The Case for Shorter Hymnals
November 16, 2021

I believe hymnals should be shorter than they are. Much shorter. 100 hymns at most, let’s say. I imagine that this will be a hard one to swallow for most of my readers, so I will attempt to bolster my argument as best I can. I can’t think of any better way to do so than to format it like a scholastic discourse.

Question. Whether the average hymnal today is too big and whether we should have hymnals of, at most, 100 hymns.

First objection. There are far more than 100 good hymns to be sung. The tradition is thick and rich and, although there are certainly lemons in the bunch, on the whole the tradition needs to be treated more expansively, not less. In an era when the disuse of hymns is all the more common, why should we be the ones to cut out even more? These hymns should not be forgotten, they should be remembered, cherished, and sung by congregations today.

Second objection. 100 hymns is an absurdly small number and cannot properly express the breadth of the Christian life, the needs of worship, and the liturgical year. It’s just impracticable.

Third objection. Having so few hymns would mean recycling the same hymns several times every year. People would grow bored. The musically inclined would feel stifled, and a vibrant church music program would atrophy.

Sed contra, shorter hymnals capture the essence of what a hymn is for.

First, hymns are a beloved and worthy expression of the peculiar praises, needs, and exigencies of our own times. That is good and healthy. But hymns need to be rightly ordered in the hierarchy of liturgical importance, and the number of hymns we expect congregants to know is a reflection of this priority.

Whatever else a hymn may be, it is a poor substitute for good liturgy and lots of psalms. A hymn should not be your primary go-to for praising God’s goodness, faithfulness, redemption, holiness, ineffability; a psalm should be. A hymn is fine for that purpose, but hierarchically below a psalm. Likewise, a hymn should not be your only means of making a given Sunday into a liturgical feast. It is not merely the hymn or carol that makes Easter “feel like” Easter but the specific liturgical rites that you say and sing on that Sunday.

Second, we should follow the pattern of the church throughout history on this. It is a pattern that is, in this case, surprisingly univocal. The vast majority of the singing in religious and secular Catholic services has, until recently, been the psalms, canticles, Scriptural antiphons, and so forth; hymns have been a beloved but lesser category. Early Lutheran hymnals were tiny, often containing only 20 or 30 hymns. This continued to be the norm throughout Protestantism until much later. It was in the mid-nineteenth century that hymnals were fattened with countless mediocrities. Our hymnals now are good for stopping knives and bullets, and boxes of them can be used for toning muscles or feeding bonfires. What they are not good for, however, is putting us alongside the church past.

Third, your entire hymnal should be memorizable by your congregation. That should be the norm. After all, Jesus requires your congregants to worship him, and he most certainly does not impose music literacy as a prerequisite. (And, ideally, the same is true for literacy too.) So all your hymns should be easily learnable or easily memorizable, to the same degree that your liturgy is. This is another respect in which past practice can help us. It is why most hymnals historically have not been notated at all or had only melody (and it might even be a healthy practice to return to this, but I will leave that for another “question” of my “summa,” since that courts too much controversy for a single post).

Biblically, to know something is to memorize something. To have something in your heart, as a part of you, is to memorize it. This is a crucial theme of many psalms, not least Psalm 119, where we are encouraged to hide God’s word in our heart, bind it to our fingers, have it at the ready. To memorize something is not merely to know it, but to know through it; as C. S. Lewis says in God in the Dock, not to see the beam of light but by the light to see everything else. Not merely wissen but kennen, not merely savoir but connaître. This, as Mary Carruthers has effectively demonstrated in The Book of Memory, was the central task of singing the Psalms for the Christian church in the Middle Ages: to have the Psalms within you wherever you are.

The same should be true of hymns. Congregations should have a few hymns which go with them wherever they are in life, that travel with them through suffering and pain, that spring to their lips unbidden at every moment. That is simply impossible with a vast number. So long as our hymnals are a mile wide and an inch deep, so will be any connection between our spiritual lives and our church music.

Reply to the first objection. It is true that there are more than 100 good hymns. And, in 500 years, Lord willing, there will be more than 10,000 good hymns and counting. But this is relevant to an archivist, historian, and antiquarian; it has no real pastoral relevance. In fact, far too often, church musicians impose their own thirst for musical variety on a congregation which would thrive with a smaller selection. If you want to teach music history, go teach music history. Otherwise, sing a few and sing them well.

Reply to the second objection. It is quite true that space for 100 hymns would cover only the “liturgical year” sections of most hymnals, if that. That leaves no room for hymns of praise, adoration, supplication, petition, and so forth. But, as was stated above, this may reveal how our priorities are messed up: most hymns of praise, adoration, supplication, and petition could simply be cut to make room for psalms which do the same. Besides, slimming down on liturgical-year hymns would probably open a market for a return of that wonderful old genre of the carol book, which is another much-needed development.

Reply to the third objection. If the musically inclined of your church are becoming bored, then you are probably doing something right. (It is best never to listen to them; tell them that they should join the choir if they are bored and, if they do not do that, then they needn’t be listened to any further.) The truth is, congregations love repetition. We all do, whether we know it or not. Repetition is what makes music music and what makes good music good music. To repeat 100 good hymns several times a year would be a delight to your congregation and, I think you’ll find, to you yourself. It will also put the emphasis of the church music program where it should be: those bored musicians would volunteer for choir, your choir would learn and memorize descants, your pianist or organist would begin improvising exciting new harmonies, and much of that musical energy would be put outside of church into recreational music making, which is itself a crucial and under-appreciated task of a good music program.

John Ahern is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in musicology from Princeton University. He is a substitute organist for the Princeton University chapel on occasion. He loves his wife and son, and they all frequently sing, to greater and lesser degrees of success, Renaissance bicinia over dinner.

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