Singing a New Song: a Review of Three New Denominational Hymnals

For anyone interested in hymnody, the last half-dozen years have been an exciting time to be alive. Every few months, on the average, a major North American denomination has produced an important hymnal. As most RW readers are aware, the Reformed Church in American gave us Rejoice in the Lord (1985) and the Christian Reformed Church its Psalter Hymnal (1987). Both are very fine books. But many other hymnals have also emerged. The Episcopal Church, for example, has a new hymnal—as do the American Baptists. The Catholics have several new hymnals, and the Mennonites and Southern Baptists are each in the process of preparing new books.

Three of the newest additions to the flood of late twentieth-century denominational hymnody are the new United Methodist Hymnal, the new Presbyterian Hymnal, and the new Trinity Hymnal. Each of these books grows out of and speaks best to a particular denominational community. But, taken together,the three hymnals provide some fascinating insights into a number of current hymn-related issues and trends.

An Overview

United Methodist Hymnal. The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) replaces the 1964 Methodist Hymnal, later renamed the Book of Hymns. The new book includes 733 hymns and canticles, 100 psalms pointed for responsorial chanting (or responsive reading), choral responses, orders of worship for a variety of services, and musical settings of portions of the liturgy. Following the lead of the successful Hymns for the Family of God (1976), the new United Methodist Hymnal includes nonmusical prayers and meditations interspersed throughout the body of the book. These prayers come from various sources, including Dag Hammerskjold, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and tribal rituals of Kenya and North America. Forty pages of liturgy and worship aids and nearly sixty pages of indexes round out the book.

Presbyterian Hymnal. The new (1990) hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is, in some ways, the most radically different of the three from its immediate predecessor, the Worshipbook of 1972. With over 600 pieces of music in their new hymnal (compared with 435 in Worshipbook), Presbyterians now have a greatly expanded collection of musical resources at their disposal. The new Presbyterian Hymnal, like the Methodist book, includes a nearly complete psalter, though of a very different sort (more on this later), as well as plenty of service music for congregations and choirs. It is in the area of worship resources (orders of worship, prayers, litanies, etc.) that the new book differs most markedly from the old. The Worshipbook, clearly intended as a combined hymnbook/prayerbook, featured almost 200 pages of aids to worship; the new hymnal includes 5. Incidentally, the Presbyterian Hymnal is also being marketed under another title: Hymns, Psalms, & Spiritual Songs. [Editors note: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is projecting a new service book for 1992.]

Trinity Hymnal. The new Trinity Hymnal (1990), produced jointly by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), is a revision of the first Trinity Hymnal of 1961. Among the three books being considered here, the Trinity Hymnal is the most conservative in its content and form. With 742 musical selections (of which 20 represent service music for congregation and/or choir), a collection of psalter passages that are intended to be read responsively, the creeds, and the Westminster Confession and the Shorter Catechism, the book takes on the appearance of many of the quality hymnals of the last generation.

However, the Trinity Hymnal includes guitar chords for an unusually large number of hymns (182) and provides a fingering chart to assist amateur guitarists. And, while all three hymnals follow the current practice of eliminating amens from the end of hymns, Trinity Hymnal includes a page called "How to Add Amens," containing plagal cadences in seventeen keys.

Three Mirrors. In some respects each of these three hymnals functions as a mirror of its past, reflecting the theology, musical tradition, and even the personality of the denomination that gave it birth. Thus, as you might expect, the work of Charles Wesley is prominent in the Methodist book. And the Reformed emphasis on biblical authority shows itself in that scriptural references are provided for each hymn in the two Presbyterian books. Similarly, metrical psalm tunes (Scottish and Genevan) occur less frequently in the Methodist book than they do in the other two.

All three books, however, embrace a substantial body of hymnody that transcends denominational boundaries. There are perhaps two hundred hymns in all styles, and from all periods, which are common to all three books. This seems to indicate two trends: (1) hymn-singing is becoming more and more an ecumenical affair, and (2) the body of common ecumenical hymnody is growing. This brings us to the editorial process. Since the face of hymnody (and the face of the world, for that matter) has changed so dramatically in the last few decades, today's hymnal editors face a formidable task and are confronted with many issues. The remainder of this article will identify some of these issues and will briefly survey how they are addressed in each of the three hymnals under discussion.


The way a hymnal is put together reveals a lot about the people who use it. The Methodists organize their book topically (not liturgically), with hymns to God the Trinity followed by hymns of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Then follows a section on the church and hymns of "A New Heaven and a New Earth." As mentioned earlier, a pointed psalter ends the musical portion of the book.

The Trinity Hymnal is also organized topically, but the topics are very specific, reflecting concern for doctrinal precision. For instance, the Methodist book has a section on "The Nature of God," while the Trinity Hymnal divides this topic into fourteen attributes: God's perfection, infinity, eternity, and so on.

In contrast, The Presbyterian Hymnal follows a "compromise" approach to organization: the first 141 numbers are arranged according to the Christian year, followed by the psalter, topical hymns, and service music. (Compromise or not, the system is vastly superior to the alphabetical format of the old Worshipbook!)

Topical headings sometimes disclose particular doctrinal emphases. For instance, Trinity Hymnal includes a section on "Election," and the Methodist book classifies a number of hymns under the headings of "Prevenient Grace," "Personal Holiness," and Social Holiness." The sacrament of holy communion receives considerable attention in the Methodist Hymnal: the heading "Eucharist" contains 31 hymns. In contrast, the Presbyterian book contains 22 communion hymns and the Trinity only 12. Given this disparity in the number of communion hymns, it is interesting to note that all three have a similar number of baptismal hymns—about 9.


The reemergence of psalm-singing in worship is one of the happy developments of recent hymnic history, and it is worthwhile to examine how the editors of each book have responded to the challenge of providing psalmody for their congregations.

The Trinity Hymnal contains many metrical psalms. Though they are scattered throughout the book, they are easy to locate with the extensive list of Scripture references.

The Methodist psalter is laid out for reading or for responsorial chanting, using the given responses and/or psalm tones. Accompaniments, unfortunately, are given only in the keyboard edition of the book.

For variety in psalmody, The Presbyterian Hymnal wins hands down. Genevan and Scottish metrical psalmody, plainsong, and responsorial psalmody are all present here and provide a wealth of musical resources for worship. Non-Presbyterian musicians would do well to purchase the book for the psalter alone.

Twentieth-Century Hymnody

In the last twenty-five years, we have witnessed an explosion of new English-language hymnody. Names like Fred Pratt Green, Brian Wren, Timothy Dudley-Smith, Margaret Clarkson, Fred Kaan, Carl Daw, Thomas Troeger, and a host of others have become almost household words in hymn-singing circles.

Surprisingly, of the poets mentioned, only Clarkson and Dudley-Smith appear in the Trinity Hymnal; the absence of works by any of the others must be considered a weakness. In fact, on the whole, the Trinity Hymnal has substantially less new hymnody (words and music) than the other two books.

The Methodist and Presbyterian hymnals offer a wide selection of modern hymnody. The preface to the Methodist hymnal makes it clear that this was a priority:

"…[The hymnal committee] made room for new hymns which more fully reflect our continuing concerns for peace, justice, the care of the planet Earth, hunger, and the reconciling ministry of Christ's church to the world."

Ethnic Hymnody

Perhaps because of the comparatively homogeneous membership of the PCA and OPC, there is little in the way of what might be termed racial or ethnic hymnody in the Trinity Hymnal. A few familiar spirituals are included, but no foreign-language hymns.

The case is very different in the other two books. The Presbyterian Hymnal gives creeds and prayers in multiple languages and contains about 20 hymns in tongues other than English. Spanish and Korean account for most of these, but texts in Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Dakota also appear, as do some non-Western melodies to English texts.

In this area, however, the Methodist Hymnal is strongest, offering more than 70 hymns representing the heritage of African Americans, His-panics, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.

Inclusive Language

Another area in which the hymnals differ significantly is in the realm of inclusive language. Trinity Hymnal is frankly archaic in this regard, still using "man" in the generic sense.

The Methodist and Presbyterian hymnals take a more contemporary approach, without being heavy-handed. "God of our Fathers" appears as "God of the Ages"—as it has, in most places, for several years and as it should stay. And, where it is convenient and does no harm to the old text, the pronoun "he" is sometimes replaced by "God." Yet any radical reworking of familiar texts is wisely avoided. The aim in all this, as the introduction to The Presbyterian Hymnal states, is to ensure that

[The hymnal] is inclusive of all God's people—sensitive to age, race, gender, physical limitations, and language.

To a large degree, this inclusivity is achieved in the Methodist and Presbyterian books by their inclusion of so much new hymnody. It seems to be easier and more sensible to adopt timely new texts than it is to rework old, familiar ones.

Hymns for Children

Since children represent the future of the church, and since hymnody is one of the most effective methods by which faith is passed on from generation to generation, children's hymnody is an issue of great importance to hymnal editors. Gone are the days when children's hymns were relegated to an odd assortment of six or eight Sunday school songs at the back of the grown-ups' hymnbook. Nowadays, children participate more fully in church life, and this includes hymnody.

So in none of the three hymnals is there a section titled "Hymns for Children," but the indexes are very helpful in identifying children's hymns. The Trinity Hymnal's index lists 45 hymns that the editors felt are appropriate for children and includes 4 more under "youth." It also suggests that other appropriate hymns for this audience might be found under subjects such as baptism, family worship, and marriage and the home.

The Presbyterian Hymnal's index specifies 87 titles that are appropriate for children—but let the user beware: some of these hymns require careful preparation and presentation (Catherine Cameron's fine hymn "God Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens" is a case in point), and worship leaders should always exercise care in matching appropriate hymns to children of various ages.

The Methodist Hymnal lists 6 hymns for children and 47 others as "Children's Choir Selections." Children's choir directors of all denominations will certainly want to examine this list for ideas they can use in their own particular ministries.

Ease of Use

Finally, all three hymnals are "user-friendly." A full complement of indexes give real flexibility to worship planners using each book. In addition to the topical, metrical, scriptural, tune-name, first-line, and source indexes, each book provides copyright data on all selections not in public domain: The Presbyterian Hymnal prints this information at the bottom of each page; the Trinity and Methodist books list it in a separate index of acknowledgments. Having access to this information is vital for anyone wishing to legally reproduce any of the hymnals' contents.

All three books present themselves well. The simulated-leather cover of the Presbyterian Hymnal is the most satisfying to handle.

For readability the Methodist book, with its large notes and clear typeface, gets the highest marks, with the Presbyterian book a close second. Trinity Hymnal's engraving, while very clean, uses thinner lines for staffs, bar lines, and note stems: this could pose some difficulties for worshipers with visual impairments.

Outstanding Collections

The Trinity Hymnal, The Presbyterians Hymnal, and the United Methodist Hymnal are all outstanding new collections. Each arose out of the needs of its own denomination and, in its own way, is crafted to supply those needs for years to come. Each is a well-considered book, unique in the way it has addressed the many and varied facets of hymn singing in the late twentieth century. And each makes a considerable contribution not only to the lives of the worshipers who will use it but to the greater world of Christian hymnody as well.


United Methodist Hymnal $11.95
Division of United Methodist
Publishing House
201 Eighth Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37202

The Presbyterian Hymnal $12.95
Presbyterian Publishing House
100 Witherspoon Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Trinity Hymnal $12.95
Great Commission Publications
7001 Peachtree Industrial Blvd.
Suite 120
Norcross, GA 30092

Alfred V. Fedak is director of music at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Albany, New York, and composer of many published works for organ and choir.


Reformed Worship 19 © March 1991, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.