How does a church celebrate the 150th anniversary of an important hymnal? That is a question that we asked and answered in 2004 and 2005 at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, NY.
Consider the words of Henry Ward Beecher, vocal abolitionist and first minister of Plymouth Church. "I see, I feel, I know what power there is in singing . . . Singing to the Lord was meant to open up the hearts of those who participate in it, and carry them near to God. There is no time when we come so near to God's face, and speak to him so nearly, as when we sing . . . Give me a singing church. In a church where the Spirit of the Lord dwells, singing must break out, it seems to me."1 A few years earlier, in 1855, Beecher, along with his brother Charles and organist/composer John Zundel, had put these words into action and published the hymnal The Plymouth Collection. Plymouth Church quickly became a singing church and people came from miles around to hear the renowned singing and dynamic preaching.
One hundred and forty-nine years later, in February of 2004, an email from Carl Daw arrived in Brooklyn. "I don't know whether you are aware how important Henry Ward Beecher's The Plymouth Collection of 1855 is in the history of North American hymnals," it said. "But next year will mark the 150th anniversary of its publication, and I hope Plymouth Church will mark the occasional appropriately. In the envelope addressed to you I will also enclose a copy of an article about The Plymouth Collection from the April 2001 issue of THE HYMN. I hope you will find it of interest."2
We did indeed "find it of interest." That article, "Henry Ward Beecher's Significant Hymnal," written by Dr. William J. Reynolds, FHS, was a revelation to us. We knew that the hymnal had been important and we knew that it had been the first hymnal intended for Sunday worship to put text and tunes on the same page. However, Reynolds' article opened our eyes to the far-reaching impact of The Plymouth Collection? Not long after its publication, it became the standard for hymnals of its time. Mark Twain even mentioned it in his book Innocents Abroad.
Shortly a supplementary program was issued which set forth that The Plymouth Collection of Hymns would be used on board the ship . . . The devotions consisted only of two hymns from The Plymouth Collection and a short prayer, and seldom occupied more than fifteen minutes. The hymns were accompanied by parlor-organ music when the sea was smooth enough to allow a performer to sit at the instrument without being lashed to his chair.4
Of course we wanted to celebrate, and we certainly wanted to celebrate "appropriately." We realized that we had before us a remarkable opportunity; we had the opportunity to throw a yearlong celebration of congregational singing and to involve many people in that celebration. We knew that we wanted to seize that opportunity.
It was already May 2004. The anniversary year of 2005 was, at that point, only eight months away. As the first order of business, the church assembled a steering committee to oversee the celebration. Comprised of representatives from various constituencies within the church, this committee also included the Senior Minister and the Minister of Music, and the staff member responsible for communications. A dedicated and hard-working team, the steering committee met at least twice a month for the next eighteen months. They had their work cut out for them.
In anticipating the celebration, the committee came face to face with a very "Plymouth" challenge. Because Plymouth Church has an illustrious history, with its connections to the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement as well as its influential ministers, it has, over the years, received criticism for dedicating too much attention to its past and not enough attention to its present and future. For this reason, the steering committee knew that despite its historical roots, the proposed yearlong event would need to be more than a historical celebration if it were to gain the support of the congregation at large. …