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Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology

Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll, Ed.

Reviewed by: Timothy Roden

Date posted: 08/07/2005

Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology. Edited by Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll. Published by Eerdmans, 2004. Paperback, 288 pages, list price $18.00. Reviewed by Timothy Roden, member of Grace OPC in Columbus, Ohio.

This is a book of essays written by eleven professors representing a wide variety of educational institutions, from religious colleges (Wheaton, Loyola Marymount) and seminaries to secular institutions (e.g., Tufts, William & Mary). As one can readily imagine, there is a wide variety of denominational affiliation among the contributors.

Most of the chapters are papers that were read at a conference sponsored by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. The chapters are grouped into three sections: "In the Beginning Was Watts," "Hymns and the Ordering of Protestant Life," and "Hymns as Good (or Bad) Theology." Scholarly conferences accept papers for presentation and then group them together by the most tenuous of relationships. Thus, the second section contains papers on "Hymns and Foreign Missions 1800-1870," "Music in English-Canadian Revivalism 1884-1957," "The Youth for Christ Movement and American Congregational Singing 1940-1970." "Protestant Hymnody in Contemporary Roman Catholic Worship," and "Mainstream America Discovers the Black Gospel Tradition." The topics are so varied - the last one barely touches upon hymns at all - that they would be more appropriately presented in a journal. While such organization is expected for seminars, and there is a tradition of publishing such proceedings, it is disappointing that this volume was structured in such a manner. In two of the three appendices, the editors appear to have forgotten the title and purpose of the book: "A Ranked List of Most Frequently Printed Hymns,1737-1960," "Hymns Recommended for Ecumenical Use in Catholic Hymnbooks," and "Hymns in Roman Catholic Hymnals."

In an age when hymns are often jettisoned in favor of choruses, and most material in the hands of congregations consists of nothing more than hymn stories, it was a missed opportunity to present a more balanced and complete perspective on American churches. For example, the Lutheran chorale, a rich tradition of Protestant hymnody, is never mentioned, except to state that "A Mighty Fortress" is now included in Catholic hymnals. Reading the book, one would believe that Isaac Watts created the hymn and that fifteen hundred years of Latin tradition (including some of our most beloved hymns today, such as " Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee") did not exist.

In spite of the disappointments and glaring omissions, there are numerous gems. For example, we learn of the distress and disenchantment of Timothy Dwight (pastor, president of Yale, and grandson of Jonathan Edwards) over the secularization of government under the newly adopted U.S. Constitution, which foreshadowed that of many American Christians today. His response, the hymn "I Love Thy Kingdom Lord," is instructive. The essay on Youth for Christ sobers and saddens. The final three essays are exceptionally engaging: "Singing about Death in American Protestant Hymnody" (Jeffrey VanderWilt), "Stories and Syllogisms: Protestant Hymns, Narrative Theology, and Heresy" (Susan Wise Bauer - yes, homeschoolers, the same), and "Nautical Rescue Themes in Evangelical Hymnody" (Richard Mouw). The book is aggravating and enlightening, inspiring and irritating, often producing intense debate between author and reader, and, if you are interested in hymns, it is anything but dull.

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