Since it's been a slow week for hymnic birthdays and such I have been looking though some old books on hymnody that I've downloaded from the internet. Today I'll talk a bit about one that some of you may find interesting.
The Best Church Hymns was published in 1899 by the Presbyterian Board of Publication. It was compiled by Louis F. Benson, who was the editor of that denomination's Hymnal of 1895. In his introduction, he lays out the criteria:
The hymn is the people's share in God's praise, and is intended for congregational use. It can be tested only in actual use in the worship of the Church; and to propose any other test (such as the opinions of critics) is to confound literature with liturgics. (...) The “best church hymns” are those... which have come into actual use over the widest area, and by consent of the largest number of Christians in the different churches.
Benson then lists these thirty-two hymns which appeared most often across 107 different US and UK hymnals of the late nineteenth century, spanning several denominations, and ranked from most frequent to least (all were in at least 80% of the hymnals).
1. Rock of ages, cleft for me (106)
2. When I survey the wondrous cross (104)
3. Jesus, lover of my soul (104)
4. All praise to thee, my God, this night (103)
5. Jesus, I my cross have taken ** (103)
6. Sun of my soul (103)
7. Awake, my soul, and with the sun (101)
8. Hark! the herald angels sing ** (101)
9. Abide with me (101)
10. Jerusalem, my happy home ** (101)
11. How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds (101)
12. Nearer, my God, to thee (100)
13. From Greenland's icy mountains ** (100)
14. O God, our help in ages past (100)
15. Jerusalem the golden (99)
16. Lo, he comes with clouds descending (94)
17. Jesus shall reign wher'er the sun (94)
18. Glorious things of thee are spoken (93)
19. Hark! the glad sound, the Savior comes (92)
20. Come, let us join our cheerful songs (92)
21. All hail the pow'r of Jesus' name ** (92)
22. Hail to the Lord's anointed (91)
23. O worship the King (91)
24. Christ the Lord is ris'n today (90)
25. Guide me, O thou great Jehovah (90)
26. Just as I am, without one plea (90)
27. God moves in a mysterious way (90)
28. Jesus, the very thought of thee (89)
29. Children of the heavenly King (87)
30. There is a land of pure delight (87)
31. Thou whose almighty Word (86)
32. Brief life is here our portion ** (86)
The ones I have previously written about (for some reason, mostly from the middle of the list) are linked; those which I have at least mentioned are marked with (**). Several of them will be coming up in the next few months, and there are only a handful here that I would be unlikely ever to write about.
The next two, which Benson assumed would pass his 80% guideline when a few more hymnals appeared, were Holy! Holy! Holy! (which would certainly still be on the list today) and Lead, kindly Light (which would certainly not be). Were someone to compile a similar list today, 110 years later, others from the list would definitely be replaced by newer ones.
Following the list, the text of each hymn is printed, with notes on many of the various text changes that had occurred since the text was first published, and also Benson's brief thoughts on each hymn (almost like little blog entries!). The book is only 99 pages long, a good size for easy downloading and a good length for reading.