Old . . . is new
December 2012 – Imagine taking a musical journey from the Temple Mount of ancient Jerusalem all the way to those first churches founded on the shores of America. Imagine hearing the sacred sounds of worship spilling forth from those hallowed places. And imagine journeying without ever leaving the familiarity of the local church pew or a favorite, comfy chair.
What is that? Such a journey can’t be made?
Oh, yes. It certainly can. And the only ticket required for this expedition is a hymnal. That’s right – a common church hymnal.
With those hymnals as her inspiration, musicologist Dr. Carol Reynolds guides such time-traveling tours daily through her passionate teachings on the history of sacred music.
Still not convinced? Want a personal tour?
For example, take a Baptist Hymnal; turn to Hymn 450, Precious Lord. Now, pay close attention to these words:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand.
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.
Reynolds calls this particular hymn written by Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993) a cornerstone of American hymnody. Reynolds believes that Precious Lord is just one of numerous songs deserving a place of relevance in her historic tour, as well as a place of relevance in modern church services.
What a story etched within the lines of this beloved hymn! Precious Lord resonates with the deepest notes of human frailty and suffering. No wonder Dorsey’s hymn became the anthem of countless others searching for that light of hope. After all, Dorsey knew firsthand of life’s storms.
As the story goes, Dorsey had reluctantly traveled from Chicago, with a strong sense of unease, to lead worship in a St. Louis revival during the summer of 1932. Before he had even stepped off the platform, Dorsey received news that his wife had died. His newborn son also died shortly thereafter. Riddled with anguish and remorse, Dorsey wrote this hymn which consequently became a life buoy for Dorsey and a timeless favorite for countless people, including Reynolds.
Reynolds notes that “the whole desperation” of Dorsey’s story is the thing which makes this American classic hymn so powerful. In general, though, she encourages people to move beyond the “story behind the hymn” and explore the hymn’s theology and historical style.
Each hymn, each poetic creation put to music, is a piece of the greater history of Christianity. That story spans generations, overcoming the barriers that separate people, places and times. Reynolds passionately chronicles Christianity through music, making its history readily available through numerous forms of educational curricula, including AFA’s acclaimed educational series titled Exploring America’s Musical Heritage.
Her current endeavor focuses on the history of early Christian liturgy from its roots in Jewish temple worship though the Middle Ages. Upon completion, it will be tied to another of Reynolds’ popular resources, the multi-media course Discovering Music. Together, these two works will cover much of the history of Western music from its earliest beginnings to World War I.
All of these resources contain informational “nuggets of gold” found only in the rich hymns and sacred works passed down from one generation to the next. Dr. Reynolds reminds this generation that hymns speak the ever-relevant truths of Christianity in a culturally and historically rich way. If modern Christians are willing to “grow back” and discover the treasure trove of Scripture and tradition found in church hymnals, Reynolds believes the modern church can “grow up” and become all Christ mandated it to be. “Growing back is a vital step to growing up as a body of believers,” she said.
Reynolds illustrates this point perfectly with another of her favorite hymns, Humbly I Adore Thee, a 13th-century Eucharistic hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Medieval chant tradition. Reynolds declares that within the words of this single evocative hymn lies the entirety of “Christian theology.” She reasons that a person could fully understand the truth of God’s loving sacrifice through even a portion of this song:
Sight, touch, taste are all deceived
In their judgment of you,
But hearing suffices firmly to believe.
I believe all that the Son of God has spoken;
There is nothing truer than this word of truth.
Nothing truer indeed!
And according to Reynolds, that truth, the very truth of Christianity, can be traced within the pages of a hymnal. She asserts that “a hymnal is one of the greatest treasures of Western culture, a veritable compendium of music and culture – spanning and crossing centuries of time.” She suggests examining all the indexes of a hymn book with children as the first step in a lesson on Christian history and culture.
For example, the Index of Tune Names found in hymnals gives a linguistic overview of the international diversity and expanse of sacred music. A person can travel around the world and back again through the names of those tunes. Latin, German and Swedish listings abound, with interesting names, some funny enough to captivate even the youngest linguists, maintains Reynolds.
She also encourages learners to investigate a hymnal’s Composer Index. She feels students will readily recognize the names of some very famous composers, while other names may be unfamiliar even to most adults. She suggests parents help children research some of those lesser known composers. The information gathered through such an endeavor will be a unique, valuable testament of the goodness of God.
For more advanced music students, the Pattern Index lists the metric pattern of each hymn within the songbook’s pages. Yet, Reynolds claims even a novice musician can have a bit of fun with this index by simply counting the number of syllables per line in each stanza of a song. With that small amount of foreknowledge, students can spend hours switching the words of one song to the tune of another song – as long as both tunes have the same metric pattern. Plus, this fun-filled music lesson is a natural introduction to more advanced literary lessons on poetic rhyme and meter. And all this learning begins with a simple hymnal and a few favorite hymns.
Reynolds says her very favorite hymn is the Isaac Watts (1674-1748) composition O God Our Help in Ages Past. This exuberant and dynamic scholar who easily spouts names, dates and countless details about any number of sacred songs is almost speechless in her explanation of why this hymn is so special to her. She simply states, “It was my father’s favorite hymn. I’m not even sure why he liked it, but he did. And the older I get, the more clearly it speaks to me as well.”
And in the end, isn’t that what hymns of worship should do? Habakkuk 2:2 states, “And the Lord answered me, and said, ‘Write the vision, and make it plain upon tablets, that he may run that reads it.’”
Dr. Carol Reynolds readily agrees – hymns were written to be heard. She clearly intends to herald the relevant gospel message within those sacred songs to a world in need of hope. That’s her God-given vision, and she’s running with it.
Dr. Carol Reynolds is a mainstay of the homeschool and classical education world. After 21 years as a music history professor, she authored an acclaimed multi-media curriculum, Discovering Music: 300 Years of Interaction in Western Music, Arts, History, and Culture, available from www.professorcarol.com.
In Exploring Amrica’s Musical Heritage Dr. Reynolds takes viewers on a journey through America’s musical history from Puritans and Native Americans; through the founders and pioneers; to the immigrants of Ellis Island and today’s newcomers. Americans have used music, paintings, poetry, dance and architecture to express the essence of life in America. The series is contained on two DVDs that include four hours of instruction in eight units. Available at afastore.afa.net or by calling 877-927-4917.