Try this experiment at your church. On Sunday morning, right after the prelude, walk to the pulpit and begin singing “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.”

Don’t announce it—just start singing. No hymnals, no PowerPoint, no organ, no guitar. Just the voices, from the heart.

What will happen? The congregation will join, singing from memory. With very little prompting, they’ll probably sing five stanzas.

Your congregational choir might include a few people with music degrees and a larger number who have taken formal music lessons at some point in their lives. And yes, you’ll have some visitors who listen more than they sing. But most of the congregation will share one common trait: the biggest musical influence of their lives comes from the songs they learned in church.

By the final stanza of your Sunday morning musical experiment, you’ll hear this congregation of untrained singers break into perfect four-part harmony: “We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise / Than when we’ve first begun.”

Church members everywhere know the same songs. This idea seems to be burned into our popular consciousness, so much so that singing from the same hymnal has become yet another catchphrase. Without searching too long, I found it being used to describe Democrats (and Republicans) in the recent election cycle, teachers negotiating a pay hike, and a group of video game designers at Nintendo. Yes, all of these random groups were “singing from the same hymnal,” presumably meaning the groups were ideologically unified. Or perhaps the news reporters were at the end of a long day, grabbing an overworked metaphor.

If “singing from the same hymnal” describes the world of business and politics, does it still describe our churches on Sunday morning? In an era when printed books are disappearing, are we in danger of losing our core repertoire of traditional hymns and gospel songs?

If so, is such a thing worth preserving?

Naming our hymn heritage

These questions have been examined from several different perspectives in recent years. As church music has continued to change (see “Psalms, Hymns, and Some Really New Songs,” September/October), churches are rightfully considering which parts of our heritage need to be preserved. The Worship Wars were often a dispute over the new songs being added to a church’s repertoire. But the other side of the issue was the songs that were being replaced. Too many young worship leaders made the same mistake simultaneously, discarding worthy hymns that congregations have appreciated for generations.

The oldest members of the congregation are generally open to learning new songs of merit. After all, they were around when “How Great Thou Art” and “Victory in Jesus” were new. But now the old guard finds itself sitting through entire services, not recognizing a single song, wondering why their cherished favorites have been retired.

To be sure, some songs from their era deserved an early death. For every great new song that remains in use, there are plenty more with sappy, sentimental lyrics, usually wedded to harmonic and rhythmic styles that quickly fade from popular fashion.

As more and more hymnals were published, scholars began noting a trend. Each new book would feature new songs that would rise and then fall in popularity. But after comparing a broad spectrum of hymnals from many denominations, hymnologists noticed that the same core songs seemed to reappear in every book. Would it be possible to identify this hymn heritage, a list of best and most durable songs of every era?

Paul Westermeyer refers to this body of songs as our “catholic hymn heritage,” even though he writes from his own perspective as a Lutheran. He uses the word catholic (note the lowercase c) in the same sense that “one holy catholic church” is used in the Nicene Creed, as a reference to the universal church comprised of all true Christians in every era of the church’s history.

Or a person could refer to our hymn heritage as a body of ecumenical hymns—ecumenical in the sense that they summarize the great doctrines affirmed by all true Christians. In this sense of the word, the ecumenical hymns function in the same way as the great creeds of antiquity—the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

Kevin Bauder commends these creeds in his recently released Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order, published by Regular Baptist Press. “If they are rightly understood,” he writes, “not a word of these documents contradicts anything that Baptists believe or that the Bible teaches. They also have the advantage of spelling out certain doctrines with great precision and care. If a church adopts these great creeds along with its own statement of faith, it is acknowledging that it stands in a long heritage of Biblical teaching. The richness, precision, and continuity of these creeds are all good things.”

One could say the same of our hymn heritage, that great body of ecumenical, catholic hymns.

I write this with deliberate irony, knowing that most Baptists would embrace the idea if I were to call it something else! Interestingly, Bauder avoids using the phrase ecumenical creeds even though he invests several paragraphs affirming this idea. He probably knew the phrase would become a source of confusion and consternation. Perhaps we would be safer to stick with hymn heritage as a description of this body of classic worship songs, allowing us to quickly move to another controversial task, identifying just which songs should be included in our permanent repertoire.

Sifting through recent research

In 1968 the issue began to be studied by the Consultation on Ecumenical Hymnody, a group that hoped to develop a list of standard hymns to be adopted in future hymnal projects. Three years later they adopted an official list of 150 hymns—most of which would be familiar to our readers today. After a group of hymnologists critiqued their original research, the CEH expanded their list to include 77 additional songs. Over the years other researchers have tackled the question, offering various lists based on their study of denominational hymnals.

More recently, Stephen Marini identified a somewhat different list of 300 songs for the American Protestant Hymns Project, based on his study of 175 hymnals from a huge database, The Dictionary of North American Hymnology (available online at www.hymnary.org/DNAH). And last year Christianity Today offered “The Hymns That Keep on Going,” a list of “27 worship songs that have made the hymnal cut time and again.”

The “Amazing Grace” problem

While Regular Baptists can learn much from this recent research, none of the resulting hymn lists seem to describe our churches. For starters, where’s my favorite hymn? When the CEH 150 list was released, critics immediately noticed the absence of “Amazing Grace,” though its immense popularity was incontrovertible. When Christianity Today published their list last year, they included a sidebar to explain why “Amazing Grace” didn’t make their cut either.

When Baptist Bulletin editor Merle Hull conducted a poll of our readers in 1969, he discovered that “Amazing Grace” was our most popular hymn. He freely admitted that his polling methods were unscientific, but his conclusion was difficult to challenge. Everyone knows “Amazing Grace.” We all have it memorized. So why have researchers excluded it from their lists of classic hymns? For that matter, where is “Blessed Assurance,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” and “The Solid Rock”?

Part of the problem may be related to methodology—the researchers were studying denominational hymnals at the exact time when mainline denominations began a national membership decline. Meanwhile, the fastest-growing church movements were abandoning denominational hymnals, switching to all-purpose hymnals produced by independent publishers such as Hope, Rodeheaver, and Singspiration. Books such as Church Service Hymns, Inspiring Hymns, Great Hymns of the Faith, and The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration sold over two million copies each, cutting deeply into denominational hymnal sales. But the nondenominational hymnals were often overlooked in research projects. In fact, of the 12 hymnals used most frequently in Regular Baptist churches (see sidebar below), none were indexed in the original Dictionary of North American Hymnology, rendering them nearly invisible to researchers. Southern Baptists felt the same way—their classic 1940 Broadman Hymnal wasn’t indexed either.

Perhaps part of the problem stems from the differences between free church worship and liturgical worship. Our Baptist churches continue to emphasize a Word-centered approach to the activities of the gathered church, an emphasis on expository preaching. Our approach is somewhat different from the Word and Sacraments emphasis of liturgical worship. Our services tend to provide more opportunities for the congregation’s testimony, mutual encouragement, and exhortation. As a result, we incorporate some songs that emphasize the congregation’s response to what God has done for us. Yes, we sing some “subjective” songs that offer gospel-centered testimonies of Christ’s work on our behalf. While we embrace the idea of sharing a common hymn heritage with all true Christians, the hymn lists that have been recently offered seem to leave out important parts of the Christian experience.

Searching for the Regular Baptist hymnal

No, there never was an official Regular Baptist hymnal. From the beginning of our movement in 1932, our churches tended to purchase nondenominational, all-purpose hymnals produced by Hope, Rodeheaver, and Singspiration. Perhaps these choices were related to our location—our GARBC Chicago office on Printers Row was just a few blocks away from Rodeheaver and Hope. For some of our early GARBC conferences, our leaders merely walked up the block to the Rodeheaver office, requesting that one of their songbooks be printed with a custom GARBC conference cover. Later, John W. Peterson himself would lead the singing at national conferences in the 1960s—featuring (no surprise) his own songs. All three publishers would advertise their hymnals in the Baptist Bulletin.

Perhaps these choices are also related to our roots in revivalism. Our churches tended to favor hymnals that include the best gospel songs. (I mention this with some charity. We also favored some of the worst gospel songs, a topic for continued discussion.) When the Northern Baptist Convention released Christian Worship in 1941, their hymnal was roundly ignored by the GARBC churches that had just pulled out of the denomination. Christian Worship was a joint project with the Disciples of Christ, the sort of relationship that didn’t win it any favor among our pastors. While its editors went to the trouble of securing recent songs from the American Unitarian Association, American Peace Society, and Harry Emerson Fosdick, the book contained precisely zero songs from any of the gospel song publishers. And from the standpoint of our pastors back then, what good is a hymnal without “Amazing Grace”?

Readers will undoubtedly notice some old friends in the sidebar “12 popular hymnals in GARBC churches.” Over the years I’ve discovered that church members don’t always remember the exact title of their hymnal (“the red one”), but after they pick one up, they recall its layout, even the page number of their favorites. By identifying this list of 12 hymnals, I also intend to ignite a bit of discussion regarding exactly which songs should be included in our GARBC hymn heritage.

Each of our churches has its own list of contemporary favorites—trendy songs newly written, perhaps learned by the youth group at camp, perhaps made popular by a noted evangelical personality. Some of these have long-term merit—but let’s face it, most are soon replaced by other trendy songs. This explains why one can pick up one of the earlier hymnals on our list of 12 and discover more than a few “oldies” from the 1960s, songs we rarely sing now. Compared side-by-side, the 12 hymnals contain a total of 2,500 different songs! Of these, more than 1,500 of them appear in only one or two of our hymnals. In essence, many songs were one-hit wonders that quickly disappeared.

Some criticism has been leveled at these temporary songs of testimony. In retrospect, shouldn’t we have sung an exclusive diet of objective hymns, the best of European classical hymnody? My personal answer to this criticism is a qualified no. Our balanced approach to church gatherings (our inclusion of testimony, mutual encouragement, and exhortation) will inevitably lead us to adopt newer songs, even though we know that some will not become part of our permanent heritage.

Comparing all 12 hymnals reveals another interesting insight. We can also identify a core list of classic hymns and gospel songs that have been published in every hymnal. These are the songs that have survived the winnowing process of time, and deserve our continued use. I’m intending this list as a working draft to help us identify and preserve our own hymn heritage.

The earliest—such as “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”—have been with us since the first centuries of the church. Christians sang “All Creatures of Our God and King” and “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” for hundreds of years before the Reformation. When we sing such songs today, we affirm the same ideas embraced by all true Christians, our own proclamation of a church that is both universal and local.

“People of two books” in a post-book world

Having suggested that we should identify a core list of classic hymns, I must admit that this idea is challenged by our rapid transition to digital books. How do we preserve our hymn heritage in a post-hymnal era?

When Southern Baptists released the Baptist Hymnal in 2008, they also introduced a website (www.lifewayworship.com) that seems to be geared more toward downloads than hymnal purchases. Then I discovered their hymnal app for my iPad, making me wonder just how long publishers will continue to produce print editions. On the other hand, can we really expect all of our church members to own these digital devices? (I can hear it now: “Boot up your electronic devices to ‘Amazing Grace,’ singing just the first and last. . . .”)

Yes, we need to study how this technological change will affect our congregations. But the root issue is not a technological one. We must carefully consider what aspects of our faith are worth preserving and passing to the next generation of believers. We must ask ourselves if our clamoring rush toward technological sophistication has made us deaf to the wisdom of past eras. In short, we must rigorously identify our own heritage of congregational song, not because it is old, but because it is good.

So with this article I offer a working list of 250 songs that will continue to nurture and disciple our churches, a hymn heritage worth saving. My research methods were similar to the other studies mentioned earlier in this article—I created a database with indexes from the 12 hymnals our churches have used most frequently. This allowed me to identify the core list of songs that have been used in every hymnal (100 songs) or at least nine of the 12 hymnals (150 more songs).

By calling this initial research a working list, I’m also acknowledging that it should likely be revised somewhat. Asking the question What did we do? points us in the right direction. Now we must also consider What should we have done, and what should we be doing?

Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin and a worship leader at First Baptist Church, Arlington Heights, Ill. For a spreadsheet that details the song lists from all 12 hymnals and summarizes the research from this article, send a request to editor@baptistbulletin.org.

12 Popular Hymnals in GARBC Churches

The Service Hymnal (Hope Publishing, eds. Gordon Shorney and William M. Runyan, 1935)

Church Service Hymns (Rodeheaver Hall-Mack Co., ed. George W. Sanville, 1948)

Inspiring Hymns (Singspiration, ed. Alfred B. Smith, 1951)

Worship and Service Hymnal (Hope Publishing, ed. Donald Hustad, 1957)

Great Hymns of the Faith (Singspiration, ed. John W. Peterson, 1968)

Living Hymns (Encore Music, ed. Alfred B. Smith, 1972)

Hymns for the Family of God (Paragon, ed. Fred Bock, 1976)

Praise! Our Songs and Hymns (Singspiration, eds. John W. Peterson and Norman Johnson, 1979)

Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (Word, ed. Tom Fettke, 1987)

Majesty Hymns (Majesty Music, ed. Frank Garlock, 1997)

The Celebration Hymnal (Word/Integrity, ed. Tom Fettke, 1997)

Rejoice Hymns (Majesty Music, ed. Ron and Shelly Hamilton, 2011)