- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Amy Grant says she has had a hymn in her heart since she was a child. Earlier this month, the singer released her second collection of hymns, titled “Rock of Ages, Hymns and Faith,” which includes “Anywhere With Jesus” and “Sweet Will of God.”

“My father and mother love hymns,” said Miss Grant, who has sold more than 25 million records in the Contemporary Christian music and mainstream pop markets since her debut album in 1977. “When we were little, my dad would go around the house on Sunday mornings singing old hymns like he was conducting an orchestra.”

Hit songs may come and go, but the most popular hymns are recorded time and again in various genres.

Several modern renditions are appearing in stores. Beth Nielsen Chapman, Ashley Cleveland, Out of Eden, Jars of Clay, Donnie McClurkin and Buddy Green are some of the artists who have contributed to the selection. This summer, MercyMe leader Bart Milliard will release his interpretations.

While taking notes from her father, Miss Grant learned to sing harmonies and enhanced her reading skills. The hymns helped her pronounce consonant pairings in the second grade.

“We were doing ‘gr’ words,” Miss Grant said. “I was only 7. One of the words I wrote down was ‘grandeur.’ That was a pretty stout word for a 7-year-old. I remember my second-grade teacher going, ‘Grandeur?’ And I said, ‘It’s in ‘How Great Thou Art.’”

Miss Grant said hymns serve as a reminder of the timeless nature of Christianity.

“Unlike a sermon that you hear on the fly, because of the repetition, hymns are a constant sermon,” Miss Grant said. “They are powerful teaching tools.”

Most mainline Christian denominations form committees to decide which songs to include in their hymnals, said Bill Gnegy, director of music resources at the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tenn. The governing body then approves the list.

In 1989, the United Methodist Hymnal replaced the Book of Hymns published in 1966, which was preceded by the Methodist Hymnal of 1939.

Although a denominational hymnal usually is compiled about every generation or 25 years, supplemental books are released between major publishings, he said.

“Praise choruses” are too short to be considered hymns, Mr. Gnegy said, but popular Christian songs such as “Majesty” by Jack Hayford and “He Touched Me” by Bill Gaither could become standards. Some hymnals include modern compositions such as Miss Grant’s “Thy Word” and Michael W. Smith’s “How Majestic Is Your Name.”

Some churches project the words of contemporary Christian songs onto screens at the front of the sanctuary, and Mr. Gnegy anticipates that the next hymnal for the United Methodist Church will have several electronic editions.

“I would say that hymnals aren’t becoming obsolete for now,” Mr. Gnegy said. “I still think there is relevance in people holding a book in their hands. I’m not saying every church will do that, but generally hymnals are here to stay for at least a while.”

Beloved hymns often have fantastic stories behind them, said Robert Morgan, author of “Then Sings My Soul” and “Then Sings My Soul, Book 2.”

Fanny Crosby wrote “Blessed Assurance” after hearing the melody played by her friend Phoebe Knapp. “Fanny clapped her hands and said, ‘Why that says ‘Blessed Assurance,’” Mr. Morgan said. “On the spot, she composed the lyrics to the famous hymn.”

When Miss Crosby was 6 weeks old, a doctor prescribed an ointment that destroyed her eyesight, Mr. Morgan said. At a school for the blind in New York, Miss Crosby memorized much of the Bible and developed poetic skills. Her thousands of songs made her one of America’s foremost hymnists.

“She composed all these things in the dark chambers of her mind,” Mr. Morgan said. “She said later if she had seen the doctor she would have thanked him because she wouldn’t have been able to compose all the great hymns if she had her sight.”

Charles Wesley was another prolific writer, composing about 9,000 hymns and poems, Mr. Morgan said. He and his brother John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, evangelized England in the 18th century.

“Charles was always writing hymns,” Mr. Morgan said. “He wrote them while he rode his horse. He would go running into strangers’ houses and yell, ‘Pen and ink. Pen and ink.’ And they didn’t know who the person was, but they would give him pen and ink to write down his hymns before he forgot them.”

“God Bless America,” the most famous patriotic hymn, might never have made it out of Irving Berlin’s files if not for a vocalist named Kate Smith, said Ace Collins, author of “Stories Behind the Hymns That Inspire America.”

Mr. Berlin wrote the song for a musical play called “Yep! Yep! Yaphank!” but removed it from the show, Mr. Collins said. Almost 20 years later, Miss Smith asked Mr. Berlin to provide her with a song to sing on the radio to the veterans of World War I on Armistice Day in 1938.

Mr. Berlin remembered writing “God Bless America.” At 12:13 a.m. EST on Nov. 24, 1938, the song hit the airwaves and listeners requested it again and again.

“When the great hymns became popular, it was invariably in war,” Mr. Collins said. “There are no atheists in a foxhole. You can go though life without much faith when things are going well. When you are being tested, you suddenly realize you can’t do it on your own.”

The spiritual themes become imbedded in people’s hearts, Mr. Collins said. If people have lost their faith, hymns bring them back to a time when they had faith.

“Hymns and love songs endure because the need for them does not change,” Mr. Collins said. “They are not fads.”

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