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.
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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.