Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology

Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology

David W. Music

Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology. Edited by Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004. 288 pp.

Wonderful Words of Life.. Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology grew out of a conference presented by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. The authors of the eleven chapters come from a variety of denominational backgrounds and disciplines, including a Baptist musicologist, Esther Rothenbusch Crookshank.

Typical of a symposium work, the book does not attempt to offer a comprehensive survey of the subject but explores various facets of it in some depth. The essays are grouped into three sections: “In the Beginning was Watts,” “Hymns and the Ordering of Protestant Life,” and “Hymns as Good (or Bad?) Theology.” The principal focus is on Protestants in the United States, but individual chapters also touch upon English-Canadian Protestantism and the use of Protestant hymns in Roman Catholic hymnals.

The essays are all competently written, and this–plus the variety of subjects–makes for interesting reading. While it is difficult to point out highlights from such rich material, Rochelle A. Stackhouse’s “Hymnody and Politics: Isaac Watts’s ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’ and Timothy Dwight’s ‘I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord,'” Jeffrey VanderWilt’s “Singing about Death in American Protestant Hymnody,” and Richard J. Mouw’s “Some Poor Sailor, Tempest Tossed: Nautical Rescue Themes in Evangelical Hymnody” are particularly fascinating.

There are a few points over which one might quibble. Baptist readers will be surprised to learn that conservative Christians object to songs of personal experience such as “He Lives” (205-08). Fundamentalists and evangelicals are said to have “resorted” to an “artificial distinction between worship and evangelism” (149); while worship and evangelism are said to be two sides of the same coin–and one leads to the other–the distinction between them is a biblical one. The “short-lived” nature of gospel pop songs is defended because “for their enthusiasts, the best music is always the latest” (149). The truth of this statement is not in doubt, but the trend is not necessarily a healthy one for it leaves a blank slate where a memory should have been.

One of the three appendices (by Stephen A. Marini) is “a ranked list of [the 300] most frequently printed hymns” in 175 United States hymnals published between 1737 and 1960. Several of the essays relied upon these data as a basis for their discussion. Unfortunately, no details were given as to the criteria for selection of the hymnals nor were the hymnals themselves named. Thus, there is no way to verify either the list’s accuracy or its representative nature. The reader is also left to wonder about its relationship to the Dictionary of North American Hymnology project sponsored by the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, which catalogs the texts printed in nearly every major hymnal published in North America from the 1640 Bay Psalm Book to the late twentieth century.

Wonderful Words of Life is an outstanding resource for understanding how congregational song operates in American Protestant life. Pastors, musicians, and laypeople alike will benefit from the essays in this volume.–Reviewed by David W. Music, professor of church music and director of graduate studies in the School of Music at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Baptist History and Heritage Society

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group