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4/11/08

Presents Hymns & Carols in Historical & Theological Context: review: Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World's Greatest Hymn Stories



Presents Hymns & Carols in Historical & Theological Context
Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World's Greatest Hymn Stories
book by Robert J. Morgan

Robert Morgan has collected the stories of familiar hymns which transcend denominational boundaries. I sang many of these as a youth at Catholic Mass, and later, as I have regularly attended Protestant services. Not only did I enjoy reading the lyrics in the quiet of my living room, but I also learned more about the intended meaning of each song.

Significant Songs (just a few of another 50 I could list)
* "O Sacred Heart Now Wounded"
* "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"
* "Joy to the World!"
* "The First Noel"
* "O Holy Night"
* "O How I Love Jesus"
* "I Love to Tell the Story"
* "Beulah Land"
* "Nothing But the Blood"
* "God of Our Fathers"
* "Softly and Tenderly"
* "I'll Fly Away"
* "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"

Christian hymns are part of world music, going back hundreds of years. Whether written by a repentant slave owner or a Catholic priest who believes scripture should be in the common man's language, or as an extension of a theologian's great poetic skill, the stories of the classics are anything but ordinary.

What impressed me was the easy style of Morgan's writing as he explained the theology and origin of the songs. Each song receives one page describing its author and history.

I learned, for example, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" by Ada Ruth Habershon isn't a secular song of generic faith sung only by folk singers, but a rich song of longing for eternity in Heaven specifically for Christians.

I like that Morgan included "Away in the Manger" and other Christmas carols. In the Christmas holiday context, they feel like simple ditties, but reading the lyrics showed me how many started as hymns sung throughout the year as worship.

A downside of the book was the organization. Morgan researched this carefully and grouped the hymns chronologically. Each song gets its own entry. In many cases, specific material was lacking, or, as in the case of the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, many were written by one author. There was only so much Wesley information to spread out over all of their songs. It would have made more senses to collection the songs of one author together, with one essay to avoid this problem.

"Then Sings My Soul" is aptly titled, referencing the famous lyric. It is as instructive as it is encouraging. For me, as I walked through memories new and old, I found that this coming Sunday as I sing these with my fellow parishioners, I will be singing with more soul than the Sunday before.

I fully recommend "Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World's Greatest Hymn Stories" by Robert J. Morgan.

Anthony Trendl
editor, HungarianBookstore.com

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