The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880

By Candy Gunther Brown | Go to book overview

7
Singing with the Spirit
and the Understanding

William Aitchison, of the Presbyterian mission to China, lay on his deathbed. Some of his fellow travelers to Zion, missionaries from other denominations, visited him for the last time in 1864. Aitchison used the cherished opportunity for their mutual benefit in the way he best knew how: he exhorted his visitors to make their “calling and election sure.” To encourage them in journeying toward Zion, and to reaffirm his own membership in their pilgrim community, Aitchison requested that they sing together some of his favorite hymns: “All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name,” “When I Can Read My Title Clear,” and “There Is a Land of Pure Delight.” As his friends sang, Aitchison “attempted to join with his feeble faltering voice.” The group paused from time to time for him to repeat from memory “such passages as he was still able to recollect.” The singers, fortified to persevere in their own pilgrimage by the corporate rehearsal of “exceeding great and precious promises,” dismissed Aitchison to “rest from earth's toilsome strife, / till God shall wake me to endless life.”1

In countless situations such as this, nineteenth-century evangelicals used hymns to solidify their membership in a pilgrim community traveling from this world toward the holiness of heaven. By 1892, British and American publishers had introduced an estimated 40,000 English-language hymns and reprinted many of them in hundreds of different collections used across denominational lines. The hymn-writing impulse transcended national and linguistic boundaries. During the nineteenth century alone, publishers sponsored approximately 400,000 Christian hymns, the great majority of them evangelical in theme and tone, in 200 different languages. This chapter asks how evangelicals used hymns to sanctify the world of nineteenth

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