British Methodist Hymnody

Theology, Heritage, and Experience

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Martin V. Clarke
Routledge Methodist Studies Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , July
     2017.
     220 pages.
     $150.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781472469298.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Martin V. Clarke’s British Methodist Hymnody is a broad, multilayered study of a narrow area. Limiting himself to the authorized hymnals within Methodism in Great Britain, Clarke discusses Methodist doctrine and theology; ecumenical overlaps; evangelical influences; texts; tunes and musical arrangements; performance practices, spaces, and events; and questions of identity. This book will be of interest beyond Wesleyan and Methodist scholars, clergy, and laity to those interested in congregational song in general, and to those interested in how a spiritual practice shapes individuals and an emerging denomination over several centuries. This book joins Andrew Pratt’s 2004 O for a Thousand Tongues: The 1933 Methodist Hymn Book in Context (Epworth Press) and David M. Chapman’s 2006 Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britain (Church in the Marketplace Publications) to provide rich insight into British Methodist worship and song. 

Within Christianity, the practice and process of authorized denominational hymnals varies among denominations and countries. The largest Christian denomination in Great Britain, The Church of England, does not have a single authorized hymnal. In contrast, the two leaders of the Methodist movement in Great Britain—John Wesley, who compiled and edited hymnals for fifty years, and his younger brother Charles, who wrote thousands of hymns—set Methodism on an “authorized hymnal” path. Clarke engages the debate between Wesley scholars and hymnologist Robin Leaver over whether A Collection of Hymns forthe Use of the People Called Methodists, 1780, ought to be considered as the first authorized hymnal, or if its pragmatic and personal focus suggests that other, more liturgical, Wesleyan collections ought to be considered. While Clarke seems to side with Leaver on this question, the next two sections of his first chapter lean heavily on the 1780 Collection. With decreasing denominational authority in the 21st century, the ecumenical partnerships that Methodism has with other churches in Great Britain, and the move from printed devotional collections of worship songs to screens and projection, this book is timely, being a clear snapshot of a topic which is getting blurrier as these trends continue.

Clarke links the authorization of Methodist hymnals to their theological influence, congregational practice, and shaping of Methodist identity. These authorized Methodist hymnals (originally texts set as poetry, later with tunes included) took their place in homes for devotional use and theological instruction alongside the Bible for many Methodists. Singing in community has had a central place in Methodism from its beginnings, and Clarke demonstrates throughout this study that “its significance is best understood as a combination of its capacity for theological expression, its heritage within Methodism, and the experience of hymns through liturgical and devotional practice” (3). The beginnings of Methodist singing in class meetings, in preaching services, and in homes bore fruit in Methodists’ daily lives, then in the 19th century in death-bed quotations of hymns, and in 21st century comments on social media, all of which Clarke considers. 

Judicious comparisons aid Clarke in his argument. He compares various Methodist hymnals through the centuries (both historically and when Methodism split in the 1800s) and the interactions of Methodist hymnody with other groups—Moravians, Anglicans, and the charismatic movement. Clarke made a perhaps less judicious choice in using Charles Wesley’s Short Hymns on Select Passages of the Holy Scriptures (1762) as a reference to compare frequency of meters with Singing the Faith (Hymns Ancient and Modern, 2011), the most recent of the authorized Methodist hymnals, without convincingly explaining this selection. A case study in editing—“Christ the Lord is Risen Today”—is instructive and gives insights into the influences on authorized hymnals through changing theologies and social understandings of language.

The chapter on musical repertoire is an important addition, often overlooked in other studies, and includes a discussion of the challenges of secular music, art music, and local musical expressions, from the Wesleys’ time to today. It can be difficult to assess performance practices in an earlier time, but Clarke makes this work within three discrete examples: buildings and instrument records for the Methodist Society in Elvet, Durham, beginning in 1770; accounts of musical practices in 19th-century northern Primitive Methodism (buildings, instruments, and musicians, including singing evangelists); and the liturgical structure (seen in worship books) and liturgical spaces in British Methodism since 1932, including the use of technology in worship. This chapter in particular provides a model for other denominational or individual congregational studies of singing over time and gives credence to Clarke’s thesis that “the role and practice of music in conveying spiritual meaning remains fundamental” for British Methodists (160). 

Finally, a note on publishing: The Routledge Methodist Studies Series, with an editorial board evenly drawn from the United Kingdom and the United States, is filling a void in the Methodist academic publishing world left by the demise of Epworth Press in the UK and less interest in academic publishing by Abingdon Press in the US. This volume is a strong addition to Routledge’s growing series.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robin Knowles Wallace is Professor and the Taylor Endowed Chair of Worship and Music at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martin V. Clarke is lecturer in music at The Open University. He has research interests in the relationships between music and theology, hymnody, Methodist history and British music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is currently a Co-Investigator on the AHRC-funded project ‘Listening and British cultures: listeners’ responses to music in Britain, c.1700–2018’. He was an invited participant at the Yale ISM Consultation on Music and Theology in 2013 and has twice been the recipient of Visiting Fellowships at Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University.

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