps a thousand hymns and tunes from which the final choices will be made, the accurate checking of all relevant data for text, poets, and musicians, the investigation of copyrights, the often frustrating task of calling committees that can only occasionally meet in the flesh, the striking of a sensible balance between conflicting tastes in hymnody and format, and months of exacting work with a publishing house before the appearance of a book that will satisfy the greatest number of criteria for a worthy and acceptable hymnal.

The church, therefore, needs to begin work on the project without further delay.


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Bernard E. Seton, Ph.D., now retired, was an associate secretary of the General Conference.

April 1981

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