Welcome to Saturday Book Review time!  On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value.  Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.

When the church I currently serve was first planted, the former Episcopalians got in touch with their previous church and were donated a big box of hymnals.  The church had closed a camp location some years previously, and so they had a pile of hymnals they didn’t use or need anymore.  And, as it turned out, they were “obsolete” – they were copies of The 1940 Hymnal.  As a keyboardist, and still new to Anglican hymnody, I wasn’t sure what to make of this: how different was this book from the newer one I was getting to know at my then-home church?

I quickly came to appreciate the 1940 hymnal a lot, and cherish its resources.  Being from 1940, it was appointed to work alongside the 1928 Prayer Book, which has the historic one-year calendar and lectionary for the Sunday Communion services.  As a result, things were simple enough that it was able to provide recommended hymns for each Sunday and Major Feast Day of the year in a Liturgical Index in the back, along with other indexes that are standard to virtually all hymnals (author/source, tune, meter, first line of text, topic).  For the years that my church followed the 1662 BCP’s lectionary, this was immensely useful for me; otherwise that index is little more than of historical interest.

The Contents of the 1940 Hymnal are as follows:

  • #1-111 The Christian Year
  • #112-136 Saints’ Days and Holy Days
  • #137-138 Thanksgiving and National Days
  • #149-184 Morning and Evening
  • #185-228 Sacraments and other Rites of the Church
  • #229-234 Litanies
  • #235-252 Hymns for Children
  • #253-265 Missions
  • #266-600 General Hymns
    • #266-277 The Blessed Trinity
    • #278-315 The Praise of God
    • #316-367 Jesus Christ our Lord
    • #368-379 The Holy Spirit
    • #380-398 The Church as God’s gift
    • #399-403 Holy Scripture, the Church’s gift
    • #404-490 Personal Religion
    • #491-548 Social Religion
    • #549-581 The Church Militant
    • #5822-600 The Church Triumphant
  • Directions for Chanting
  • The Choral Service
  • Morning & Evening & Occasional Canticles
  • Service Music for the Holy Communion

Most of these sections subdivide further into smaller units.  Some of these sections are labeled in ways that suggest the liberalizing trend in the Episcopal Church even back then.

At the end of each liturgical season section is a list of appropriate selections from the General Hymns that would also do well to fill out the season, which I found very helpful.  A rather mixed blessing, however, came in the balance of the number of hymns for each season.  There are 111 season-based hymns in here, and 34 of them are for Christmas!  Twelve days of the year get nearly a third of the hymns.  Advent got short-changed.  Lent was a bit lacking in representation, too, especially when looking among the General Hymns for good penitential lyrics.

There are also a lot Office hymns: 11 for the Morning, 1 for Noon, 1 for the Afternoon, and 22 for the Evening.  Clearly, Choral Evensong was a lot more common back then than it is now.

There are a few cross-denominational popular hymns that are conspicuously absent from this hymnal, most notably Amazing Grace.

But on the whole, this is a hymnal that I really came to love.  Every hymn has a full 3-or-more-part piano choral arrangement and/or keyboard accompaniment.  The print is clear (if a bit faded in the physically older copies we used).

Accessibility: 4/5
Like most hymnals, this is well-organized; and like most Anglican hymnals, it is conformed to the Calendar.  The indexes are easy to navigate.  You don’t need a separate edition for the pianist to accompany the singers.

Devotional Usefulness: 3/5
Some of its sacrament-related hymns lean high-church.  Some of its national and “social religion” hymns may feel a bit too “worldly”.  The calendar and the translation of the liturgy are out of date if you’re using a modern prayer book.  There is a distinct lack of songs dealing with subjects like penitence and the Holy Spirit.  Depending upon how you feel about these issues, this rating may bump or down a notch accordingly.

Reference Value: 4/5
If you only have a “contemporary” hymnal, like the Episcopalian hymnal of 1982, then this book is of immense value in preserving a number of gems that got lost in the update, and I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy of this if you like to read or sing hymns.

My church used this hymnal for eight years, seven of which I was the music minister rummaging through it for songs to sing each Sunday.  I became well-acquainted with its shortcomings, but on the whole was very happy with it, and was in no rush to “upgrade” away from it.  If you’re a music minister, or a hymn enthusiast, this almost definitely belongs in your collection.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The 1940 Hymnal

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