Thursday, November 19, 2009

All praise to Thee...

Today Conjubilant With Song notes an old book about the hymns popular with our grandparents and great grandparents:
The Best Church Hymns was published in 1899 by the Presbyterian Board of Publication. It was compiled by Louis F. Benson, who was the editor of that denomination's Hymnal of 1895. In his introduction, he lays out the criteria:
The hymn is the people's share in God's praise, and is intended for congregational use. It can be tested only in actual use in the worship of the Church; and to propose any other test (such as the opinions of critics) is to confound literature with liturgics. (...) The “best church hymns” are those... which have come into actual use over the widest area, and by consent of the largest number of Christians in the different churches.
Benson then lists these thirty-two hymns which appeared most often across 107 different US and UK hymnals of the late nineteenth century, spanning several denominations, and ranked from most frequent to least (all were in at least 80% of the hymnals).
The first fifteen of thirty-two:
  1. Rock of ages, cleft for me
  2. When I survey the wondrous cross
  3. Jesus, lover of my soul
  4. All praise to thee, my God, this night
  5. Jesus, I my cross have taken
  6. Sun of my soul
  7. Awake, my soul, and with the sun
  8. Hark! the herald angels sing
  9. Abide with me
  10. Jerusalem, my happy home
  11. How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
  12. Nearer, my God, to thee
  13. From Greenland's icy mountains
  14. O God, our help in ages past
  15. Jerusalem the golden
The method used to determine the "best" hymns in this 1899 survey really discovered those hymns which were most popular with the editors of hymnbooks at the time, or at most, the hymns that were most popular. But even though popular is often not "best," the list is interesting and does include many very good hymns. The list is here and a pdf of the book can be downloaded here.

The Introduction made it clear that some issues regarding worship music are perennial:
Now, praise is the chief act of worship, but it is by no means the only one. Prayer is an act of worship, and the expression of our aspirations is an act of worship. These hymns include both. The element of praise is not quite absent from any one of them, perhaps, but not many could be classed as technically hymns of praise. This fact has its own importance just now; for, in the reaction from the use of sentimental and egotistical hymns that make much of ourselves and little of God and His Christ, quite a party has grown up which maintains that the only proper theme of a hymn is the adoration and praise of God. [emphasis added] .... Welcome as is the reaction, the movement, while in the right direction, is too radical. It needs to be corrected by the verdict of the Church. .... A good hymn is not necessarily a form of pure praise, but rather a form of worship, and it may take its theme from any of the proper parts of public worship. ....
Conjubilant With Song: The Best Church Hymns (1899)