I come from a worship tradition that emphasizes the great hymns of old. You wouldn’t find electric guitars or backing vocalists at my home church…rather, our congregation (Lutheran – Missouri Synod) focuses primarily on traditional instrumentation and traditional songs.
Fast forward a few years and I’m attending a Christian college where few students are familiar with these hymns. Most of my classmates are more comfortable with Chris Tomlin, Hillsong United, and Matt Redman than Fanny Crosby, Isaac Watts, and Charles Wesley. As one might expect, this was a relatively abrupt transition.
It is the dichotomy between old and new worship traditions that Robert Morgan has sought to address in his series “Then Sings My Soul.” Fortunately for new readers such as myself, each book is a stand-alone work. This one is divided into four sections: first, an overview of Christian hymnody through the centuries (from Biblical to modern times); second, a series of short backstories for a variety of hymns; third, several extended accounts detailing the composition of six well-loved hymns; and fourth, two essays on the role of hymns in private and public life.
This four-part structure occasionally gives the book a disjointed feel, but to be fair, this work probably wasn’t intended to be read in one sitting. As a daily devotional, I’m sure it would be outstanding. Numerous brief vignettes describe the history behind well-loved hymns (“How Great Thou Art,” “Blessed Assurance,” etc.) while offering devotional commentary and ideas for implementation into worship.
The book really picks up energy, however, in its latter half. Several fascinating extended anecdotes shed light on the origins of still more classic hymns – for instance, one tells the story of Horatio Spafford (author of “It Is Well”), providing information not often included in modern accounts. Throughout the book, it is abundantly clear that Morgan has done his homework – detailed background material is constantly offered.
The book’s concluding essay, “Old New Praise,” is one of the best and most cogent pieces on church music that I’ve ever read. Morgan calls for “interwoven worship” that blends the great hymns of Christian history with the contemporary praise songs of today. He indicts the recent tendency toward separating “traditional” and “contemporary” worship styles, recognizing that value and significance may be found in both. Instead, Morgan calls for a synthesis: retaining the greatest hymns of the past while embracing modern songs. In response to criticism that modern praise music lacks depth, Morgan simply points to the thousands of shallow hymns that have been produced throughout Christian history (not all classic English hymns are on par with “Amazing Grace”!). Present-day hymns with legitimate value, Morgan contends, will survive – but it will take time to sift them out.
Is “Then Sings My Soul” worth buying?
As a historical work, the book is intriguing but may be too superficial for some (it treats many hymns in a page or less). As a devotional work for longtime lovers of the hymnody, however, it succeeds marvelously. Morgan also offers a balanced vision for church music that may be reasonably embraced by both traditionalists and modernists. At the very least, it’s well worth a read – church librarians would be advised to consider buying a copy. Morgan’s love for the classic hymns of the past is contagious…and it’s a love that today’s Christian leaders would be well served to share.
An informative, well-written exploration of Christian hymnody through the centuries.
* I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”