A Review by Dwight A. Moody
“How do you review a song book?” my eleven-year-old grandson astutely inquired when learning of my intent.
I’m not sure, I thought to myself, but as a hymn-loving minister I wanted to give special attention to any effort to resist the scourge of praise music that has dominated so much of contemporary worship.
The Asbury Hymnal was published in 2018 (by Seedbed Publishing of Franklin, TN) as part of the project to refurbish the chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. All of it was under the supervision of their dean of the chapel Rev. Jessica LaGrone, whom I also count as a personal friend and a colleague in gospel work.
I like this hymnal. It is the right size, containing only 275 selections. It features so many of the songs that shaped my life in Christ, especially gospel songs and those that emphasize a devotion to Jesus: “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name”, “All to Jesus I Surrender”, and, of course, the 1910 gospel song whose tune is known as MOODY (for D. L. Moody, 1837-1899), “Marvelous Grace of Our Loving Lord”.
Most of the hymnal is laid out according to the Christian calendar: Advent, Christmas, Lent, and such. But it has a series of sections all of which I would classify as Devotion (including Prayers, where there are 11 songs but could have numbered more than 40 if all the hymn prayers in the volume were included).
I encountered this hymnal when I attended the wedding of two young ministers (who had both been active in the Academy of Preachers). The hymn we sang during that ceremony is one of more than 100 hymns that were new to me, with a 2015 composition date: “O Praise the Name (Anastasis)”. It is about the resurrection of Jesus and came out of the Hillsong community in Australia.
Strangely, though, only fifteen of the hymns date from this century, and most of those come from the mind and imagination of Keith Getty, including the famous “In Christ Alone” (with its unhappy line, “’Til on that cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied”).
Another twenty percent of the hymns were culled from the twentieth century leaving 192 of the 275 selections (or 70%) dating from before 1900. This includes, of course, the Charles Wesley hymns—there are 40 of them, as one might expect from the leading Wesleyan/Holiness seminary in the country.
What is strangely missing are hymns from the global Christian community—from Asia, Africa, and South America. Most modern hymnals (I am thinking of, for instance, the Celebrating Grace hymnal (2010) and especially the Psalms for All Seasons (2012) each with more than 700 entries that include at least some of the tunes and texts from around the world.
Instead of going around the world, this Asbury volume goes back through time, picking up a noticeable number of old Latin and European hymns, connecting the worshipping community through the centuries rather than around the globe.
Furthermore, the hymnal includes at the very beginning the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, all presented for congregational reading. Putting doctrinal statements in this prime position surely reflects the current stand of the seminary for (what it deems) orthodoxy over against liberalism, even though the history of their movement emphasizes the experience of the gospel rather than the explanation of the gospel. LaGrone acknowledges both, describing the book as “rich in sung theology and warm in the experiential call of the gospel.”
Scattered throughout the hymnal are scripture portions, for congregational reading, no doubt. This I like, as most worship services in my Baptist tradition include far too few readings from the Bible (in spite of our insistence that we are “people of the book”).
But these scripture selections in The Asbury Hymnal are curious: 24 texts, with only four from the Hebrew Bible (three Psalms and one Isaiah). Twenty of these are from the New Testament but, strangely, ten are from the epistles, six from The Revelation, and only four from the gospels! Missing are any scripture texts related to creation, the calling and history of Israel, the ministry of Jesus, or the need for justice in the world.
But even with these shortcomings, the hymnal is a good thing. Singing is so central to Christian formation, and congregational singing is the most important kind of singing. As I read through The Asbury Hymnal, I sat at the piano and played one hymn after another; it did me good. I noticed that many hymns had been transposed into keys more conducive to singing by the people. And this also is a very good thing. Congregational and community singing may just be one powerful antidote to the division and distrust in our churches and in our country.
I wish I had done this sort of thing for Georgetown College when I served there as dean of the chapel. Thank you, Jessica and Asbury team.