Christopher N. Phillips, The Hymnal: A Reading History

The Hymnal Cover showing title and author

Christopher N. Phillips. The Hymnal: A Reading History. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2018. xv, 252 p. ISBN: 9781421425924. US$39.95.

Christopher N. Phillips in his book, The Hymnal: A Reading History, has expanded D.F. MacKenzie’s idea of “sociology of texts” (xi) into the genre of hymn books, calling it the “social lives of hymn books” (x). He states, “hymnbooks were part of the everyday social practices of hundreds of thousands of English-speakers across two centuries, and I seek in this book to articulate and analyze those practices” (x).

Phillips divides the book into three sites of social reading: the church, the school, and the home, primarily in English society of the 18th and 19th Century. The church was a place of social identity where hymns were sung. James Martineau, a British Unitarian compiler and hymnist, recorded in his hymn book the dates that hymns were sung. In schools, the hymn book was a way of teaching reading to children. The hymn, “When I Can Read My Title Clear” was one of the most popular family hymns that helped children to read (106). The home was the place of the “private hymnbook” (185). A title such as Hymns for Mothers and Children traveled from one family to another because of its large size and many illustrations. Today, we would probably call this a coffee table book. Phillips points out that his chapters may be read separately or chronologically to give a sense of history.

Some interesting aspects of this book include the etchings in the prologue, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, which illustrate family Bible reading and hymnbook singing in the 19th Century. An important distinction is made between a hymnbook and a hymnal. Hymnbooks emphasize textual reading of poetry and hymns. Hymnals emphasize the singing of hymns. Phillips includes a short section (125-128) on parodies in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland of Isaac Watts’s hymns Against Idleness, How Doth the Little Busy Bee, and Tis the Voice of the Sluggard. He also includes a chapter on Emily Dickinson and how her poetry was related to English hymnody. 

Phillips gives some excellent book descriptions, including in the introduction provenance information of three Isaac Watts hymnbooks which could be valuable for book historians or book collectors searching for books to purchase. In contrast to his own book, Phillips points out two other important books in the field of hymns studies. He states that Louis Benson’s “definitive work” is The English Hymn published in 1915, which is a “500-page survey of the production of hymnbooks and their place in their respective churches.” The other title, also called The English Hymn, by J.R. Watson, was published in 1999 and emphasizes the hymn “as a poetic form surveying “the evolution of hymn writing in English”.

A mention of Julia Ward Howe’s tune, Battle Hymn of the Republic, should have been included in Phillips’s discussion. A new book, A Fiery Gospel: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Road to Righteous War by Richard M. Gamble, states that the anthem had appeared in church hymnbooks in 1862 during the civil war (195) and was reinvented into a “gospel hymn” at that time.    

For the researcher, Phillips mentions several libraries that were helpful to him in providing hymnbooks. These collections include the University of Edinburgh’s New College Library; the Huntington Library; Stanford University’s Special Collections; the Charleston Historical Society; Emory University; University of Pennsylvania; Princeton Theological Seminary; Dr. William’s Library, and others. Twenty-three pages of endnotes are also included with subject and selected hymns indexes. For those unfamiliar with binding terms Phillips has included a small glossary of bibliographic terms primarily from John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. In conclusion, this book was a joy to read. It challenges contemporary readers with the importance of reading hymns as well as singing them.

Chris Cullnane, Belhaven University