While many evangelical congregations have moved away from hymns and hymnals, these were once central fixtures of 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 singing hymns 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. This volume also includes appendixes on the American Protestant Hymn Project and on hymns in Roman Catholic hymnals.
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At least since the time when Paul and Silas sang from the depths of the Philippian jail, praising God with hymns has been central to the Christian faith. Isn’t it odd, then, that so little careful study has been devoted to popular hymnody? True religion, Jonathan Edwards once said, can never be doctrinal knowledge only, ‘without affection.’ Vital faith is rather ‘a ferment, a vigorous engagedness of the heart.’ Few human acts can so powerfully fuse heads, hearts, hands, and voices like singing, and these authors show how multidimensional vocal praise has been. For American Protestants, hymn singing is nearly sacramental; it also can be political. Hymn singing expresses theological ideas, challenges common wisdom, defines and enacts community, and roots the gospel in culture. Wonderful Words of Life models the kind of scholarship we need for every time and place where Christianity has gone, to understand the powerful effects of ordinary people singing praise to God.
Joel Carpenter, director, Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, Calvin College
Collections of scholarly essays typically gather dust, their spines hardly cracked, their pages pristine and unread. By contrast, copies of this superb book will soon be as well-thumbed as your grandmother’s hymnal. If you want to understand the evangelical stream of what gets called ‘religion in practice’ these days, there’s no better place to start.
John Wilson, P.C. Rossin Professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
This stimulating collection provides much-needed coverage and enrichment in a neglected sector of American religious experience. The thoughtful and thought-provoking essays do not ‘their own appointed limits keep,’ but venture in illuminating ways beyond the American scene and beyond evangelical Protestantism. Teachers of cultural and religious history will be indebted to these authors.
—William Hutchison, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America, Emeritus, Harvard University
A welcome addition to our knowledge and evaluation of important strands of American hymnody.
—Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Richard J. Mouw is distinguished professor of faith and public life and former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.
Mark A. Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. His other books include The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.