Edith L. Blumhofer and Mark A. Noll, eds. Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land: Hymnody in the History of North American Protestantism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004. 264 pages. ISBN 0-8173-1396-6. Reviewed by Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land, edited by noted scholars Edith L. Blumhofer and Mark A. Noll, is a collection of essays organized around an effort to study the hymnody of American Protestant groups in relation to more general issues of religion and society. The collection grows out of a project on American hymnody sponsored by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. The essays vary widely in focus, and only a couple deal directly with the American South. But all, taken together, offer methodological and conceptual perspectives that will be of interest to students of Southern religion.

"[Marini's] conclusion that the changes represent a shift in orientation 'from witness in the fallen world to testimony among the redeemed remnant' is persuasively argued, and has major implications for understanding religious development in the South."  


The volume begins with a brief introduction by Blumhofer and Noll outlining the major aims of the book, and a valuable opening essay by Stephen Marini describing a database he has developed using over 200 evangelical hymnals published in America between 1737 and 1969. Marini finds major shifts in evangelical hymnody between the pre- and post-Civil War eras—shifts he accounts for, in part, as products of the War itself—and argues that the key themes in evangelical hymns, and changes in those themes, provide important avenues for recovering concerns among believers. His conclusion that the changes represent a shift in orientation "from witness in the fallen world to testimony among the redeemed remnant" (32) is persuasively argued, and has major implications for understanding religious development in the South.

Kay Norton's essay on one of the first important Southern hymnals, Jesse Mercer's 1810 Cluster of Spiritual Songs (destined to go through several editions), locates Mercer's work in the world of the antebellum South, highlighting the importance of religious interactions between white and black Christians. Insightfully comparing Mercer's selection with one of its more important predecessors, A Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs of Various Authors, compiled by the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Richard Allen, in 1801, Norton demonstrates how hymnody can reveal the common religious heritage of white and African-American believers. Looking forward to the classic Slave Songs of the United States, issued in 1867 by Charles P. Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison, and William Francis Allen, she demonstrates the continuing vitality of shared religious traditions.

Norton also provides insights into issues of gender, especially as she documents the inclusion of women hymn-writers and of often strikingly gendered language in Mercer's Cluster. She also stresses the important role of singing in giving women a voice in otherwise male-dominated religious services. Norton also tries to integrate Native Americans into her story, though the connections she draws with Mercer's compilations are weak, and not really convincing.

The remaining essays, though less directly related to the South, offer important clues for research on Southern topics. Thus, for example, Barbara Murison's examination of the creation of hymnbooks by Canadian Presbyterians presents a fascinating picture of how complex processes of official, denominational hymnbook making can be. Darryl Hart, in a study of twentieth-century Presbyterian hymnals, also explores the treacherous world of denominational controversy while documenting, here, the centrality of hymnody to denominational self-definition.

Three essays address questions of identity through explorations of hymnody and language. Scott E. Erickson looks at the hymns created and used by Swedish immigrants; David Rempel Smucker focuses on the Mennonites—some in Virginia—as they moved from German to English hymnody during the nineteenth century. In a particularly interesting essay, Daniel Ramírez shows how Protestant, especially Pentecostal inroads into traditionally Catholic Latino communities in the United States and northern Mexico produced significant efforts to adapt hymns and song practices for Mexican and Mexican-American audiences, as well as opportunities for religious agency among believers themselves.

Readers interested in the South will also find value in Chris Armstrong's persuasive and provocative reading of Holiness hymns as, in his words, "emotional scripts" (178) for the faithful. Placing emotional concerns at the center of Holiness aims, Armstrong shows how both ministers and the laity turn to hymns to express central beliefs--not only singing them in services, but also quoting from them in a variety of devotional settings, from sermons to personal testimonies. Providing an important expression of both faith and identity, hymns assume a rhetorical power, Armstrong shows, going far beyond their specific role in worship.

Readers will also find useful a California story told by Daniel Fuller, Philip Goff, and Katherine McGinn. This is the story of the extraordinarily effective use of music on Charles E. Fuller's "Old Fashioned Revival Hour," an American radio mainstay from 1937 to 1969. Drawing imaginatively on a treasure trove of letters from listeners, the authors show how Charles Fuller used music to create a community of the faithful that was national in scope—and a foundation for techniques media-oriented revivalists continue to use. The authors emphatically do not intend to reduce Charles Fuller's efforts to a matter of media savvy. But they do call attention to the commercial potential of sacred music in ways that anyone interested in religion in the South should find relevant.

In all, and despite the wide variation in focus among these essays, they make some common and salient points for students of American religion, including religion in the South. One, certainly, is to stress the importance of hymnody as an object of study, at least where American Protestantism is concerned. Although perhaps a bit too focused on textual analysis and not enough on issues of performance and use (a point Armstrong's essay helps drive home), these essays emphasize that hymns represent crucial statements of what believers believe and, more, of what their religion means to them. Reflecting and shaping Protestant, and especially evangelical concerns, hymns have simultaneously enacted and expressed feelings of community and of individual faith in ways that other forms of religious expression cannot fully match. As these essays show, whatever aspects of religious belief and practice we hope to understand, we ignore hymnody at our peril.

Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., University of California, Irvine


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