Church

Mining Old Hymnals

Matt Borrusch

For church musicians, the holiday season can be a hectic time of year. There are choir rehearsals, hours of instrument practice, and a lot of planning and preparation, especially for the music director/worship leader.  

However, it’s also a joyous time of year because the Christian church, through the centuries, has left us with a treasure trove of rich, theologically robust hymns and spiritual songs to draw from. Especially during holiday times, they are brought to the surface en masse. Even the non-Christian world knows the standards:  “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and even the theological masterpiece by Charles Wesley from the 18th Century: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”   

Being a church musician, every November I love to go through my music collection and find these gems, play them, and get them into my mind and devotional life. What I’ve discovered throughout the years is that most of these classics, for Christmas or otherwise, are unknown to the majority of even theologically conservative Christians today. Just like many modern Christians are not well-versed in church history, so it is with the history of Christian song and hymnody, especially if it’s not part of our personal church traditions.

Music and Longing for Older Times

With all of the cultural upheaval over the last few years, many conservative Christians have longed for previous eras of traditional values, God-honoring family relationships, and the “good ol’ days” when life was much more simple and conducive to God’s created order. It’s like visiting a small quaint town with independent small businesses where people are friendly and know each other rather than a busy, suburban 6-lane highway fronted with Wal-Mart and chain restaurants.    

I suggest that by exploring the rich tradition of hymns, songs, prayers, and even Protestant liturgy from yesteryear, we can access those “small quaint towns” right now. One of the blessings of the internet is that we can take a hymn title and do an online search and find, not just the lyrics, but videos of entire performances of these songs that are refreshing to our souls.    But even with these modern technological blessings, we still need to put our miner’s cap on and know where to find the buried treasure.

Accessing the Gold

In the past 30 years, there have been a number of prominent musicians and music groups that have brought back many old hymns for a modern audience. One of the more famous examples is “Before the Throne of God Above,” an obscure hymn written in the 19th Century that Steve and Vikki Cook from Sovereign Grace Music brought back from England in 1997. You can find the story of how Vikki Cook and her husband discovered this hymn in this article. The Gettys and others have also composed many modern hymns that have been a tremendous blessing to the church.   

However, there is still a lot of gold out there waiting to be brought to the surface. There are many songs that have not been a part of an individual Christian’s church tradition and much of the reason for this is a collective ignorance. We just don’t know where these mines are located.

Lutheran Roots

By God’s grace, for the first 20 years of my life, I grew up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a conservative denomination that has a robust tradition of sacred music. Martin Luther, after all, was a musician, as was Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the music that was used to teach me to play. Due to changing doctrinal convictions, I am now a Baptist, but I still love this genre.  It’s like relating to my hometown. Even though I now live in a different state with new friends and a new church, these are my roots.   

A few years ago, I was looking through the 1941 Lutheran Hymnal, and in the order for service for Sundays with communion (page 16), came across one of the best prayers for confession of sins I have ever seen:

“O Almighty God, merciful Father, I a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment.  But I am hearily sorry for them and singerely repent of them, and I pray Thee of Thy boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.”    As another example, the 1982 Lutheran Book of Worship (and other hymnals since then) has a festival song called “This is the Feast of Victory” which is a beautiful hymn many have never heard of outside the Lutheran sphere. It is based on Revelation 5 when the saints are gathered to praise and worship the Lamb. This would be a lovely Easter hymn that could be sung by many different churches, as its doctrine is agreed upon by conservative Protestants. The composer, Richard Hillert, has a huge anthology of sacred music that is accessible online.

An Example for Christmas

An Anglican missionary named Frank Houghton wrote the hymn “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor” to honor two missionaries who were captured and beheaded in 1934 while serving for the China Inland Mission. Keith and Kristyn Getty recently brought this hymn to light a few years ago, and it is a beautiful Christmas hymn that tells about Christ emptying himself in the incarnation. This hymn is in many Protestant hymnals today, and would make a great addition to a Christmas playlist. Here is an online recording of a simple piano version.

Additional Resources

Two of the greatest hymn-writers of the past 500 years have hundreds of hymns that have never been set to music: John Newton and Isaac Watts. There is a lot of good devotional material in these hymns and also opportunities for these to be brought back to life. Here are two resources where these hymns can be accessed:

https://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/john-newton/

“The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts” by Soli Deo Gloria Publications

Conclusion

Everyone knows we are at a cultural crossroads, and we long for a place where God can be glorified, His created order respected and His commands obeyed. It discourages us and we tend to despair. However, we have access to uplifting music and lyrics that go back centuries that can help us fulfill the command Paul gives us in Philippians:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8)

Let’s go get the gold this Christmas season. While always being discerning of sound doctrine, let’s enjoy the feast at the table that other saints before us have set, even if it is outside of our own church tradition.

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