English hymnals have been important to worshipers for 400 years, since the days of Isaac Watts. However, even in a genre this old, hymnals continue to evolve. Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs is the latest such hymnal, and it contains several new features that its editors hope will enhance the worship.
The most obvious of these special features is phrased notation. Both lyrically and musically, hymns are composed of phrases, sub-units of thought that combine to make an artistic whole. Since in-staff music first appeared in hymnals, consistent staff length and margins have been given priority over phrasing. This has resulted in line breaks that often interrupt the flow of lyrics and music.
By contrast, Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs is laid out with a focus not on margins, but on meaning. The width of the hymns on its pages is controlled not by some pre-determined formatting decision, but by the length of the phrases in each hymn. “This wasn’t to be cute or scholarly,” said board member Craig Roberts. “This is to be practical. We are trying not to interrupt the thought.”
As a result, the amount of white space on either side of the staff varies from hymn to hymn, much like the margin width in a book of poetry varies from poem to poem. “’Abide With Me’ and ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ tend to be a little narrower on the page,” said Roberts. “16-syllable hymns, like ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’, fill the page margin to margin.”
Similarly, the editors sought to improve worship through the use of optional verses and composite hymns. The hymnal contains three hymns with optional verses, which are verses taken from another hymn that shares both a topic and a lyrical meter with the first hymn. As a result, the optional verse can be sung at the end of the hymn to add to its meaning. For example, the last verse of “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” appears as an optional verse at the end of “We Shall Stand Before the Throne” because the meters match and the content is complementary. “The optional verse enhances the thought,” said Roberts.
In addition, the hymnal contains eight composite hymns. “Composite hymns take similar thoughts or thought progressions that happen to be in different hymns,” said board member Steve Wolfgang, “and put them together in a way that is spiritually meaningful.” For example, verses from “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?” and “He Loved Me So” were used to construct a composite hymn focused on the death of Christ.
The hymnal also includes a metrical index for experienced songleaders. Almost all hymnals that contain metrical indices arrange them by tune names, but most Christians are not familiar with the names of tunes. As a result, the editors decided to arrange their metrical index by hymn name.
Wolfgang noted, “A metrical index might allow an enterprising songleader to create composite hymns on his own initiative, to find different verses that fit a common tune and arrange them thematically for the benefit of the congregation.”
Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs also uses daggers. “Daggers are footnotes that indicate a way that a hymn could be sung,” said Roberts. “The clearest example of this is ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’. You can sing the first verse and read a few verses from Genesis 28, then sing a few more verses.” This emphasizes to the congregation that “Nearer, My God, to Thee” is based on the story of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28, which will help them to worship more meaningfully.
Other daggers highlight suggestions to raise or lower a hymn half a step, or point out an optional arrangement that the congregation may use to sing the hymn.
Also, throughout Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, when “Lord” appears as a reference to Yahweh, it is placed in small caps, as is often done in modern translations of the Bible. Thus, “Lord, our Lord, Thy glorious name” becomes “LORD, our Lord, Thy glorious name”. This draws attention to the nuances of meaning contained in the original Hebrew text. “It’s like calling Yahweh by name,” said Roberts.
Finally, as many hymnals are, Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs is organized thematically. “We have put all the psalms together in the first group,” said Roberts, “so that the first 66 hymns will be psalms or psalm derivatives.”
After that, the next section of the hymnal contains only praise hymns. It is followed by a section about the life of Christ. This section is organized chronologically, so that it begins with hymns about the birth of Christ, follows them with hymns about the life of Christ, and concludes with hymns about His death, resurrection, and return.
“By this point,” said Roberts, “we have gotten through 270 hymns before we have even sung about the gospel. This is a God-first hymnal—Psalms, praise of God, life of Christ. All the songs that men have written about their own wants and needs come after this.”
The editors trust that their work will help Christians to put God first in their lives as well.