The Hymnal

A Reading History

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Christopher N. Phillips
  • Baltimore, MD: 
    Johns Hopkins University Press
    , July
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Hymnal: A Reading History is considered the first major study on the reading of hymnals. Author Christopher N. Phillips observes that, in 18th- and 19th-century America, hymnals were ubiquitous—used in homes, schools, and churches. In this book, Phillips departs from traditional studies of hymnals and hymnology, by seeing hymnals as read texts and media sources rather than simply a tool for singing in church.

Phillips delves through the remnants of antique hymnals, scouring their physical attributes and personal annotations for hints at their usage. Part 1, “Church,” explores how hymnals were read in their most expected context: the Sunday morning worship of the Christian church. As Phillips notes, the outer contents of hymnals—namely, the quality of materials—were signs of status among churchgoers, and the inner contents of hymnals—namely, the selection of hymn texts—were points of contention among emerging Christian denominations. Penciled notes inside the pages of hymnals offer a log of sung hymns or a space for sketching out of boredom. Hymnals carried personal notes, inscriptions to friends, and other tedium that offer a window into the lives of those who used the hymnal in worship.

In Part 2, “School,” Phillips turns to the American singing school and Sunday school traditions and the reading of hymnals in an educational context. Phillips maintains that hymn texts, with simple meters and religious significance, made for excellent pedagogical devices: “The document is not merely visible, but legible; it holds not just good news, but good news for me” is Phillips’ description of hymnals as literacy tools (105). Students young and old read hymns to learn how to read better; moreover, Phillips claims that hymnbooks contributed to the rise of children’s literature at the close of the 19th century. The popularity of hymns also redefined schoolbooks; with educational campaigns devoted to singing hymns in books such as The Sacred Harp, singing hymn texts set to folk tunes became the new way of reading hymns.

Part 3, “Home,” attends to one of the lesser-treated domains of hymn, used in the home as a personal devotional tool. Phillips questions the relationship between hymnody and poetry, finding a thin line between the two that resulted in secular poems entering sacred hymnbooks. These poems were more individual and devotional in nature and led to the emergence of what Phillips calls the private hymnbook. The return to personal hymnals for use in the home “helped to gradually reshape not only the canon of Anglophone hymnody but also readers’ understandings of what a hymn could be” (186). Accordingly, new evangelical publishers compiled hymns targeted toward families or children, with the now-famous hymn “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” as a representative text of this period.

In Phillips’ landmark study, the hymnal is reconstructed as not only a liturgical aid but also a devotional medium, educational device, and communication platform. He writes not as a theologian or religious researcher but as a historian of English, offering a unique perspective on what can easily become spiritualized history. Throughout his book, Philips intersects personal biographies of well-known figures, such as Isaac Watts, Emily Dickinson, and Lewis Carroll, with everyday persons who read hymns. In so doing, he presents a lively portrait of American spiritual life shaped through hymnals, while questioning the role of authors inundated in a changing religious world due to literary revolutions. The author, then, sees hymns first and foremost as literary texts, whose readings inform religious formation.

However, Phillips’ conclusions are largely based on empirical evidence. He conjectures based on observations of text fragments and snippets of someone’s hymnal. Given the lack of scholarly intervention on the reading of hymn texts, one wonders about the extent to which Phillips’ imaginative vignettes concur with historical reality. While he attempts to portray hymn-reading history as a story (and certainly succeeds in this task), is it possible that the author has inadvertently shaped this story in the direction he wants to tell it?

Further weaknesses can be observed in the author’s treatment of a religious topic from a non-religious standpoint. While his distance may provide more unbiased, non-spiritual findings, Phillips sometimes uses questionable or awkward theological vocabulary; his training as an English scholar, not a theologian, is evident. Consider, for instance, his puzzling use of the paradox “ecumenical evangelicalism” (34) or discussion of an Epiphany hymn used for Christmas (150). Furthermore, he assumes a comprehensive knowledge of American religious history, referencing events, figures, places, and authors without prior explanation. Despite these weaknesses, Phillips has created a trailblazing attempt to enter into a previously unknown discussion, worthy of serious consideration.

If the goal is the reconstruction of hymnal reading practices, Phillips succeeds in his hefty task by diligently engaging with his sources. With scrutiny, he leaves no stone unturned in his comprehensive description of how hymnals touched every domain of American personal and religious life. While he presents an overall cogent case, some of his evidence is speculative at best, and his narrative style may often be considered too prosaic. This book, nonetheless, is seminal in its own right, offering a window into the life of the ordinary hymnbook. Phillips elucidates how people interacted with their hymnbooks in church, school, and home through vivid imagery and careful research. As a biographical reconstruction of hymnals, this book will become a necessary resource for hymnologists and serious scholars of American church music.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin P. Snoek is a graduate and research assistant in the School of Theology and Ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Date of Review: 
April 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher N. Phillips is Associate Professor of English at Lafayette College. He is the author of Epic in American Culture: Settlement to Reconstruction and the editor of The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American Renaissance.


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