This Far by Faith: A new African-American hymnal and worship resource

Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1999. 264 songs plus liturgical resources including psalm settings. $12.50.

With the publication of This Far by Faith, the revolution in North American hymnody that appeared to have been under control erupted into a resounding explosion. (The title comes from Albert A. Good-gon's Ph. 1933] 1963 composition "We've Come This Far by Faith.") The revolution has been fueled over the past two decades by the publication of many new denominational hymnals, each marked by unusual musical diversity, including increasing numbers of songs from African-American sources. In fact, we have witnessed the "African-Americanizing" and "gospelizing" of North American Christian hymnody (Hispanic hymnody is also growing in influence, but there has been only a slight bow in the direction of Asian hymnody).

While the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 and the Methodist Hymnal (1964) each contained African-American music, that flirtation was nothing compared to the "in-your-face" revolution begun in 1978 when "Lift Every Voice and Sing," widely known as the "Negro National Anthem," was included in the Lutheran Book of Worship. Since then most hymnals and congregations have delved further into African-American sacred music.

With the publication of This Far by Faith, each of several large, predominately white denominations have published African-American hymnals. First was Songs of Zion (Methodist; Abingdon, 1981), more like a supplement than a full hymnal. Then came Lead Me, Guide Me (Roman Catholic; G.I.A., 1987), Lift Every Voice And Sing II (Episcopal, Church Publishing Corporation, 1993), and now this Lutheran resource, a collaborative effort between the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Having served as editor for one of these black hymnals [Lift Every Voice II) for a white congregation, I know that it is actually presumptuous to declare you're Episcopalian, as in my case, and then proceed to insinuate the African-American musical culture on the Episcopal musical character. And yet, it is inevitable that this will happen. Eventually ethnic or minority groups will want to see "themselves" in their worship and music. African-American Lutherans, like African Americans in other liturgical denominations, reacted to the new rise of consciousness prompted in part by the Civil Rights Movement and the increased participation of African Americans in liturgical worship.

I know that these Lutherans had to ask themselves, What do we include in an ethnic liturgical hymnal? It was then that they realized that the African-American religious singing tradition is derived principally from musical practices in Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean. The diverse songs and styles of that tradition includes Negro spirituals, traditional and contemporary gospel songs, "Africanized" protestant hymns, missionary and evangelistic hymns, and service music and Mass settings in traditional and gospel styles. That is precisely what is found in This Far by Faith.

Sandwiched between unusually informative prefatory and appended material are 264 hymns and songs, representative of the best in African-American sacred music. Before a discussion of that music, however, the instructive material deserves commentary. The 511 pages of the hard-cover hymnal are securely bound in textbook-like fashion, The front of the hymnal is adorned with only a cross, based on a carved motif from a Yoruba wooden door in Nigeria. Following a perfunctory preface, the singer is blessed with an African-American perspective on worship, performance practices, Scriptures and prayers for various occasions, and service music, including three complete settings of the service for Holy Communion. Eighteen psalms have been set in the gospel style (most by composers of the National Association of Black Catholic Musicians). In a section called "Witnesses to the Faith," prominent African and African Americans who have impacted strongly on Lutheranism are profiled. In addition to the index, the Appendix includes acknowledgments, hymn tune catalogue, and listings of musical and textual participants, along with valuable orders of service for commemoration of Martin Luther King, Juneteenth (African-American Independence Day) and Kwan-zaa. Unfortunately the editors would lead you to believe that all of the materials in front and back of the hymnal are original with them, when in fact they have leaned very, very heavily on both Lift Every Voice and Sing and Lead Me, Guide Me without citation.

The value of the songs in This Far by Faith is not that they are new and different—a relatively small number of songs that cannot be found in the other two liturgical African-American hymnals are new and different—but that Lutherans of all hues can now sing the songs that will "lift the bowed down head." Included are such favorites as "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "Soon and Very Soon" as well as the Negro spirituals "Go Down, Moses" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." In some cases keys have been lowered ("Oh, How He Loves You And Me"). True to the culture, little attention has been paid to inclusive language, though blatant references to "whiteness" have been expunged (Have Thine Own Way, Lord"), and the liturgy has been jealously protected by the Liturgy Subcommittee. With musical notation that is clear and easy to read, bold printing of the text, and handsome title and composer identification, This Far by Faith is a welcome addition to North American Christian hymnody.

In the words of Mahalia Jackson, "Come on Children, Let's Sing."

Horace Clarence Boyer is professor of music (emeritus) at the Unviersity of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is an expert on black gospel music and was editor of Lift Every Voice and Sing II, an African-American hymnal.


Reformed Worship 55 © March 2000 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.