Bumping into mystery is only one benefit of learning about our past. Benefit is probably not the best way to describe this kind of learning. I prefer ‘blessing’ to ‘benefit.’ Let me explain why. Not long ago I spent some time exploring the various traditions of hymnody within the Stone-Campbell movement. I was surprised to find multiple traditions just within the confines of Stone-Campbell history. Up in New England the Elias Smith and Abner Jones movement developed a robust hymnody drawing from Isaac Watts. Down in the Carolinas and Virginia the James O’Kelly movement developed an idiosyncratic hymnody based off O’Kelly’s and Joseph Thomas’ hymnals…composed largely of original hymns. They were aware of the work of Watts and Charles and John Wesley, but they shunned them. Fascinating! Then there was a brief Stoneite trajectory that actually did not begin with Barton Stone himself (though he was present and accounted for), but involved several of his close co-workers. By the 1830s the hymnals published by Alexander Campbell dominated the movement; this remained the case until the Civil War. It was a rich study: I learned so much that I just did not know before. Everywhere I turned some new wonderful discovery seemed to be waiting for me. Several times I ‘bumped into mystery.’ That is how I describe coming face to face with some thing, some fact or idea or concept so new or so beyond my prior experience.
What really intrigued me, though, is that I wanted to hear the hymns I read about. They were new to me: mysterious, challenging, different. If my ancestors sung them, and were shaped by them, then I wanted to hear them and learn them, too. That led me quickly to YouTube because I wanted to hear a particular practice I discovered. In a day before congregations purchased hymnals to be used at the meetinghouse (and left there…in the pew racks) each person bought their own hymnal and brought it to Sunday assembly. Especially in cases where not everyone had access to a hymnal, or could not read, the leader would read or chant the first line and the congregation would respond by singing that line. Called ‘lining out the hymns’ this practice was common among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the late 18th century. It was as aspect of Sunday worship our ancestors knew well…but for me it was mysterious, and new and wonderfully different practice. So, off I went to YouTube.
Having bumped into mystery, I count it more than a benefit to hear and learn this, I count it a blessing. I count it a blessing because I know better something of what they sung and how their hymnody shaped them. I count it a blessing because I feel better connected to my ancestors having heard–even if for just a few brief minutes–something that they might have heard in a manner they might have sung it. I count it a blessing to be aware of a way of singing and worshipping beyond any of my experiences, but was so central to the experiences of those who went before me. For me to gain knowledge and understanding and sensitivity and awareness to those whose lives and work shaped me is not merely a benefit, it is a blessing.
This clip is only one of many you can find online that illustrate how this practice works, and sounds. I’ve used it with
benefit blessing in several classes.
Mac is Special Collections Librarian and Archivist at Abilene Christian University.