Book review

A mighty fortress is our hymn


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Sure, the ti­tle “28 Hymns to Sing Be­fore You Die” is a gim­mick, but it makes a good point. Tra­di­tion­ally, many Prot­es­tants be­gan sing­ing hymns when they were barely old enough to reach the pew rack, and as any nurs­ing home chap­lain can tell you, of­ten their mem­ory of hymns lives be­yond that of peo­ple or places or even the abil­ity to talk.

Case in point: The Rev. Mor­gan Rob­erts, pas­tor emer­i­tus of Shadyside Pres­by­te­rian Church and co-au­thor of this vol­ume, tells of how his father died while sing­ing “Blessed As­sur­ance.”

Bring­ing per­sonal and other an­ec­dotes to bear, Rev. Rob­erts and co-au­thor the Rev. John Mul­der game­fully con­cede that most pa­rish­io­ners re­mem­ber what they‘‍ve sung rather than the preach­ing they’‍ve sat through. “A verse may finde him, who a ser­mon flies,” the poet George Her­bert con­firmed long ago.


"28 HYMNS TO SING BEFORE YOU DIE"
By John M. Mulder, F. Morgan Roberts
Cascade Books ($25)

The au­thors have gath­ered 27 hymns that ap­peared in most ma­jor main­line Prot­es­tant hym­nals from the 19th cen­tury on­ward. (The 28th is “Amaz­ing Grace,” of more re­cent pop­u­lar­ity but a wel­come ex­cep­tion to the cri­te­ria.) The Rev. Mul­der, for­mer pres­i­dent of Lou­is­ville Pres­by­te­rian Theo­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, writes the backstory to these hymns, fol­lowed by med­i­ta­tions by Rev. Rob­erts.

Their se­lec­tion cri­te­ria limit the hymns to those sung by mostly white wor­shipp­ers in mostly tall-stee­ple churches. Gospel clas­sics of black, white and mixed vin­tage — “His Eye is on the Spar­row,” “Wade in the Water” — didn’‍t cross the cul­tural di­vide from the camp meet­ing to hym­nal un­til more re­cently.

Thus the book omits the clas­sics of Fanny Crosby‘‍s rep­er­toire, in­clud­ing “Blessed As­sur­ance” and “Pass Me Not, Oh Gen­tle Sav­ior” (in ei­ther its tra­di­tional or MC Ham­mer ver­sions). Mod­ern gui­tar-led praise mu­sic — which is all that many church-go­ers to­day have ever sung — is omit­ted.

That said, the book in­cludes many mu­si­cal and po­etic mas­ter­pieces — and cul­tural mile­stones. One can hardly un­der­stand 16th-cen­tury his­tory with­out know­ing that “A Mighty For­tress Is Our God” fired up the Refor­ma­tion troops far more than 95 the­ses that no­body re­mem­bers to­day.

The book tells of in­tensely pain­ful, per­sonal sto­ries be­hind hymns that most of us know in their Sun­day best. The words to the Palm Sun­day an­them “All Glory, Laud and Honor” were com­posed by a cleric in the squa­lor of a me­di­e­val prison, its mu­sic by an ail­ing, im­pov­er­ished min­is­ter cen­tu­ries later.

“Just As I Am,” the an­them of 20th-cen­tury Billy Graham cru­sades, was writ­ten by 19th-cen­tury English­woman Char­lotte El­li­ott in the throes of phys­i­cal pain and de­pres­sion. Her in­sis­tence on an­o­nym­ity was suc­cess­ful enough that a doc­tor once gave her a copy of the hymn to cheer her up.

The late Rev. Fred Rogers, the Pitts­burgh chil­dren’‍s TV pi­o­neer, ap­pears in these pages. Rev. Rob­erts ties “Just As I Am” to Mis­ter Rogers’‍ re­lent­less af­fir­ma­tions, “I like you just the way you are,” and “No one else can fill your sneak­ers!”

And Rev. Rob­erts even in­vokes Mis­ter Rogers in dis­cuss­ing the apoc­a­lyp­tic bat­tles of “A Mighty For­tress,” say­ing he was far from “na­ive about the power of evil“ in chil­dren‘‍s lives but urg­ing all to ”make our neigh­bor­hoods sanc­tu­ar­ies of kind­ness and for­give­ness.”


Peter Smith is the Post-Ga­zette’s re­li­gion re­porter: ps­mith@ post-ga­zette.com.

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