Thursday, May 26, 2016


There are several on-line sites that provide extensive information about hymn texts, tunes, authors, composers, and more. The one I consult most often is The Cyber Hymnal: "This site has over 11,300 Christian hymns & Gospel songs from many denominations & languages. We have lyrics, sheet music, audio, pictures, biographies, history & more." If your worship includes hymns you might find this site useful.

I also have in my library several books that provide background information about hymns. My favorite is The Penguin Book of Hymns. It is out of print but second-hand copies can be purchased for nominal amounts. Since the pages in my paperback are turning brown I decided to seek out a hardbound copy and found one through Amazon for $3.00. There were less expensive options also available. The book came today and is pictured on the right.

From the editor's introduction:
.... Those who like statistics may be interested in the following information about the 150 hymns which make up this collection. Ninety-three are English in origin, 17 American, 6 Irish, 5 Scottish and 2 Welsh. Of those that have been translated from foreign languages, 11 were originally in Latin, 9 in German, 2 each in Italian and Greek, and one each in Swiss, Swedish and Danish.

Sixty-nine of the hymns in this collection were originally written in the nineteenth century (this is not counting translations of earlier hymns), 35 in the eighteenth century, 14 in the seventeenth century and 12 in the twentieth century. Three date from the sixteenth century and the remaining 17 are translations of hymns from the Early Church and the Middle Ages. Not counting the Psalms, which form the basis for many of the greatest hymns in the English language, the oldest hymn in this collection is from the second century. ....

May I end this short introduction with a plea to the clergy, whose ranks I have recently joined? Would it be possible to introduce into services some brief words of explanation about the hymns which are going to be sung, such as are increasingly given before readings from the Bible? Hymns form one of the most important elements of public worship, and I think congregations would appreciate learning a little about the authors of hymns and the circumstances in which they were written. I modestly offer this book to all who find themselves conducting services of worship in the hope that they may find it helpful in preparing a few words to introduce the hymns. I hope it may also prove interesting to all those who enjoy lifting up their hearts and letting their mouths show forth the praise of God, whether in cathedral, church, mission hall, open-air rally, or in the privacy of their own bathrooms. ....
An example of the commentary from the section about "Nearer My God to Thee":
.... The great question about 'Nearer, my God, to Thee' is, of course, whether it was the hymn that the band struck up on the Titanic as that ill-fated liner sank after hitting an iceberg on 14 April 1912. Mrs Eva Hart, one of the few survivors of the disaster still living, is adamant that it was. 'I am as certain about that as I am sitting here,' she is quoted in The Times of 13 April 1987 as saying. 'Whether it was the last hymn, I don't know.'

Others, however, are sceptical about the tradition that it was Mrs Adams's hymn that was played as the ship went down. They base their doubts on the fact that contemporary press reports quoted the ship's radio operator, Harold Bride, a trained choirboy who survived the disaster, as saying that what he heard being played from the sinking vessel as he was in the sea waiting to be rescued was the hymn tune Autumn. There are, in fact, three different tunes with this name to be found in early twentieth-century hymn-books, set respectively to Robert Bridges's 'Joy and triumph everlasting', George Home's 'See the leaves around us falling' and William Walsham How's 'The year is swiftly waning'. If it was one of these that the band played, the last is the most likely candidate. The lines which close its first verse would certainly have been appropriate to the melancholy occasion:
And life, brief life, is speeding;
The end is nearing fast.
Sir Ronald Johnson, who has made a special study of the whole question of the Titanic hymn and with whom I have corresponded at some length on the subject, believes that the tune heard by Bride and wrongly transcribed by reporters was, in fact, Aughton, which accompanied W. B. Bradbury's hymn, 'He leadeth me! O blessed thought'. Its closing verse would certainly have been apt:
And when my task on earth is done
When by Thy grace the victory's won
E'en death's cold wave I will not flee
Since God through Jordan leadeth me.