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The Hymnal: A reading history, by Christopher N. Phillips 

12 April 2019

Karen B. Westerfield Tucker on the purposes for which hymn books appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries

THE deceptively simple title of Christopher Phillips’s book only hints at the detailed research that informs his study and the particular scope of the work. Phillips’s primary interest is the hymn book, a collection of texts used largely for reading, and the predecessor of hymnals that contained both texts and musical notation mainly for singing. To limit his contribution on this little-studied subject, Phillips focuses on English-language materials principally from the UK and the United States, with only a few references to publications from other English-speaking nations and regions.

Yet within that narrow linguistic and geographic framework, Phillips spans the 18th and 19th centuries, and provides an array of examples that examine the hymn book’s place in social, domestic, educational, literary, and religious (e.g., Jewish, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Unitarian, Mormon) contexts. In doing so, he chronicles the decline of hymn-reading (silently and aloud) for the purposes of personal and social enjoyment, meditation and reflection, spiritual formation, education, and mastery of the English language.

The poetic, hymnic, and prose contributions of the Congregationalist Isaac Watts take a central place in this study and figure in each of the three parts of the book, identified as “Church”, “School”, and “Home”. Phillips draws on the works of the “father of English hymnody” directly, but then also traces certain of Watts’s materials and influences as they appear in hymn books designed for different audiences over the course of two centuries. He gives special attention to Watts as a promoter of literacy, and exposes how for generations Watts’s ideals and texts were key in the instruction of children and illiterate adults.

Three studies focused narrowly on developments in the United States enhance this already very rich book. In one “Interlude”, Phillips examines RC hymn-book publishing (and related controversies) in Philadelphia in 1844, and concludes that here the hymn book served as “a nexus of cultural exchange as well as a marker of denominational identity, a carrier of tradition and a site for innovation”. The hymn books published by the Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher and intended for congregational use are the subject of another “Interlude”. A full chapter on Emily Dickinson investigates whether certain of her poems are actually “hymns”.

Despite the depth and breadth of this study, there are surprising omissions. Some early English-language hymn-writers — for example, Benjamin Keach, Joseph Boyse, Joseph Stennett, and Simon Browne — and their hymn collections receive no mention, even though these authors were among the first to publish “hymns of human composure” on sacramental subjects intended for singing (domestic and in congregational worship), sacramental preparation, and devotional reading.

English-language Lutheran hymn books produced in the United States from the 18th-century onwards which include more than translations from other languages receive no attention. Despite these and other gaps, this clear and concise book still covers a great deal of ground. Watts scholars, hymnology and literature specialists, and lovers of hymns will find The Hymnal to be a rich hoard of information both in the main text and in the footnotes. By the end of the book, each reader of Phillips’s text will face the question: should hymnals today be a source for both singing and reading?

Karen B. Westerfield Tucker is Professor of Worship at Boston University School of Theology.

The Hymnal: A reading history
Christopher N. Phillips
Johns Hopkins £29.50
Church Times Bookshop £26.55

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