Is This the UU “Good Book”? by Mimi Stevens

Is This the UU “Good Book”?

By Mimi Stevens
Aug. 4, 2013

Reading: “Be filled with the Spirit; speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart unto the Lord.” – Ephesians V: 19

Good morning.  It is my pleasure to be with you today.  I’ll be speaking on a subject that is very dear to my heart.  I believe that “Singing and making melody” is very important in our worship, which is why you will have a big role in this service.

Hear these words from Hymns of the Spirit, Beacon Press, 1937:

“In the hymn-book is the true key to the doctrine of the communion of saints, for here the saintly ones of all ages meet in their saintliest mood.”

In 1999, at the annual conference of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, the Rev. Tom Chulak, who gave several workshops on the hymnal, pointed out in a sermon that, among major religions, Unitarian Universalism is unique in that it has no scripture, no one unifying Holy Book that is used by all worshipers.  The Jews have the Torah, the Christians the Bible, the Muslims the Koran, to name only the Western religions – and within Christianity there are books uniting specific denominations, such as the Book of Mormon and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  We UUs place great value on the written word, but we don’t have a scripture.

What we do have, Tom Chulak suggested, is the hymnal.  It is (or was at that time, anyway) the one book that is used by Unitarian Universalist congregations across the continent.  On any Sunday, we could be singing the same hymn as a congregation in Maine, Florida, Texas, or Idaho – because we all have the same book.  And the same responsive reading might be heard in Michigan, Louisiana, and British Columbia.

My own interest in hymns and hymnals goes back so far that I can’t even remember when it began.  As the daughter of a minister who cared intensely about the artistic unity of his Sunday morning worship services, I learned at an early age the importance of choosing the right hymns.  My father also taught me to identify the tunes by name, so that “These things shall be, a loftier race” will always be Truro to me.  (Yes, we sang that in the Congregational Church when I was young, and we UUs still have it in Singing the Living Tradition.)  Traditionally,“hymn” refers to the words; the music is called the “tune” and in times past a “hymnbook” had only words and the tunes were in a separate book.  How lucky we are to have both on one page!

I must have been influenced by my mother too. Going through her files after her death, I ran across what was apparently a paper she had done for a seminary class – in 1936 – entitled “Forward Through the Ages: A Hymnal for the Living Church” in which she had compiled a list of about 200 hymns “… for use during the next ten years.”  Let me read from her Foreword to this compilation: “ … we have tried to include a large number of the best modern hymns with the finest of the older hymns that are consonant with more enlightened religious thought.  We have tried to place emphasis on the present world and the Christian life on earth….  Some of the older lyrics could profitably be altered.  Some have been altered already. … This collection . . . is designed to convey the heritage of a glorious past in church song, at the same time that it opens a door to a glorious future.”

I don’t have access to hymnals going back as far as Tom Chulak did, which is probably a good thing from the standpoint of how long today’s service will last!  His references started more than a hundred years ago, but I’m only going to use the books I have in my personal collection.  One of the points he made, though, is that even just looking at which hymn the editors selected to appear on the first page tells us something about the religious climate of the church for which it was intended.  So, although the page numbers in the Order of Service are those of Singing the Living Tradition, the hymns we will be singing are all Number 1: the first hymns in each of the four hymnals that have been published since 1937, when Hymns of the Spirit appeared.  Incidentally, the words of this first “first hymn” are not the same as you would have sung prior to 1993.  In 1937 no one referred to God as other than “He” but by 1993 that was no longer politically correct, so we have “The Name” instead of “His Name,” as well as a few other changes.  Still, it reflects a God-centered religious world-view — and both words and tune are from the Jewish tradition.  Please join in singing hymn # 215, verses 1 and 2.

*SINGING #215 “Praise to the Living God” (verses 1 and 2) Yigdal (Leoni)

MESSAGE: “Is this the UU ‘Good Book’?” – Part 1: Hymns of the Spirit (1937)
In 1927, the Directors of the American Unitarian Association appointed a Commission on Hymns and Services whose task was to prepare a revised edition of the 1914 New Hymn and Tune Book which was in general use in Unitarian churches at that time.  In 1931, the Universalist General Convention appointed a similar Commission on Hymns and Services to prepare a new hymnbook based on the two books then in use by Universalist churches.  Almost immediately a proposal was made that the two Commissions should cooperate in editing jointly a book that could then be used by both groups of churches.  This was thirty years before the merger that created the Unitarian Universalist Association.  From the Preface of Hymns of the Spirit – the “red book”:

The result is a book which is much more than a revision of the New Hymn and Tune Book of 1914, or of Church Harmonies and Hymns of the Church, although those books have provided the foundation upon which the editors have built.  The present book includes all those hymns and tunes from the older books which, upon inquiry, appeared to have any considerable present day use, but it has also been enriched by the inclusion of many fine hymns and tunes, new and old, which have hitherto been unfamiliar to our congregations.  The editors have particularly sought for hymns with a strong ethical note, which emphasize the newer social applications of religion, and for hymns which give expression to modern conceptions of the human soul and its relation to the universe.  Satisfactory new hymns, in which these ideas are phrased in adequate literary form for public worship, are not numerous. … As is always the case with a new hymn book, it is inevitable that the individual user should regret the omission of one or another hymn or tune endeared to him by old association, and should question the value of some of the new words and music. …In both their omissions and inclusions the editors have sought to reflect alike the actual usage and the present tendencies of religious thought, and to make allowances for all the diverse views and varieties of taste to be found in our free churches.

The volume which included Hymns of the Spirit also had a section entitled Services of Religion for use in the Churches of the Free Spirit.  Some of the services found there differ very little from the services I remember in the Congregational Church of my childhood — most include the Lord’s Prayer, and the words of many of the invocations, litanies and responses are completely familiar to me.  They even include Anglican-style chants – which we did not use in the Congregational Church, but the first Unitarian church I attended, when this was still the hymnal in common use, did. The editors do comment that “It is no doubt unnecessary, in view of the independent attitude of the free churches, to state that these services are not offered as prescribed forms which require literal adherence.”

In 1937, although the social and ethical aspects of religion were receiving greater emphasis in both service materials and hymns, the vast majority of the hymns reflected the fact that the free churches were still very theistic in outlook.  The words “God,” “Lord,” “Father,” and “King” are found in most of them, and even “Christ” and “Christian” appear with greater frequency than UUs of the present might expect. I found it interesting to note that over half of the hymns in my mother’s collection are found in Hymns of the Spirit.

In 1955, the Beacon Press published a volume entitled We Sing of Life. The first song in this book has, like the first song in Hymns of the Spirit, withstood the test of time.  It appears on page 44 in the current hymnal.  Please join your voices as “We Sing of Golden Mornings.”

*SINGING #44: “We Sing of Golden Mornings” Complainer

MESSAGE: “Is this the UU ‘Good Book’?” – Part 2: We Sing of Life (1955)

An interesting footnote to this hymn: in We Sing of Life – the Orange Book – the text is shown as “arranged by Vincent B. Silliman from an anonymous original.”  Silliman, a Unitarian minister, was the editor of We Sing of Life. In Hymns for the Celebration of Life, published only nine years later, the source is given as Ralph Waldo Emerson; in the notes at the back of the book it states that Silliman adapted the words from a 1925 hymnal, and that Emerson’s poem will be seen to be the original text.  In the current hymnal, Silliman’s name is not mentioned.  Sic transit even the slight glory of the hymnbook editor.

We Sing of Life was intended primarily for children and young people, and was never an official hymnal of the denomination, although when I joined the UU Fellowship of Ogden, Utah, in 1963 it was the hymnal that group was using.  The fact that songs mentioning God are definitely in the minority probably made it much more palatable to that very humanist-oriented group than Hymns of the Spirit would have been.  In fact, there were a number of members who thought we should not sing hymns at all!  That group, the “reformed,” met in the kitchen for coffee while we hymn singers, known as the “orthodox,” gathered around the piano for a couple of songs before the speaker-and-discussion part of the meeting began.  The book was a project of  the Committee on Religious Education of the American Ethical Union, and although it was published by the Beacon Press, it was the American Ethical Union which held the copyright.  The editor, as I mentioned, was a Unitarian minister, committees and informal groups from both the Unitarians and the Universalists – still separate denominations – participated in the project, and the Foreword was written by Unitarian Religious Educator Sophia Lyon Fahs.

The merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist General Convention was finalized in 1961.  The newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association soon appointed a Hymnbook Commission, and Hymns for the Celebration of Life – the Blue hymnal – was published in 1964.  The opening hymn is classified as a hymn of “celebration and praise”  but the name of God is not mentioned.  Please join in singing Hymn 40, “The morning hangs a signal” – which, incidentally is also found in Hymns of the Spirit, though much farther back in the book!

*SINGING # 40 “The Morning Hangs a Signal” Meirionydd

MESSAGE: “Is this the UU ‘Good Book’?” – Part 3; Hymns for the Celebration of Life (1964)

These words from the preface to  Hymns for the Celebration of Life:

Religion is a present reality; it is also an inheritance from the past. Hymns for the Celebration of Life is edited in the conviction that a vital faith must be a singing faith and that each generation needs to express itself freshly in its own idiom through song and the spoken word. …

Although Hymns of the Spirit had not attempted to group hymns according to subject, it did have a topical index.  One of those topics was “Man in the World of Nature and Society.” In Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the topic is, simply, “Man.”  Here we find such hymns as “Man is the earth, upright and proud” and “O Man, acclaim your heritage” – both by Kenneth Patton, who was, incidentally, a member of the Hymnbook Commission.  Though there were still plenty of hymns that mentioned God, and all the familiar Christmas carols appeared with the traditional words, the humanist trend was clearly showing.  The readings, in addition to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, included passages from the Koran, the Tao-Teh-Ching, and the Bhagavad-Gita as well as the words of white males both living and dead. Although a number of hymns had texts by women poets, the only reading by a woman was Sophia Fahs’ “It matters what we believe.” This was, after all, 1964.  Feminist consciousness-raising was just getting started, and no one worried about the fact that the word “man” was used to describe the human race,  and all general pronouns, as well as all references to God, were masculine.  That lasted for almost twenty years.

In 1982 the “little green book” came out – a compilation of selected hymns from the Blue hymnal in which the words had been altered to remove gender-specific language.  Some worked better than others, but it did show that the denomination was being sensitive to social trends.

In 1993 the Unitarian Universalist Association published Singing the Living Tradition, the hymnal we use today. The Hymnbook Resources Commission, which worked for five years to bring this book into being, wrote in the preface:

We remember the words of our predecessors: “Religion is a present reality; it is also an inheritance.” Or to use a more current expression, a living faith must have both roots and wings. … Our living tradition began the twentieth century primarily as a liberal Christianity among Universalists and Unitarians, and ends that same century also embracing the riches of humanism, feminism, mysticism, natural theism, the Jewish tradition, many other world faith traditions, and the skepticism generated by this century’s disillusioning woes and wars.

I find a direct relationship between that last phrase – “this century’s disillusioning woes and wars” – and the selection of Louis Untermeyer’s “Prayer for This House” as the first hymn we find when we open the book.  In Hymns for the Celebration of Life it appeared under the topic “Love and Human Brotherhood.” In Singing the Living Tradition it was moved to the number one spot, and reclassified to the topic “The Celebration of Life.”  However they classify it,  I’m glad the Hymnbook Commission put it first.  Please join in singing one of my favorite hymns.

*SINGING #1 “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door” Oldbridge

MESSAGE: “Is this the UU ‘Good Book’?” – Part 4: Singing the Living Tradition (1993)

One of my humanist friends, years ago, made a beautiful calligraphy sign for me which read, “God – or someone – bless our home.”  I always felt that if the word “bless” means “make happy” then that someone has to be the people who live there, striving together to make it a holy place.  To me this hymn embodies belief in  the holiness of the home, whether of an individual family or a church community – a value I’m glad to see receiving the recognition it deserves.  What an important part of life to celebrate!

And while we’re talking about celebration: I have a bumper sticker on my car with the message “Celebrate Diversity”  – that could surely be taken as a slogan for this hymnbook, which includes music and texts from six continents, and words from the world’s sacred writings.  In 1964, the editors wrote: “With few exceptions, we have preferred to use the King James Version for Biblical passages;” in 1993, we find these words: “In selecting passages from the Bible we elected to use several versions to better engage the diversity of modern minds and hearts.”  Also, women are well represented in every part of the book, even comprising half the membership of the Hymnbook Resources Commission – what a change from only thirty years previously, when the Commission included only one woman, or 1937, when there were none.

To a much greater degree than in any of its predecessors, we find songs that certainly don’t fit the traditional idea of what a “hymn” is.  Folk tunes, spirituals, the music of Japan, India, Africa, the Phillippines.  Music from the Genevan Psalter and music by living composers.  Even as our lives become ever more enriched by diversity, so also is our music.

And consider Kenneth Patton’s words, sung to Luther’s great tune: In Hymns for the Celebration of Life the words were, “Man is the earth, upright and proud. … His day is just beginning.”  In the new version, revised by Patton himself , not only has the gender-specific language been removed, but the focus has moved from the objective to the subjective.  Somehow I find a greater humility,  as well as inclusiveness, in the new version: “We are the earth … … Our day is just beginning.”  This is a spirit that seems to me to be much more manifest in Singing the Living Tradition than in any of its predecessors: a spirit of community, of “we-ness”, of being involved in what we are singing, of singing with, not just singing about.

Now it’s time to change books.  Please open your teal book, Singing the Journey, to the first song, “Morning has come,” and let us sing together.

SINGING: #1000   “Morning Has Come” Mountain Morning

MESSAGE: “Is This the UU ‘Good Book’?” : part 5, Singing the Journey (2005)            In 2005 a supplement to Singing the Living Tradition was published..  The Foreword to this book was written not by a hymnbook commission, but by the Reverend Bill Sinkford, then President of the UUA.  His words underscore the message I would leave with you today.  He wrote, “Our music can bind our very individualistic communities together.  We struggle to define our shared faith.  For many of us it is hard to say simply what Unitarian Universalism is. But the elements of worship that we share help tell us who we are as a religious people.  Our songs let us know that we are one religious people despite the many spiritual paths we follow.” With its even greater diversity in sources and styles of music, Singing the Journey is intended to supplement the hymnal, not supplant it, which is why it begins with number 1000 instead of number 1, but I think the title itself tells us something: we are part of a living tradition which is also a journey.  And this first song, by the Rev. Jason Shelton, underscores Bill Sinkford’s message: The light of hope, of peace, of love here shines upon each face.   May it bring faith to guide our journey home.

So yes, I say, the hymnal IS the UU “Good Book” – and it continues to grow and evolve just as our understanding of and connection with the world continues to grow and evolve.  Revelation is not sealed.  Think back on the hymns we have sung this morning – the first hymns in each of these books.  From the praise of God, to the praise of nature, to the idea of nature as a metaphor for the soul, to the blessing of hearth and home, to the celebration of community – this has indeed been an evolution.  Perhaps in another ten or fifteen years – if historical precedent is anything to go by – our shared faith will have further evolved to the point that we will again redefine just what our “Good Book” should contain.  We have already taken a step in that direction with the publication of Singing the Journey,  and the denomination is continuing to publish songbooks, like the children’s songbook, Let Your Light Shine.  And now there is a new Spanish songbook, reflecting the denomination’s sensitivity to the increasing cultural diversity of our society.  And the first hymn in this book?  “Madre Esencia, Padre Esencia” – Norbert Fabián Čapek’s hymn that was originally written in Czech, then translated into English as “Mother Spirit, Father Spirit” and now from English to Spanish – now that’s diversity!  So let us keep singing together – and let us remember as we do that we are joining our voices not just in this one church community.  With these shared songs we are connected with the greater community of Unitarian Universalists, and beyond that with the world we have drawn into our experience through its songs.
For our closing hymn, I have chosen the one sung most frequently in UU churches across the continent – in fact, there are many congregations (which I understand has included this one) where it is sung every Sunday, sort of a UU Doxology.  It is Carolyn McDade’s “Spirit of Life,”  page 123.  Please rise.

Extinguishing the chalice (Worship Associate)

Benediction (sung) From you I receive …

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