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In Praise of Hymn

Words and music reinforce emotions

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Carl P. Daw, an STH adjunct professor of hymnology, also is curator of BU’s vast Hymnological Collections. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My dear Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!

It was music that had Charles Wesley enthralled with worship.

In 18th century England, following in the footsteps of Joy to the World composer Isaac Watts, Wesley insisted that hymns were a vital part of church service. In the thousands of hymns he worked with, words and music were written to stir the congregation and reinforce religious emotions.

Charles and his brother, Methodism founder John Wesley, made hymns the central feature of Methodist worship, attracting many former Anglican followers and spreading the denomination worldwide, including to Boston University, which traces its 1839 roots to the first Methodist seminary in the United States.

“For me, a hymn represents a feeling that an individual or congregation may not have been able to put into words,” says Carl P. Daw, Jr., retired executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and an STH adjunct professor of hymnology. “Hymns help people find words for whatever situation they are in.”

For Daw, who is also the curator of the Nutter-Metcalf Hymnological Collections at STH, music is integral to worship, since hymns “are the last, careful, impression people get from the service,” he says. “I like to remind clergy that no one leaves church humming the sermon.”

Daw spends countless hours archiving hymnbooks from 1562 to the present day. Wearing gloves, he takes extra care with the works published in the 19th and 20th century when wood pulp was used to make paper.

“Works in the collection prior to the 19th century are actually in better shape,” he says. “The older hymns were printed on rag paper — cloth soaked in lye. This is one of the reasons it’s such a great collection. I’m learning things all the time.”

Most hymns use text or music borrowed from past works. For example, “Amazing Grace” as we know it uses text written in London in 1779 by John Newton, but the music is from the song “New Britain,” part of the hymn book Southern Harmony, by James P. Carrell and David S. Clayton, published in 1831 in Winchester, Va.

“A hymn like ‘Amazing Grace’ becomes ingrained because it has resonance for a lot of people,” says Andrew Shenton, an assistant professor and James R. Houghton Scholar at STH. Shenton, who is also an organist, is partial to Fred Pratt Green’s “God Is Glorified.

But hymn composition is by no means limited to the 18th century. Contemporary Christian worship is constantly using updated content to write material. “Hymns are a living, active part of the community,” says Shenton. “It’s about adding thoughtful reflection to worship.”

The hymn can represent any denomination, the music may be 100 years old, or the text could be a poem in the public domain. But one criterion holds strong: the hymn should embrace the theme of music as a medium of praise.

DawO for a Thousand Tongues to Sing

By Charles Wesley. Music played by Clyde McLennan

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Amazing Grace

Music by James P. Carrell and David S. Clayton

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God Is Glorified

By Fred Pratt Green

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Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.

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