In Appreciation - The Methodist Hymn Book
Published 15 April 2012
AN APPRECIATION OF OUR METHODIST HYMN BOOK
(Written in 1954 by the Rev Perry Smith for the ‘Cliff Witness' in England. The Methodist Cliff College for Lay Training, now expanded, offers University degrees for various ministries).
‘Methodism was born in song.' Next to the Bible, Methodists should value and use to the full their hymn-book; and its use is not-exhausted in the singing of its hymns in our services and meetings. It is a manual of devotion which cannot fail to enrich one's spiritual life when so used. It is no idle boast that it is the finest collection of hymns in use to-day, and with all due respect to other hymn-books, I am more than ever convinced of the value of bur own. Incidentally, the late Bernard Manning, a Congregationalist, through his love of Wesley's hymns and his books on the subject, has opened the eyes of many Methodists to their wonderful heritage.
Do we make the fullest use of our heritage? How many of us study its hymns devotionally, taking time to ponder, meditate and pray over them? I warmly commend this, knowing the immense benefit it has been to me Let us feed upon the great doctrines of our faith and dwell upon the range of Christian experience there expressed ; let us at the appropriate seasons, read carefully and prayerfully through the relevant sections of the hymnbook: Advent and Christmas, Passion-tide and Easter, Ascension-tide and Pentecost; let us turn to the hymns concerning worship, fellowship and the Lord's day as we quietly wait for the service to begin (as the Rev Howard Belben suggested in an article some time ago); let us, as others are receiving the Sacrament, read some of the hymns from that section, or those about the suffering and death of Jesus.
It may be that some of you have adopted this practice and have found it as helpful as I have, but let me now draw attention to the more neglected parts of our hymn-book. For instance, have you noticed, the text quoted on the title-page, and do you know the reference? It is from Ephesians 5.19; think about it, and compare Colossians 3.16, noticing the variation. Paul wrote both these letters about the same time from prison, and they have much in common.
Then what of the Prefaces? They are not as dull and un¬interesting as one may at first think. Have you ever read them? First, there is the Preface to this 1933 hymn book, the opening words being those quoted at the beginning of this article. We can read there the history of the previous books belonging to the separate connexions (the traditional Methodist word) before Methodist Union, and of the characteristics of the present book. Then we have the fine ‘Preface to a Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists' written by John Wesley himself, dated 1799. That collection is referred to in a letter of Martineau to Miss Winkworth as being ‘after the Scriptures, the grandest instrument of popular religious culture that Christendom has ever produced.' There, are still some copies about of this original hymn book for Methodists, and one can read many of the hymns no longer retained, and longer versions of some of our present hymns which have been shortened (in some cases sadly and unwisely, thus spoiling a Scriptural theme). Then finally there is the special Preface to the music edition of our present book, which again well repays the reader.
So much for the pages before the actual hymns, but what have we at the end? Take a look at the items in the Contents following the classification of the hymns. What about these ‘Verses' tucked away, and often un-noticed? Here we have a collection of 50 verses, 23 of which are quoted from hymns in the book, the remainder being recorded only here. In the music edition, suitable tunes are recommended, and for 7 of the verses, the tune is the same as that set to the complete hymn. All the suggested tunes are from the hymn-book, with the exception of No. 13 (At the Cross!), the time for which may be found in the Sankey Hymn Book. Thus we have a ready-made ‘chorus sheet' at the back of our own collection of hymns! I ventured to use these verses as such in an after-meeting one Sunday evening in the New Year, which proved a pleasant surprise to most and was apparently enjoyed by all. Actually a few are not quite suitable for such singing, but the majority of them arc, and as the music edition gives the metres, alternative tunes may be used if desired.
Only three of these verses receive comment in The New Methodist Hymn-book Illustrated in History and Experience by John Telford: No. 1, the well-known verses of William Blake, which come from the Preface to his ‘Milton'; No. 21, of which Wesley's Journal records that a Cornish girl of four sang it to her ungodly uncle with such effect that he was converted the same night ; and finally No. 47, which Charles Wesley's wife took down from him just a few days before he died, and for which verse Sir Hubert H. Parry specially wrote the tune ‘Marylebone' (Addi¬tional Tunes No. 32). One last comment on this collection of verses: one could wish it were longer! I for one would like more of these fine verses gleaned from earlier Methodist hymnology to be recorded, and would venture to suggest that they would make more tilting ‘choruses' and contain much more vital theology than many of the choruses sung to-day.
The Ancient Hymns and Canticles, the selection of Psalms, and other passages of Scripture are perhaps being more used now, than once the)? were, being either sung or read, in these days when lamentably few follow the lessons in their Bibles, such passages as these may sometimes be used as the first lesson, the congregation being invited to follow the reading, in fact on occasion, the congregation may well read alternate verses with the preacher. Some of the Ancient Hymns and Canticles, which arc either passages from Scripture or well-known forms used by the Church from its early days, one feels could be much more appreciated.
Of the indexes, no doubt that to the first lines of the hymns is most used, and of course those interested in the music of ten have recourse to those in the music edition relating to the tunes, alphabeti¬cally and metrically arranged. A word about the index of authors, translators and sources of hymns is, however, called for. It has been my practice for some time to notice, the authors of hymns sung, and when a hymn specially impresses, to turn to this index to see what other hymns we have from the same author; if some are quoted, it is most interesting to read them, and sometimes to notice similarities of thought; in other cases, one is disappointed to find that we have only one hymn from that particular author, although doubtless he did write others too.
Finally, having discussed the hymn-book itself, I would commend some (among many) reference books which are most useful. First, the Subject, Textual and Lineal Indexes to the M.H.B . Preachers especially will be helped in finding hymns with a bearing upon their text. The lineal index (covering every line of every hymn) is useful when one can only remember an odd line of a hymn other than the first, and thus it cannot be located in the ordinary index. Incidentally, the words edition does contain an index of the first line of verses other than the first, and to one who invariably uses the music edition, it seems a pity that this index was included in the words, but not in the music edition. Reference has already been made to The New Methodist Hymn-book Illustrated. This deals with the hymns in numerical order, giving information about the authors, and often how the hymns came to be written, along with other interesting facts. For those interested in the tunes, there is a partner volume The Music of the Methodist Hymn-book by James T. Lightwood. Lastly let me mention the recently published Charles Wesley's Hymns: A Study of their Structure by Dr. K. Newton Flew. This is a fascinating and stimulating little book which reveals to us the outlines or Scriptural themes of many of our hymns, and it cannot be too highly recommended. All these four books are published by the Epworth Press.