Brief Reviews, VOLUME 11

Christopher Phillips – The Hymnal [Review]

[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”1421425920″ locale=”US” src=”” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]My Soul Grows Straight
A Review of 

The Hymnal:
A Reading History
Christopher N. Phillips

Hardback: Johns Hopkins UP, 2018.
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Reviewed by Grant Currier
Christopher N. Phillips concludes his The Hymnal: A Reading History in a most unexpected study of Emily Dickinson. The cursory glance will undoubtedly produce a moment or two of bafflement, perhaps curiosity as to her occupying an entire chapter in a book about hymnals, but Phillips writes that “Dickinson understood the hymn as a form of hopeful communication” in which the act of receiving, not giving, constitutes the poem as a hymn.

I have recently been making my way through Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal in which he develops a theory of constitutive language. It is erudite and the intellectually glycemic equivalent of collard greens. Phillips, however, has given us a notion of the same and applied it specifically to hymning, and this volume appears at a felicitous moment. In mid-2018, John Piper caused (unreflectingly?) some controversy when he penned two additional verses to Thomas Chisholm’s “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” to bring the hymn into thematic alignment with his sermon. This action raised a debate about the nature of hymns themselves: are they pieces of art, statements of theology akin to Anselm’s writing, or protean things able to be molded? This is where Phillips’s book will be of immense worth to contemporary and progenitorial Christianity.

The Hymnal is divided into three distinct and semi-equal sections, each studying the relationship of reader(s) and hymnals within a particular context: Church, School, Home. By looking at the development of the hymnal as a textual genre within each arena, Phillips highlights certain similarities that cannot be ignored. As one of the few types of text that can “inhabit [these] spaces,” their proliferation was almost certain, and yet hymnbooks have all but disappeared from but one of those spaces, and even there, the use of hymnals is rapidly declining.

The book’s first section, “Church,” delves into the corporate nature of reading as a congregation, and the corporate importance of building a hymnbook as a means of theological expression (as with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1818). Questions of power, race, and identity immediately confront us, but the equally vital issue of literacy perhaps passes us by. But Phillips will not let us escape its clutch. In “School” he moves us from the pews to the blackboard, where Phillips demonstrates the use of hymnbooks as both content of and reward for literacy. The printing industry capitalized on this genre and produced editions that were made for children and acted for the children as objects of initiation into ownership. Later, Phillips even connects this to the development of children’s literature as a distinct genre of writing, visibly separated in every bookstore. Finally, with “Home,” we are directed to consider the relationship between literary poetry and hymns, for the two have rarely been considered equals.

Though this volume deals with an obscure, rarely-considered aspect of textual history, Phillips’s style is accessible, and there is little frustration on the reader to be familiar with the recondite. Yet, these things considered, I found myself questioning the necessity of such a volume. Filled with names recognizable and new, stories interesting and flat, The Hymnal does not come to a conclusion that moves beyond that stipulated in its prologue. Closing the cover, we are able to say that the hymnal was vital to “pushing the bounds of defined spiritual and domestic spheres,” but the why of the matter is attached to textual variants (such as Whitman’s) and the thinness of the Library of America’s series.

So, honestly, I was disappointed with Phillips’s volume. His acknowledgements section speaks of a learned love of “music…poetry…and God,” and I for one believe this present work would have been greatly improved if a more robust love of hymns had been present. Yet, these criticisms aside, I will conclude this by returning to Dickinson.

Phillips stresses her isolation from a church body, though he argues for her solitary Sabbath-keeping, a trend I have seen rise even in myself and immediate family. What makes her poetry hymns, then, is not their usefulness in a congregational setting, but in “one’s private reading as an authentic spiritual experience.” There has always been an unease with singing songs of “abandonment [and] anxiety,” yet these are the best of Dickinson’s “dramatic hymns” that move us outward from our isolation to reach “out into the unknown.”

If we, like Dickinson, attempt to reach out into the unknown, into the dark around and within us, we must grasp at something. Or better—someone. “The power of hymns for Dickinson was fundamentally spiritual, but it also had a certain embodiment,” and I believe we are still seeking that embodiment. If we “remove the historical person of Christ” from our worship, as in A Book of Hymns (1846), we risk relinquishing the entire worth and force of hymns, of hymning even.

Has the disappearance of the physical hymnal caused a related disappearance in we who attend a corporate service? Perhaps. We, like the readers of early hymnbooks, are presented with words without musical notation, and we sing along or stand silently. Has the disappearance of the physical hymnal caused us to forget about the prime embodiment of worship, the Child of Nazareth, Resurrected of Jerusalem, and Lord? Perhaps. Has the disappearance of the physical hymnal from our churches, our schooling, and our homes been an inevitable consequence of the changing publishing industry? Perhaps.

So, I offer a caveat lector; I suspect that this book did not mean so much to me because, unlike Dickinson and Phillips, I have not exercised “my thews of hymn,” nor am I as I ought to be—a product of worship.


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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