Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Thomas Toke Lynch

The name of Thomas Toke Lynch is not very well known on his birthday today, nor are his hymns, but in his own time he was rather infamous in some circles as the author and compiler of one of the most controversial hymnbooks ever published.

Born in Essex in 1818, he later withdrew from college without graduating due to poor health, which stayed with him through life.  After continuing his education through self-study, he became a Nonconformist minister and led small congregations in London. In November of 1855 he published The Rivulet: A Contribution to Sacred Song, containing one hundred hymn texts.

Before long, the collection (as well as Lynch himself) was viciously attacked by writers in some influential church magazines. His hymns were considered devoid of doctrine, and quotes denouncing them included "...containing not one particle of vital religion or evangelical piety," and "...might have been written by a man who had never seen a Bible." Other writers (in different publications) staunchly defended the book, declaring that Lynch was writing a new kind of hymn and that, according to one author, "there is no minister in London... who has a firmer belief in the very doctrines he is charged with denying."  The resulting furor eventually threatened the very existence of the Congregational Union, a federation of Nonconformist and Congregational churches in England and Wales. The organization was careful never to endorse the use of the collection, which had so divided its members.

Lynch himself waited nearly a year before responding to his critics. Under the pseudonym of "Silent Long" he published another collection of fifteen satirical poems titled Songs Controversial.  One representative stanza:

With Doddridge, Watts, and Cowper, too,
Whoe'er casts in his lot,
Presuming for the Church to sing,
We'll let him know what's what.
Of better hymns than we deserve
We've quite enough provided;
And no man now shall innovate,
Of that we're most decided.

(I think there are probably some contemporary hymnwriters who can feel some affinity for Lynch and the criticism he endured.)

Lynch's autobiography, Memoirs of Thomas T. Lynch (1874) was published after his death, and he addresses the matter there at length.  He includes the first hymn text that he wrote (#17 in The Rivulet), on the Monday before Christmas in 1854, which will serve as our hymn for the day.

Christ in the Word draws near;
Hush, lonely voice of fear,
Christ bids thee cease;
With songs sincere and sweet
Let us arise, and meet
Him who comes forth to greet
Our souls with peace.

For works of love and praise
Christ brings thee summer days,
Warm days and bright;
Winter is past and gone,
Now he, salvation’s Sun,
Shineth on everyone
With mercy’s light.

From the bright sky above,
Clad in his robes of love,
’Tis he, our Lord!
Dim earth itself grows clear
Wondrous light draweth near;
O let us hush and hear
God's holy Word.

Thomas Toke Lynch, 1855; alt.
Edward Burnett, 1887

Sardonically referring to this "Christless" hymn (which is anything but), Lynch then goes on to relate the beginnings of the campaign against him and his hymns.  Clearly deeply affected by the criticism, he explains how he remains as committed to the church as ever, but denounces the "utterly inverted moral state of many professed religionists."

In the second edition of The Rivulet, published the following year, Lynch adds a note after the preface which begins: 

The reader is requested to observe that The Rivulet is not issued as in itself a sufficient book of song for Christian churches. Its only public use could be as supplemental [...] and knowing that the book would not come into public use, I have included several compositions which otherwise I should have omitted.

The "Rivulet Controversy" continued to simmer for several years, and books were published which laid out the arguments for both sides.  In the Dictionary of Hymnology (1907) by John Julian, the issue is described as "one of the most bitter hymnological controversies known..." but Lynch's hymns are called "valuable contributions to cultured sacred song."  However, in the Dictionary of National Biography, published in 63 volumes  between 1885 and 1900, Lynch's entry was apparently written by someone on the other side.  Some characteristic comments:

"[His] congregations were always small, and he was not attractive as a preacher."
"...[the hymns] express too exclusively an admiration of nature to be suitable for Christian worship."
"...none of them are popular in the churches."

In our day, we are quite accustomed to hymns which "admire" nature (such as the one text by Lynch that I have previously used) and don't expect all of our hymns to be deeply rooted in doctrine.  If the language of Lynch's hymns was not so very much of his time, I suspect that they would be ripe for rediscovery in modern hymnals (and maybe they are, in some instances).

Moving on from the fray, Lynch also wrote tunes for several hymns in The Rivulet, which were also published after his death. The preface to the book, found among his papers, was again written under a pseudonym, this time "Theodore Burkeson." There he writes of his musical efforts:

If the members of the Mornington congregation will do me the honour of examining these tunes, I shall be pleased: if they like them, still more pleased. But I must admit that I shall never be a person of much note, or of many notes, in the musical world. My occupations are meditative rather than musical, yet music helps me. 

Unfortunately, Lynch's tunes have remained undiscovered by the online hymn sites, which have only documented some of his texts.

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