Ask The UMC: Why does The United Methodist Hymnal include more than songs?

Pews and hymnals photographed inside Monroe Street United Methodist Church in historic Germantown, Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications
Pews and hymnals photographed inside Monroe Street United Methodist Church in historic Germantown, Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

Why does The United Methodist Hymnal include more than songs?

The answer has to do with developments in both Methodist ritual and published resources over time.

The Methodist hymnal at the time of the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1784, 18th century) was a collection of song lyrics with tune names listed but no tunes printed. Congregations learned the tunes from a song leader who would “line them out” (sing a line, then the congregation would respond by singing the same line back) until everyone knew the tune well enough to sing it through.

The ritual of the church (the order for regular Sunday worship, including morning and evening prayer, communion, baptism, marriage, burial, and ordination) was initially published in a separate collection created by John Wesley known as The Sunday Service. This resource was over 300 pages, long enough to warrant being a separate book.

In 1792, the General Conference substantially simplified the ritual, reducing the standard Sunday service to about half of a single page (simply a list of things to be done in a typical preaching service), while retaining more or less intact the services elders or bishops needed to lead (communion, baptism, marriage, burial, and ordination).

This substantial reduction in length made it possible to include these ritual elements within the pages of the Book of Doctrines and Discipline, which every itinerant elder would keep in his traveling bag. It no longer needed to be a separate volume. The hymnal continued to be simply a collection of hymn texts printed in a volume small enough to stow in a shirt pocket so it could be carried around and used whether in worship on Sunday morning, at class meeting midweek, or in home worship during the week.

Through the first half of the 19th century, the Book of Doctrines and Discipline continued to include the whole of the ritual, and the hymnals included just the hymn texts. By 1860 the Methodist Episcopal Church, South would finally publish a hymnal edition with texts and tunes in the same volume.

After the U.S. Civil War, there was a decided shift in how appointments were handled, both North and South. Prior to the war, it was not uncommon for Methodist elders to have up to 12 appointments, and so they would get to each congregation about once every quarter. As things began to settle after the war, the average number of appointments per elder was generally reduced to four and some larger city and county seat towns began to have their own full-time pastor. This was met with a shift in publishing the ritual, so that by the end of the 19th century, at least the basic congregational services (communion, baptism, marriage, funeral) were included in the hymnal itself, as well as in fuller form in the Book of Doctrines and Discipline.

The 1905 Methodist Hymnal, developed and largely shared by both the North and the South, and by which time “one pastor to one church” was becoming the norm, was the first to include an order of worship and a Psalter in the body of the hymnal, plus the same full form of the basic ritual as was found in the Book of Doctrines and Discipline.

The 1939 hymnal of the new Methodist Church (created in 1939 by the union of The Methodist Episcopal Church South, The Methodist Protestant Church, and The Methodist Episcopal Church) had an even more robust “worship aids” section, now also including responsive readings and an index for using these in connection with biblical readings throughout the year, a kind of proto-lectionary. This was developed in anticipation of the creation of a fully fledged Book of Worship for Church and Home (1945), which included not only the basic ritual, but also customized “worship aids” of many kinds for programmatic Sundays and the Christian year.

Meanwhile, the Evangelical United Brethren Hymnal (1957) would follow the pattern of the 1939 Methodist hymnal in also including orders of worship, basic ritual, and a collection of responsive readings.

With these developments since the late 19th century, a hymnal with “just songs” was no longer the Methodist or Evangelical United Brethren practice. That is why The United Methodist Hymnal: Book of United Methodist Worship (1989), its full title, includes the variety of worship resources (prayers, Psalter, ritual, and songs) it does.

Have questions? Ask The UMC. And check out other recent Q&As.

This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.  First published July 10, 2018.

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