Chester Martin: Favorite Hymns And Religious Music

Monday, July 24, 2017 - by Chester Martin

Oh, WOW! what a task I have assigned myself here! I had been thinking about this topic for a long while, not knowing where to start - and I still do not!  I contemplated doing some actual  research into  the subject by simply Googling the words, "Favorite Protestant Hymns", but I tried it, and THEIR list did not agree with MY list, so have simply decided to make you a list of my very own personal liking.

I grew up in the Methodist Church, long before it united with the "United Brethren" people, and we always used the "Methodist Hymnal" - at least for morning services.

On Sunday evenings we used the Cokesbury Hymnal - also a product of the Methodists. Through the years I have found both these hymnals in use by other denominations. Seems that Charles Wesley, brother of John, Methodism's founder, was a prolific song-writer and his best work is collected in both those hymnals - along with many other songwriters. Both those hymnals were loaded down with hymns we never sang, but the ones we sang  over and over have stuck in my head to the point that I do not need a songbook to sing them anymore. Methodist preachers were good at asking the congregation to sing, "First and last verses" (stanzas), but if he suddenly asked us to sing "all five verses" I had best be finding a songbook fast!

The more formal, and slower, songs were usually sung on Sunday morning services, sung from the black hymnal, while the slightly more spirited, or informal, songs were found in the red Cokesbury book. Two examples of more "formal" hymns would be, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing", or "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord", while less formal examples might be, "The Unclouded Day", or, "Softly and Tenderly".  Much of my best-liked church music was the former type - "Informal", and which could classify as "Revival music". Those songs really had "heart" to them, and "warmth" that the Google lists lacked.

Some of those songs are pretty old by now. I was not terribly surprised to discover while doing family research that my great-grandfather, Nathaniel Henry Smith, 1822-1886, had especially loved that one (above) called, "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord", while he was serving as a Steward in the Methodist church at Washington, (Rhea County), Tennessee. A few of the oldies have suffered disparagement (or total deletion) in recent years as well, and I remember the minor war that erupted over, "Onward Christian Soldiers", a few years ago when a large vocal faction disapproved of its militance. I, for one, was in favor of keeping the song as its music was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan, of "Gilbert and Sullivan" fame. I no longer hear of that battle - OR the song, so have no clue what its fate was. (Anyway I was a great fan of all the G&S operettas).

I used to attend the "Old Saint George's" UMC in Philadelphia which was near my apartment building. Their congregation had mostly fled to the burbs by that time, and attendance dwindled to only a handful - especially on snow days.  One such snow Sunday the minister said there were too few attendees to preach to, and asked the few of us present to request our favorite church songs and we would all sing them. I was astounded that among all the requests one elderly lady asked for, "Jesus Loves Me" - a song not generally heard much past the age of 3 or 4. It was most touching, and there was not a dry eye in the small congregation when we finished singing. For a few minutes I had become a small child again, transported back to the warmth of my family cocoon - of dad and mother, and my church origins in Chattanooga. There you have proof that church music can have a definite positive impact on both singer and hearer!

For a really moving musical experience, I have loved the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", and "Amazing Grace". They never fail to tug at the heart when sung correctly.  Bagpipes can add a lot to the latter song, but their use is over-worked. Both of those songs are on You Tube, I think, and you should watch both.

As a "native of the soil" - a Tennessean by birth - I cannot deny that I used to enjoy the Hee-Haw Gospel Quartet on Saturday nights. Usually known for his novelty songs, Bill Carlisle wrote some memorable country gospel songs such as "Gone Home" - which were sung by that quartet.  Another fave of the same genre is "A Beautiful Life", written by William M. Golden. It will have its 100th anniversary next year in 2018.  Add two more to this list of country gospel and you have, "Will the Circle be Unbroken", followed by, "I Saw the Light". Hank Williams wrote the latter and recorded it in his first-ever recording session. Tennessee Ernie Ford also sang some popular gospel songs of that same type

Easter, of course, had its own special music, and I can never forget, "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name", "Jerusalem", "The Old Rugged Cross", "Up From the Grave He Arose", and I always associated, "The Little Brown Church in the Vale" with Easter, although it doesn't really apply. We have a very rich tradition of religious music in our country, and, of course, Christmas has some very special songs, too.  I could write a long story just about Christmas music, but let it suffice for now to say here that there is NO song  better for that season than "Silent Night" (which is Austrian in origin). That simple song, composed hurriedly in one afternoon, says it all!  Being largely shut-in at the moment, I sometimes turn my TV on for a special broadcast like an Easter service. This last Easter I turned on a Baptist church service and did not hear ONE familiar Easter song as described above. All their music was, "New Age" - far too new for me! The preacher was fine, but the music left me cold. All trends in American life seem to be changing now; I just regret seeing so much of the "old stuff" being tossed away.

An always jolly and up-beat radio personality here in Chattanooga - unfortunately now deceased - frequently talked about how he was Catholic and seemed to be very proud of it. Only comments I ever heard him make in disfavor of his church was about its music! In that respect, he always said that the Baptists had better music! (His opinions were formed before the "New Age" made its appearance). I personally used to like the old Catholic masses that were sung in Latin, and the Gregorian chants of the Spanish missions in California, which were sung  with a distinctively Spanish flair. (We studied those under Dr. Isa McIlwraith  of the University of Chattanooga music department) .They  can be most beautiful. (Look THEM up on You Tube also). But those were from well outside  my own culture, and I used to enjoy most of my own church's music. The Catholics do have some music that cuts across religious and cultural lines, as witnessed by such lovely pieces as, "Ave Maria". "Lead Kindly Light," another Catholic creation, was said to be Mahatma Gandhi's favorite Christian hymn. Gandhi was Hindu.

The Church of Christ sings many of the standard Christian songs - only without any instrumentation. They have their own interpretations of Scripture, as do all churches, and they do not believe in using musical instruments. The result is beautiful "a-capella" music. With a choir of trained voices the results can be quite amazing. In their regular church services someone will use a pitch-pipe to set the correct tone for each song, and the congregation can easily follow, rarely going off-key.

"What a Friend we Have in Jesus" is another great song I have known all my life - no book necessary! Many others fit that same category. "How Great Thou Art" is a newbie to it however. "Holy, Holy, Holy", was a song I loved to hear our choir sing, although it was easily sung by the congregation as well. It was always a "Sunday Morning" song that I never remember hearing at the evening service. Our Sunday morning choirs at Brainerd Methodist church always wore robes; the preacher did not. (At present, however, many Methodist clergy are opting to wear robes). Evening choir was generally a Youth choir, made up of MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) members.

A hymn I always liked very much was said to have originated in Holland. We only sang it around Thanksgiving, and the English words were, "We Gather Together to ask the Lord's Blessing". It always had a very peaceful and stately air to it - most appropriate, I thought, for expressing the ideal of "Thanksgiving". Wales has contributed a lot of music to America, and again I have to thank Dr. Isa McIlwraith at UC for teaching us about the "Tune found in a bottle", whose Welsh name was "Ton-y-Botel". But that mysterious tune from the bottle gave us the powerfully dramatic "Once to Every Man and Nation" song. Germany's Martin Luther gave us a similarly powerful hymn called, "A Mighty Fortress is our God".  A hymn that was probably written in France in the 1500's was known popularly in America as the"Old Hundredth". (Meaning 100th Psalm). It had many other titles and words to it, but in my Methodist experience it was called the "Doxology" and was sung every Sunday. Someone took me to a Catholic church one time, and they used the same identical song. It went, "Praise God From Whom all Blessings Flow", etc.

"Shall we Gather at the River" was another fave, and "Where He Leads me I will Follow" was another. My parents had their own set of favorites - which were not too different from my own. Their old Victorian songs had endurance, if nothing else. Fanny Crosby, 1820-1915, gave us a FLOCK  of songs from that era that my mom was always singing as she worked around the house: these included, "Blessed Assurance", "Pass me not, O Gentle Saviour", "Rescue the Perishing", "Praise Him, Praise Him", and many more. Ms. Crosby may have authored one of my favorites, called  "Softly and Tenderly", but am not sure. These last-mentioned songs by the blind Ms. Crosby WERE the substance of St. Elmo Methodist Church's music program in my mom's youth. I will guess that they are likely the same today!

Now, I am absolutely certain that the moment I send this story off to Chattanoogan (dot) Com I will have thought of at least a dozen more qualifying candidates that were overlooked for inclusion. It will be interesting to see what comments might arise, and am absolutely certain there will be some!

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Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.



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