A Hymnal for American Youth, Yesterday and Today

I have before me a copy of the Hymnal for American Youth, edited by Henry Augustine Smith, Professor of Church Worship, Music, Hymnody and Pageantry, Boston University. You’ve read that right. The copyright is from 1919, by The Century Company, though my book was printed in 1924. The Hymnal did go through many printings and several editions.

Sometimes I think I should have been an archaeologist. It’s that part of me that led me, when I was a boy, to clamber across the towering heaps of coal and shale the miners had left behind in my town. I’d crack open a rock along a fissure and find a fossil inside—ferns and grasses mostly. I kept the ones I liked best, stuffing them in my pockets to take home. I remember one especially, two feet long, covered with the imprints of 20 or 30 plants, and nicely colored, like the odd rainbows you sometimes find on asphalt under a car that’s been leaking oil.

The ferns I saw in the rock came from a much warmer time, and there’s no returning to it. It’s that way also with many human enterprises. No one now straps a shard of flint onto an arrow for hunting deer. We have easier and more effective means of getting our venison, and most of us will not bother with hunting at all. If anyone does do it in the old Indian fashion, it’s as a hobby, or an act of cultural homage. Such people will go to the grocery store all the same.

But with many human enterprises it is not that way. If culture progresses, it is by fits and starts, by many a wandering path, attaining a hilltop here, getting stuck in a bog there, losing your bearings in the woods on a rainy day, remembering what your grandfather once told you about the sun, and so on. Donatello, not satisfied with the sculpture of his time, went about Rome to examine old copies of Greek statuary, and sometimes he quite literally dug them up, as an archaeologist would. The result was not that he and his followers followed tamely along after the ancients. But without that recovery, he could never have sculpted his famous Habakkuk, the bald prophet who looks something like an ancient Roman senator, and whom the people of Florence, appreciating the spiritual force expressed in his passionately ugly face, happily nicknamed lo zuccone: the Pumpkin-head. Yet no one can mistake Donatello for an ancient sculptor. Michelangelo too learned from the ancients, else he could never have sculpted his “David.” Yet it is not only the sling and the stone that keep us from mistaking David for Apollo. No Greek sculptor ever captured the righteous and fearful glower in David’s brows, as he readies himself to fight for the honor of the living God.

We human beings are not ferns, thriving and fading with the ebb and flow of the climate, nor need we consign ourselves to be the tools of our tools, or the marionettes of history. We can recall, recover, resume, reestablish: we can step aside from our age, and say that what was done once can be done again, not slavishly, not as antiquarian reminiscence, but with heart and mind and soul, immersed in this present age, just as Donatello and Michelangelo were both ageless and men of their time—that potent time of creation we call the Renaissance, potent because it was also a time of re-creation, of remembering.

So I turn to my Hymnal again. A stamp on the first page marks it as belonging to the “B.Y. P. U. of the Prospect Hill Baptist Church.” That’s the Baptist Young People’s Union, an organization still very much alive, as is the church, in Prospect Park, Pennsylvania. Evidently this book was used for a long time, as I find an index card inside it marked February 7, 1943—a Sunday. Here’s what it says:

Prelude – Roger

Call to Worship – Jean

Hymn #6 [“Every Morning Mercies New”]

Scripture – Lois Ann Trickett

Hymn #42 [“Singing for Jesus, Our Savior and King”]

Offertory Sentence – Elsie Myers

Offertory Prayer – Lois

Poem – Elizabeth McLaughlin (music)

Prayer – Elsie Myers

Hymn #152 (to be sung going to classes) [“I Need Thee Every Hour”]

  * * * * * *

Announcements

Hymn #116 (two verses) [“Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain”]

Benediction – Doris Crider

It appears that the said Doris Crider composed the benediction, because I find the following handwritten prayer:

Our Father: May each of us again be challenged by these words to take up our task. May we renew our faith in thee. We know that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Lead us that we may be strong and have the courage to live our lives according to his teachings and seek to live according to thy will, when we sing the words, Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.

I was able to identify one of the persons here. Lois Ann Trickett (1929-2020) was 13 years-old at the time; she later married Ronald Harmon Webb, who became a Baptist minister, and the couple served at four churches, two of them in the same area of southeastern Pennsylvania where they grew up.

I’m impressed by the sheer substance of what those children were doing, with an introductory organ prelude, no less, but it was wholly in the spirit of the hymnal that Professor Smith put together. For the second section of the book, after 301 hymns, is described as “Orders of Worship,” prepared by the professor himself, and these are 20 quasi-liturgical services written for young people, some obviously Christian (Christmas, Easter), but some fit for all believers in God. My guess is that Professor Smith would not have done that, had The Century planned to sell the hymnals to Sunday Schools alone. For what it is worth, Smith was also the editor of The Army-Navy Hymnal, with its non-denominational character, including specifically Jewish hymns and a section especially for Roman Catholics. I suppose, and I would be delighted to be confirmed in my supposition, that Hymnal for American Youth was used in public schools across the country.

That appears to have been one of the aims, as we find in several of the Orders of Worship. One is for what used to be called Decoration Day. It interweaves hymns with Bible verses and with the quotations of well-known authors and statesmen, as if they too were somehow involved in revelation. Imagine a throng of your countrymen at the local cemetery, opening the ceremony with the National Hymn (“God of Our Fathers”), and then reciting, antiphonally, this call to worship:

Renewed this day be all noble memories,

  All high and holy traditions of the past.

Remembered be our Fathers, who founded the nation in integrity and piety,

  And died in faith, not having received the promises, but seeing them afar off.

ALL: THE PATH OF THE JUST IS AS THE SHINING LIGHT, THAT SHINETH MORE AND MORE UNTO THE PERFECT DAY.

What gives me pause is how the service ends, with an antiphonal recitation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as if it too were Holy Writ, but for the setting—and for the memory of those who have died in battle—it is quite moving. And the whole ends with “America, the Beautiful,” with these the last lines of all:

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law! Amen.

I could do without Woodrow Wilson in the Order for “The American Flag and American Ideals,” but these words from the elderly Benjamin Franklin are also calls for us to remember, to re-imagine what a nation really is, and what America once was:

I have lived a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth,

  THAT GOD GOVERNS IN THE AFFAIRS OF MEN.

And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it possible that an empire can rise without his aid?

We have been assured in the sacred writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.

Were they members of another species, those boys and girls and men and women who heard, who uttered, who sang such words? Many of them are still among us. We rather are the fossils, the dead-ends, the stunted attempts at failed development. Remember, recover, rebuild.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute's 2021 Russell Kirk prize "for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue," Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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