Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen V. Wiberg

In the month of October in which I am writing, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is publishing a new hymnal. The last hymnal­—the Lutheran Book of Worship (commonly referred to as “the green hymnal”)—was published in 1978. It has been in use 38 years which exceeds the average life of denominational hymnals by 18 years. Work on the 1978 hymnal began with the cooperation of The Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod but the Missouri Synod dropped out of the process before publication.

The most common criticism of the current hymnal by many Lutherans of Scandinavian background is the loss of that musical tradition. The scant few hymns in the hymnal leaves a trail of hurt feelings behind. This past summer I received a list of the hymns to be included in this new worship book—Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Ardy Johnson, a Covenanter from Carlshend, Michigan, sent me the list. He accompanies the liturgy and hymns for the Saturday evening service of a nearby Lutheran congregation. The woman pastor, knowing Ardy’s fervent interest in hymns, gave him the hymn list of the new hymnal. He studied the list in turn sent it to me. Though Ardy and I have corresponded for several years on common interests, especially on subjects relating to music and hymnody, including our shared love of Swedish hymns, we have never met in person. Pietisten contributes to this conversation and our friendship by correspondence has been for me a source of great inspiration and joy for me.

Of the 641 hymns in the new hymnal 248, a surprisingly large number, also appear in our Covenant hymnal. I was happy to discover 13 Gospel songs that have been standard fare among Covenanters for many years on the list. They are as follows:

“Blessed Assurance,” “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” “When Peace Like a River,” “I Love to Tell the Story,” “Shall We Gather at the River,” “Rock of Ages Cleft for Me,” “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” “Amazing Grace,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Come We That Love the Lord” (Marching to Zion), “How Great Thou Art,” “Jesus Savior Pilot Me,” and “What a Fellowship, What a Joy Divine.”

The hymns we regard as “heritage hymns”, i.e. translations from either Swedish or Norwegian are sparse in the hymn list which leaves me wondering how the Augustana hymn tradition as well as those of the former Norwegian synods could be by-passed. Only “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Behold the Host Arrayed in White,” “Day by Day,” “Thy Holy Wings,” “In Heaven Above,” “Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers,” and “Prepare the Royal Highway” (Prepare the Way O Zion) are included.

I had hoped to find the Carl Olof Rosenius hymn, “With God as Our Friend.” It was in “the green hymnal” but missing in the new listing. Also missing is the traditional Christmas Chorale, “All Hail to Thee, O Blessed Morn.” No doubt this is due to the disappearance of Julotta (the early morning Christmas morning service) from all but a few former Augustana Lutheran churches.

By contrast, readers may be surprised that The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook (1996) contains forty “heritage songs” due in large part to the work of our Covenant hymnologist, the late J. Irving Erickson.

One of the sad omissions in our present hymnal, however, is one of the finest hymns by Lina Sandell. This will appear in the new Lutheran hymnal in a translation by my friend and fellow pietist, Gracia Grindal of Luther Seminary, “The Numberless Gifts of God’s Mercies” (Jag kan icke rakna dem alla). I included the text of this hymn and the story behind it in a previous “Sightings” and I rejoice that it will have a place in the new hymnal. After a recent conversation with Gracia, I was left wondering why her voice was not present and heard in the hymnal commission’s planning of Evangelical Lutheran Worship. She has invited me into a conversation regarding Covenant heritage songs as she prepares for a hymnal to be named Reclaim. The name suggests the effort to recover more of the Lutheran hymnody overlooked by previous hymnal commissions. It will include hymns for the Lectionary. We wish her success in this large undertaking.

Finally, I need to celebrate the inclusion in Evangelical Lutheran Worship of a new hymn by a Jeannette Lindholm, a former member of Salem Covenant Church, New Brighton. The hymn was premiered with the college orchestra last year at the Christmas concert of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. It is a lovely Advent hymn,

Unexpected and mysterious is the gentle Word of grace.
Ever-loving and sustaining is the peace of God’s embrace.
If we falter in our courage and we doubt what we have known,
God is faithful to console us as a mother tends her own.

In a momentary meeting of eternity and time.
Mary learned that she would carry both the mortal and divine.
Then she learned of God’s compassion, of Elizabeth’s great joy,
And she ran to greet the woman who would recognize her boy.

We are called to ponder myst’ry and await the coming Christ,
To embody God’s compassion for each fragile human life.
God is with us in our longing to bring healing to the earth,
While we watch with joy and wonder for the promised Savior’s birth.

Hymnals come and go but as long as we have breath, LET THE PEOPLE SING!

Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg