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Odd Cranky Hymns

January 7, 2014 | 18 Comments

Dear Garrison,
What hymns do you remember growing up as a Plymouth Brethren? Which were your favorites?

Peter Hicks
Belchertown, MA


The Brethren could not use musical instruments in worship because the New Testament did not authorize that. Somehow we felt okay about driving cars and using furnaces, but there was no organ or piano in our Meeting Hall, and the singing tended to be wavery. Also, the Brethren did not go for the familiar hymns of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby so much as odd cranky hymns that, while hardly singable, were considered theologically stronger. And then the schismatic nature of the Brethren split us into smaller and smaller meetings and as the younger ones drifted away to mainstream churches, the singing became very thin indeed. Singing is an adhesive. There are people who go to church for the chance to sing in harmony with other people, whose beliefs don't exactly match the Creed. The most wonderful singing I ever heard was an audience in Goshen, Indiana, at a Mennonite college, in a big concert hall. I was supposedly the performer but when I started them out on a hymn, they rose up like angels and sang it, from memory, in six-part harmony, and thought nothing of it. And then another and then another. It was pretty marvelous. Nothing like it.


You know, some of the most memorable moments of the PHC shows and other concerts have been the times when the audience did exactly this:

when I started them out on a hymn, they rose up like angels and sang it, from memory, in six-part harmony, and thought nothing of it. And then another and then another.

I'd love (and pay for) a night of just doing this with Garrison and the band. Could you, please? It'd be awesome.

Thank you for the lovely discourse on the subject of hymn singing. I will forward it to our church music director in recognition of the wonderful job he does with getting our Unitarian Universalist congregation to raise their voices in song.

A mighty fortress is our God
A bulwark never failing.
But I have stood outside the gates
with both fists clenched and wailing.

Martin Luther's little-known first draft.

There is little doubt that it is the communal choral music which is the outward manifestation of the Holy Spirit on our churches. In our little Presbyterian church in Griffin, Ga. (Where Sydney Lanier, Doc Holliday and my daughter were all baptized) we have been complimented many times because the sound of our choir is greater than the sum of our parts. I love singing in the choir.

HAH! Brilliant! Worthy of GK himself!

I wouldn't be surprised if the Mennonites' hymn was their version of the Doxology which is their beloved "national anthem". I belong to the Church of the Brethren one of several denominations that started as one 1708 in Germany. Like the Mennonites and Plymouth Brethren, our Brethren started out singing completely without instruments and initially only in unison. That changed later in the 19th century except for the Old Orders. Despite recent "innovations" we sometimes still sing some hymns a cappella in 4-part harmony especially a hymn "Move In Our Midst". It's our "national anthem". The lovely a cappella harmonies helped inspire me to become part of the church of my ancestors.

Gospel music-- with or without instruments-- almost never fails to lift my spirit. I do think the Brethren are missing out on a lot, though, and needlessly so. The Old Testament and especially the Psalms insist we make a joyful noise unto the Lord with cymbals and psaltries and harps and whatall!

One of the highlights of the PHC cruises (I've been on 3) is the 8 am Choir Practice, where 100 or more voyagers stand and sing the good old hymns and songs, shoulder to shoulder. What a glorious way to start a day. (I'm in my 80th year of singing in a church choire--the current Disciples of Christ group is very forgiving).

Perhaps you've heard of Brian D. McLaren, who also survived a Plymouth Brethren upbringing to become an English teacher on his way to developing a distinctive liberal outlook on the history of religious belief? He's laid it out again in his recent book, "A New Kind of Christianity. Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith." He also blogs at

(Remember the Oklahoma bank robber who stole my father's new hat?)

One of the greatest "singing" experiences I have ever witnessed is the a cappella singing of a church of Christ in Texas (with no choir). Simply magnificent!

GK used to have audience sing along with beautiful harmony on such songs as "Tell me why". It was magical and I wish he would do more of that audience participation singing.

One peak experience for me was "Choir Rehearsal" on a Sunday morning on a PHC cruise to Alaska- singing along with Garrison & 150+ others.

I too loved the hymn singing on the cruise. And, every time there is a hymn on the show, I stop everything and listen--and sing along if I know it. GK, please add hymns when you can. It makes the show wonderful, uplifting, and different.

On Sunday mornings, much joyful noise is heard from our congregation. However, we have only a handful of folks with any musical abilities. Whenever our pastor chooses an unfamiliar hymn with an unfamiliar tempo or rhythm, a gentleman, now in heaven, would lean over into our pew and say "Oh, I'll be humming this one all afternoon!"

You want to hear the most magnificent hymn singing? Go to an Organ Historical Society national convention. Imagine a couple hundred church musicians in the pews singing a hymn, accompanied by a magnificent pipe organ, played by a skilled organist, who also picked out the most singable hymn! It doesn't get any better than that.

Garrison - Speaking of gospel singing, whatever happened to Stevie Beck, the Queen of the Autoharp? It is hard to find good (or any) autoharp music anymore, and I miss her. I remember your strumming it a bit now and then, also. I am sure it is in your garage somewhere. Sandy Stedinger

I have heard wonderful things about the well-known, accapella singer, Bobby McFerrin, whose performances engage the audience in some amazing experiences of singing together. I think your PHC audiences would love singing with him on your BIG SHOW sometime . . .

As always very beautiful music and humor too, and lots of words in a row--really did twist their tongues this week!

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