Conservative, Traditional… and New!
Hymns Modern & Ancient is a short collection of hymns and songs (133 in all) in a volume intended to supplement, not replace, more comprehensive hymnals already on the market. The collection is compiled by Fred R. Coleman and includes several of his hymns. Ruth Coleman, his wife, provided most of the arrangements.
Quality over quantity
I’m reviewing this collection as a non-professional musician. Though I play the piano a little, lead singing often and have sung in choirs most my life, my musical sight-reading skills are not sufficient to sit down an play hymns and songs I don’t already know—at least, not in any reasonable length of time. As a result, the large number of unfamiliar songs in HMA are difficult to evaluate musically. If the half dozen or so I’m familiar with are a good indication of the quality of the rest, the music throughout is fresh but—relative to where we are in musical history—conservative.
The collection consists mostly of work from the last few decades, with a smattering of undeservingly-neglected work in the more “ancient” category. The collection manages to avoid the chorus genre almost entirely (“I Worship You, Almighty God” may be the only song in the chorus category). I’m encouraged that it’s even possible to gather more than a hundred conservative, traditional and new hymns and hymn-like songs of good quality. The existence of this collection suggests that something like a revival of serious hymn singing may be in progress.
I use the category “hymn-like” here to describe songs that differ enough from traditional hymn form to make their hymn status debatable. Two examples come to mind, both of them composed by Bob Kauflin. Kauflin’s “The Look” is a remake of the John Newton hymn, “I Saw One Hanging on a Tree.” Though the original is a fine hymn, “The Look” has a far more soloist-oriented melody and rhythm and includes a chorus. Similarly, Kauflin’s “A Debtor to Mercy” restyles Augustus Toplady’s “A Debtor to Mercy Alone.” While Toplady’s work (and the music usually paired with it) was true hymnody, Kauflin’s remake moves substantially into “song” territory.
In my view, both of these songs are still good work and suitable for worship, but I would rather have seen them paired with fresh arrangements that preserve the hymn form and make only minimal adjustments to the original texts. (But this is the opinion of one whose notion of ideal worship singing would be 98% pre-19th century, stately hymns sung passionately in a somewhat small space with lots of hard surfaces and no microphones—and a grand piano, acoustic guitar and violin for background. But how often do we get to have our ideals?)
True hymn form has the additional advantage of avoiding the rhythmic complexity that makes many contemporary songs difficult for congregations to sing together (unified in melody, tempo and rhythm—as with one voice). Of course, this advantage assumes that the congregation actually ought to be heard, and to hear one another, above what’s happening on the platform (or should I say “stage”?).
The majority of songs in the collection are in traditional hymn form or very close to it.
As for themes and lyrics, the quality of the texts of these hymns and songs appears to be unimpeachable.
Authors and composers
The mix of authors and composers represented in Hymns Modern & Ancient is interesting. The collection includes eight titles by the compiler, Fred Coleman. That’s no surprise. But one pair of author-composer statistics highlights the shift that has occurred—and is occurring—in many fundamentalist (and fundamentalist-heritage) ministries. Songs by Ron Hamilton: 1 (“Bow the Knee”). Songs by some combination of Keith and Kristyn Getty or Stuart Townend: 30.
The collection also includes 5 titles by D. A. Carson, 10 by Bob Kauflin and 1 by Steve Green. I was glad to see 4 by Chris Anderson included as well.
The spectrum of authors and composers may be of concern to some ministry leaders. Sadly, a few will see the numerous Getty, Townend and Kauflin contributions as reason to put the collection on the books-to-avoid list. To these, I suggest a project: work through any hymnal of the 20th century and compile short biographies of the hymn authors and composers. You’ll discover that, right or wrong, we’ve been singing songs and hymns from theologically diverse sources for a long, long time. The case can be made that we should only sing hymns and songs from sources virtually identical to us in doctrine and practice. But this would be a new idea, a departure from the long-standing tradition of Christian hymnody (but our hymnals would definitely not be so thick and heavy!).
Hymns Modern & Ancient clearly aims to avoid the musical aesthetic of contemporary pop-culture. Opinions will vary somewhat as to how well it succeeds, but I expect most would characterize the selections as musically conservative and traditional.
In addition to avoiding contemporary pop-culture, the volume appears to be blessedly free of the bouncy-weepy tunes of the Second Great Awakening era and the ball-room inspired tunes of the golden age of movie musicals (1930s-1950s). Whether some of the included melodies and harmonies will sound like 90s or 2000s cliché to future generations remains to be seen. I suspect that a few will become conspicuously dated but that most will age well.
Testing the waters
The preface to the volume explains its relationship to the venerable Anglican collection Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) and provides interesting history of the divide between hymnody of the “stately stream” and that of the “evangelical stream.” Coleman writes,
Like the compilers of Hymns Ancient and Modern and generations of Christians before them, I affirm congregational singing as both prayer and creed. I am convinced that congregational singing is the best musical venue for accomplishing the purposes of gathered Christian worship. Modern congregations ignore too many great hymns of the past and shun too many great hymns of the present. (preface, p.3)
The preface also expresses hopes that a full-hymnal project may eventually come from Heart Publications in Milwaukee. No doubt, the likelihood of that project reaching completion depends in part on how well-received Hymns Modern & Ancient turns out to be.
For my part, I’m glad to see this collection in print and hope it will prove to be an encouragement to churches looking for fresh, poignant and meaty expressions of our faith paired with music that reflects a sober and thoughtful (rather than popular and sensual) aesthetic.
One of my favorite selections is John Newton’s “Approach My Soul, the Mercy Seat” set to a Fred Coleman modified (and improved, I think) version of the tune MORNING SONG. A few archaisms in the text are modified as well (though I think Newton’s “be Thou my shield” is better than “You are my shield.” The latter merely states; the former seeks).
Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat
Approach, my soul, the mercy seat,
Where Jesus answers prayer;
There humbly fall before His feet,
For none can perish there.
Your promise is my only plea,
With this I venture nigh;
You call all burdened souls to Thee,
And such, O Lord, am I.
Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
By Satan sorely pressed,
By war without and fears within,
I come to You for rest!
You are my shield and hiding place,
and sheltered near Your side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
And tell him You have died.
O wondrous love, to bleed and die,
To bear the cross and shame,
That guilty sinners, such as I,
Might plead Your gracious name.
“Poor soul, now tempest tossed, be still;
My promised grace receive.”
’Tis Jesus speaks—I must, I will,
I can, I do believe.
I look forward to getting to know the hymns in this collection better and hope to introduce many of them to the congregation I serve. (The collection is not available on Amazon, but can be obtained from Heart Publications.)