Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology

Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology

Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology

Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology


While many evangelical congregations have moved away from hymns and hymnals, these were once central fixtures in the evangelical tradition. This book examines the role and importance of hymns in evangelicalism, not only as a part of worship but as tools for theological instruction, as a means to identity formation, and as records of past spiritual experiences of the believing community.

Written by knowledgeable church historians, Wonderful Words of Life explores the significance of hymn-singing in many dimensions of American Protestant and evangelical life. The book focuses mainly on church life in the United States but also discusses the foundational contributions of Isaac Watts and other British hymn writers, the use of gospel songs in English Canada, and the powerful attraction of African-American gospel music for whites of several religious persuasions. Includes appendixes on the American Protestant Hymn Project and on hymns in Roman Catholic hymnals.


These days, when appearing at events where I am scheduled to speak, I am often asked whether any hymns will be quoted. I think it is fair to say that I have gotten a reputation of sorts for doing that kind of thing, but it is a reputation that comes naturally. My preacher-father, who regularly quoted some lines from a hymn to nail down a point he was trying to make in a sermon, schooled me in the practice.

Sometimes I wonder, though, whether I was born a little too late to be doing this sort of thing. My father’s congregations were well educated in the contents of their hymnbooks. It was a regular practice at our Sunday evening services to have “request time,” and there was never a lull during that part of the service. Typically several favorites would be called out at once, and we usually did not have enough time to sing all of the hymns that were requested. When my father quoted a hymn, he was drawing on material that was familiar to his hearers.

But when you quote a hymn to a contemporary congregation, you now risk getting a wall of blank stares in response. These days many evangelical congregations do not even possess hymnbooks. Or the books may be there in the pew racks, but the words of hymns to be sung are either projected onto a large screen or printed in the bulletin. None of this is conducive to the spontaneous quoting of favorite hymns. Indeed, in many congregations, gathered worshipers sing more praise songs than hymns, if they sing any hymns at all.

Not that I want to be counted among the cultured despisers of praise songs. Many of the criticisms of this form of music strike me as mis-

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