A hymnal was a book of songs that made its residence in a rack on the back of a pew. “What’s a pew,” you say? Hush. It’s a bench in church. I’ll have to explain more in another post. The hymnal lived next to the “pew bible,” which was there in case you were a backslider who forgot to bring your own. It was also handy if you were a heathen visitor who didn’t know your way around the Lord’s word, because sometimes the preacher would give the page number of what he was reading so you wouldn’t have to try to find Joel or sit there wondering what a Habakkuk was.
But I was talking about hymnals. Odd as it seems, people in church used to sing from books. Odder still, the books had not only the words of the songs, but they had the notes too. The notes told the people what to sing and when, so they wouldn’t have to mumble half a measure behind the “worship leader” when they sang a new song.
Yes, people sang unfamiliar songs. Of course, you didn’t sing four songs every Sunday that no one in the congregation had ever heard before just because they were at the top of the worship charts. For the most part, you sang about 37 of the 694 songs in the hymnal on a regular basis. The rest were there for Christmas and Easter and other special occasions, or for when the pastor got a wild hair and wanted to preach about a subject he hadn’t touched in years.
Anyway, there was the music right there in front of you if you knew how to use it. They stacked four notes on top of each other, and the church was inclusive of the whole gender spectrum: SATB. There was even a blurring of gender lines when the choir had the occasional lady tenor, and everybody was just fine. Although in those cases, sectional rehearsals had to have a chaperone.
Some churches used hymnals where the notes were different shapes, just like the people singing the hymns. They were called, oddly enough, “shape-note hymnals.” This was done because someone at the hymnal factory decided that people couldn’t figure out how notes go up and down on lines, so they made the notes into Lucky Charms®.
The benefits of the hymnal are manifold. The aforementioned harmonies are not the least of these. They make the music inclusive. Not everyone sings in the range of the leader up front, especially if he’s wearing skinny jeans. It is a great mercy to give the baritones a fair shot at joining in the praise.
Hymnals are also good for courting and marriage. Back in the day, a sly gentleman would make sure to guide his young lady to a pew with only one hymnal in the rack. And a couple that knows how to share the hymnal is likely to have a harmonious marriage in many ways.
But, as in the days of King Belshazzar, the writing on the wall portends the end of a civilization. Our wrists are too weak to hold the books, and our songs have become but vapor, mere projections. They float off after a season to be sung no more. Someday, perhaps, a young worship leader will find the book of hymns as in the day of Josiah, and we will turn back to the right way.