God Gives Us a Song

The Hymnal of Mary Kay Beall and John Carter

Mary Kay Beall and John Carter are a husband-and-wife hymn-writing team. Mary Kay was born on August 16, 1943, in Akron, Ohio. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University (B.M.), Ohio State University (M.A.), and Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio (M.T.S.). An ordained minister in the American Baptist Church and United Church of Christ, Mary Kay and her husband have served in a variety of positions in numerous churches of different denominations.

Mary Kay is the principal text writer of the team, but she is also a composer of hymn tunes and other choral music. In addition to her hymn and anthem texts, she has written librettos for musicals and an opera, as well as secular songs.

John Carter was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 8, 1930. He is a graduate of Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas (B.M.) and George Peabody College in Nashville (M.M.). His works can be found in the catalogs of many publishers, and include over 600 choral compositions, cantatas, and musicals; over 60 keyboard collections; and many hymns. Both John and Mary Kay served as editors for Hope Publishing Company for several years and continue as regular contributors to the Hope catalog.

Two collections of hymns by Mary Kay Beall and John Carter have been issued by Hope Publishing Company: Hymns for a Troubled World (1991), a selection of 10 texts and tunes, and God Gives Us a Song: A Collection of Texts and Tunes for Worship (2010). The latter volume is attributed only to Mary Kay since she is the sole author represented, but the majority (14) of the new tunes included were by John; Mary Kay herself supplied a further eight tunes, and existing repertory was drawn upon for the remainder, apart from 21 texts for which no music was supplied.

All but two of the lyrics from Hymns for a Troubled World were repeated in God Gives Us a Song (the deleted ones were “Call Us from Our Ordered Lives” and “Hymn for a Gentler World” (“When All the Universe was Formed”) but several of Carter’s tunes and arrangements were omitted from the later collection and at least one received slight alteration (LOVE’S LABORS, “Christ Has No Hands but Your Hands”).

All the page numbers given here refer to God Gives Us a Song. In many cases, the text is given a title; in these instances, the title is given as found in God Gives Us a Song, followed by the first line in parentheses. Many of their hymns can also be found at Hope Publishing Company’s Hymnody Online at the Hope Publishing Company website (www.hopepublishing.com).

A technical characteristic that is immediately noticeable about Beall’s texts is the clarity and consistency of their poetic meter: once she sets up a pattern of textual accents she typically maintains it with seldom a “bump” caused by a misplaced accent. For example, “The Lord of Life, a Vine Is He” (see p. 39) has an iambic pattern that is routinely followed in every line. This feature is important when a text is intended to be sung to a strophic tune and is grateful to the composer who sets it. This hymn is also remarkable in its use of the same rhyming sound for each line of the stanza.

Another element that is common in Beall’s lyrics is the use of repeated or only slightly altered lines in successive stanzas. For example, each stanza of “For Such a Time as This” (“A Tale As Old As Time,” 26) ends with the line that gives the hymn its title. The first two stanzas of “Beneath His Cross She Watches” (14) end with the lines “but Mary will not leave him/and cannot turn away”; this is altered in the third stanza to “but Mary will not leave him,/her dying firstborn son.” The four stanzas of “How Far Is Patience, Lord?” (41) are identical except that one word is changed in each of the first three lines of the stanza (line three of stanza four uses three one-syllable words in place of a three-syllable word); the last line is the same for each stanza.

A number of hymns have refrains in the more traditional sense of one that is detachable from the stanzas. If the form is traditional, however, the language sometimes is not, as is evident from the refrain of “God Gives Us a Song” (“When All Life’s Troubles Seem Too Much to Bear,” 29), in which the song God gives us is called “uproarious.”

Several of Beall’s texts allude to or appear to be modeled on other works, suggesting that they might be sung as partner songs to the reading or singing of these poems and hymns. Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” served as the inspiration for “When I Kneel at the Manger Tonight” (“What Can I Give to Him, a Heavenly King,” 95; see p. 124). The first line of “We Sing One Common Lord” (92) was perhaps derived from George Herbert’s poem “The Shepherds Sing; and Shall I Silent Be,” while “Christ Has No Hands but Your Hands” (17) seems to reflect a sixteenth-century poem by Teresa of Avila and/or the nineteenth-century hymn by Annie Johnson Flint, “Christ Has No Hands but Our Hands,” and parts of “If I Must Be a Captive, Lord” (42) are reminiscent of George Matheson’s “Make Me a Captive, Lord.” “If I Must Be a Captive, Lord” embodies some of the modern things that “take control” of us, including “Greed,” “Power,” “Passion,” and “Substance” (personified through capitalization), and asks God to “forgive my weakness, grant me strength/and make me well and whole.”

Several hymns are unusual in the way they use scriptural subjects and passages. “Beneath the Palm Tree on a Hill” (15) paraphrases Judges 4:4-5 (Deborah as a judge in Israel), with an allusion to the Song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5. “For Such a Time as This” (“A Tale As Old As Time”) retells the story of Esther but does so in a series of isolated phrases rather than in narrative form; the effect is that of a messenger who is breathless from running to share the tale and is struggling to get out only the most important words. “He Will Feed His Flock” (38) paraphrases Isaiah 40:11, Psalm 23:4 and 2 (in that order), and John 10:16 and 27. “In the Days When Judges Ruled” (48) is about Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah, but none of them are mentioned by name. Psalm 73:23-26 and 28 serve as the basis for “Oh, Whom Have I in Heaven but You?” (66), but some of the thoughts of the psalm are rearranged and there are also allusions to other scriptures (Ex. 15:2, Ps. 118:14, Isa. 12:2; Ps. 61:2-3).

One hymn that seems particularly appropriate in responding to the “celebrity culture” of the present time is “In These Days of Heroes, Lord” (49). The hymn reminds us that our captains of industry and finance, intellectuals, athletes, entertainers, and political and military heroes—or all of them together—cannot do what Christ does. Several texts are child-like in their simplicity, including “Thank You, God” (82) and “With Grateful Heart I Thank You, Lord” (109).

Mention should also be made of Beall’s memorable text “We Live in a Topsy-Turvy World” (89), which includes a series of words that are seldom—if ever—encountered elsewhere in hymnody: “topsy-turvy,” “raggle-taggle,” “helter-skelter,” and “razzle-dazzle.”

All eight of Beall’s tunes in God Gives Us a Song call for unison voices with keyboard accompaniment. The melodies are often folk-like in style; this is perhaps most evident in COMPLIANCE (“Like a Lamb,” 58), which not only features a hexatonic melody but also phrases that are melodically similar to some versions of WAYFARING STRANGER. As is the case with both good folk songs and good hymn tunes, the melodies are natural for congregations to sing, and they linger in the ear. Some are through-composed (ULTIMATE QUESTION, 73), others make use of sequential writing (MYRRH, 62), and still others are in traditional hymnic patterns (GRATUS, 110, which falls into rounded bar form [AABA]). While the tunes work well for congregational song, many of them could be used effectively as vocal solos, particularly those with bridge sections.

Four of John Carter’s tunes use traditional SATB harmonizations; the rest call for keyboard accompaniment. Slightly more than half of the tunes (eight) employ a completely diatonic melody; one other melody, CHILDE (61) is not technically diatonic since a sharp is used every time the pitch C appears in both the melody and harmony, but in essence this places the tune in Dorian mode, and the sharp could easily have appeared in the key signature.

The use of a diatonic melody does not preclude the use of significant chromaticism in the harmonization; for example, the tune HERO (50) contains not a single accidental in its G-major melody, but chromatic signs are scattered throughout the harmony, including an abrupt modulation from G-major to B-major. When accidentals do appear in the melody, they are generally used to provide an element of color rather than for harmonic reasons, as in CAPTIVE (43); the D-flats in the third musical phrase do not result from harmonic necessity but contribute a contrasting element to the diatonicism of the remainder of the melody.

While several of Carter’s tunes are through-composed, he tends to favor the repetition of musical phrases. At least, this is true of the melodies; when a melodic phrase is repeated there is usually some change in the underlying harmony. This makes for ease of performance by the congregation (singing in unison) but adds variety to it. CAPTIVE is a good example: the overall form of the melody is AABA—with each A section having a varied ending—but the harmonies of the A sections never repeat literally, though they do not stray too far from the one that is first heard.

Several of the tunes are in distinctive idioms. DEBORAH’S SONG (16) and ESTHER (24) both set texts dealing with stories of Old Testament Hebrew women. Appropriately, the two tunes are given a Middle Eastern flavor: the lack of a key signature and a final E in DEBORAH’S SONG give it the appearance of a Phrygian tune, but the Gs are consistently sharped; ESTHER is evocative of an Israeli folk dance.

A different but no less fitting approach is taken in UPROARIOUS (30), which sets a text by Beall that is reminiscent of a nineteenth- or early twentieth-century gospel song. Following this cue, Carter wrote a tune that sounds as if it could have been composed by Charles H. Gabriel. GOOD SHEPHERD (39) was written for a text in which the first phrase is repeated twice, concluded by a different fourth phrase; for this Carter wrote a setting that is appropriately reminiscent of a Scripture chorus. CHILDE (61) presents a stark melody and harmonization; as noted above, the piece is essentially in Dorian mode, and this, plus the open fifths at cadences and the final cadence on the dominant, effectively portrays the “child unwanted” of the text.

Carter’s LATHAM makes an especially effective pairing with Beall’s text “The Lord of Life, a Vine Is He.” The melody uses a gapped scale (pentatonic, except for the A-flat in the instrumental interlude). The text reminds Christians to stay grafted to the vine, and this is illustrated by the music, which itself seems an offshoot of folk tradition. Mary Kay Beall and John Carter have provided many such songs to assist believers as they seek to worship “in spirit and in truth.”


David Music is professor of church music at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.


Reformed Worship 119 © March 2016, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.