The New SDA Hymnal

Ottilie Stafford

The following article was first printed in 1985 in the first issue of the first magazine printed by IAMA, The IAMA Journal. There had been mounting excitement about the new hymnal to be released that summer and we at IAMA were delighted when Dr. Stafford consented to write this essay for our first publication. Some fifteen years later, her insights and record of the process followed in resolving conflicting opinions have even more meaning, given the success of that project and today’s challenges in church music.


When a church produces a new hymnal, it is setting the direction for worship, liturgy, and a sense of musical style within the church for years to come. The average useful age of a hymnal is twenty-five years. The present Seventh-day Adventist Church Hymnal is now more than forty years old. Since its appearance in 1941, a world war and its aftermath, major cosmopolitan changes in the membership of the church, and a world that has moved into a post-modern age have exerted a considerable impact on the tastes, ideas, and styles of worship. Therefore, when a new Seventh-day Adventist hymnal for North American and other English-speaking segments of the Church was discussed more than four years ago, it seemed likely that it would involve major changes. This, indeed, has happened.

The initial plan for a new hymnal was laid in 1981 when a General Conference ad hoc committee under the chairmanship of Associate Secretary of the General Conference L. L. Bock polled administrators, pastors, church officers, youth leaders, and musicians concerning a broad spectrum of questions relative to the present church hymnal. A large majority of the respondents felt the present hymnal to be inadequate for present needs and wished for a new one. As a result of the poll and discussions among the committee members in Washington, it was recommended that a special committee be appointed to start preparing a new hymnal.


The "Church Hymnal Committee" was named and met for the first time on March 31, 1982. Under the leadership of Charles Brooks, chairman, and Wayne Hooper, executive secretary, the committee represented many fields of expertise and a wide range of musical tastes. It was organized into four subcommittees, dealing with (1) texts, (2) tunes, (3) worship aids, and (4) organizations. The goal was to have a published hymnal ready for the forthcoming General Conference session in New Orleans in mid-summer, 1985.

Some individuals on the committee wanted mainly gospel songs, believing that the "heart songs" were what truly religious persons wanted to sing. Others thought gospel songs did not belong in the hymnal; their "heart songs’ were Anglican chants and Bach chorales. Between these poles lay a variety of other strongly held convictions. Although decisions at times were stubbornly resisted, every hymn of the present Church Hymnal and every other hymn submitted was sung and discussed - first by the text and tune committees and then by the large committees - before inclusion or deletion was decided upon.

Decisions concerning the hymns in the existing hymnal were based on three factors: (1) did the pastors indicate a general use of the hymn, (2) is the hymn strong enough to remain viable for the life of the new hymnal, and (3) should the Adventist churches be encouraged to sing the hymn because of its message? About three hundred of the approximately seven hundred hymns in the present hymnal were retained.


At its second meeting, in January 1983, the Church Hymnal Committee began to consider additions to the three hundred hymns remaining. The search for new hymns had several goals:

  1. to secure texts and tunes from Adventist contributors,
  2. to find texts with important Adventist doctrines,
  3. to find texts that children and young people will enjoy learning,
  4. to seek hymns sung by English-speaking congregations outside North America, and
  5. to incorporate a positive representation of folk hymns, black spirituals, and early Adventist hymns.

In addition to suggestions contributed by members of the committee, newly written as well as older established hymns were sent to the committee by scores of interested persons. Actually, the committee received thousands of texts and tunes to consider.

I thought often, on Friday evenings or Sabbath afternoons as I sat at the piano playing some of the hymns from the last package sent by Wayne Hooper, that members of the committee in various parts of the country were probably similarly engaged. In fact, some called in musical friends to sing with them in order to get a broader sampling of reactions.


About four hundred hymns were eventually added to the three hundred retained from the present hymnal. The choices were then sent to a panel of consultants whose responses were seriously considered and often affirmed. When some of the panel pointed out, for instance, the amount of sexist language in a hymn, the committee made an effort to make changes without doing violence to history or traditional rendition. Where appropriate changes could not be made, the hymn was eliminated rather than exclude a major portion of the church from its message.


The committee met two or three times a year for a four-day session each time. Some of the subcommittees met between sessions in order to maintain constant progress. The committee sessions generally started at 8:30 in the morning and continued until 9:00 or 9:30 at night - at times even later. Committee members sometimes wondered whether sound decisions could be made under such pressure.

Finally, late in the evening of July 5, 1984 - in an emotional moment - the committee members joined hands, sang two hymns, and adjourned. For the most part, the work of planning the new hymnbook was ended. However, the work was not finished. Editorial work and arranging for copyright permissions remained, along with other minor decisions to be made by mail or telephone.


The Church Hymnal Committee had read, played, and sung thousands of hymns, had perused over one hundred hymnbooks and seriously considered matters of history, taste, and doctrine. Everyone on the committee had some regrets regarding some of the hymns included but, on the other hand, everyone on the committee had much more to be excited about; elation was the common feeling.

If persons reviewing the hymnal look at the inclusions that they might not care for, they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the book. But if they look at the riches that are embedded therein, whatever their personal taste, the book will be well received and become a great blessing.


Additions have been included from almost every period and style of hymnody: plainsong, German chorale, eighteenth-century English hymnody; German, Scandinavian, and Appalachian folksongs; twentieth-century hymns; old and new Adventist hymns; carols, gospel songs, rounds, and children’s hymns, as well as hymns about the modern city and the natural world. To make the book more useful to pastors planning services, the section on worship aids has been considerably expanded.

As an example of what took place, let us consider the topical section of hymns called "Evening Worship." Eight hymns were retained from the present hymnal: Softly Now the Light of Day, Savior Breathe an Evening Blessing, Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide, Day Is Dying in the West, Now the Day Is Over, All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night, Jesus, Tender Shepherd, Hear Me and The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended.

Five hymns were added: Abide with Me, ‘Tis Eventide, a moving and rather well known hymn which might be considered in the gospel song tradition; God Who Made the Earth and Heaven, set to a familiar Welsh tune (Ar Hyd Y Nos) but with words from the Lutheran Book of Worship (most persons have not heard them with this melody); O Gladsome Light, O Grace, a very old text from the Australian Lutheran Hymnal, set to new music by James Bingham; Now All the Woods Are Sleeping, a German hymn harmonized by J. S. Bach; and Hark! the Vesper Hymn Is Stealing. In other categories similar adjustments may be noted.


Since 1950 there has been a tremendous resurgence of hymn writing in England by a group of hymn writers so productive that one must go back to Watts and Wesley to find an analogous period. The new Seventh-day Adventist Church Hymnal will contain a large number of hymns by such men as Fred Pratt Green, Fred Kaan, Brian Wren, and Timothy Dudly Smith than any other present-day hymnal. It also brings back hymns from the old Hymns and Tunes of 1886.

One of the hymns, The Wonders of Redeeming Love, by R. F. Cottrell - an early Adventist minister - has been set to a new hymn tune perfectly wedded to the text by Perry Beach. Thus a distinguished present-day Adventist composer and a great Adventist preacher and poet from the nineteenth century have had their talents united in what should prove to be a much-sung hymn.

In the group of hymns intended for Communion use, three from the present hymnal remain and nine others have been added. Some are new, some are traditional, and at least one familiar text has been given a fresh musical setting.

The hymnbook is to be introduced for the first time at the pre-session for ministers the week before the General Conference session begins in New Orleans in June. It will be used throughout the General Conference session and will be on sale at that time. Already many churches have had hymn festivals, church services, and other meetings introducing some of the new hymns; and in every case excitement about the new hymnal has resulted.

Dr. Ottilie Stafford is an Emeritus Professor of English at Atlantic Union College



Charles L. Brooks, chair

Wayne Hooper, executive secretary

Melvin West, chair, tunes subcommittee

Harold Lickey, chair, texts subcommittee

James Bingham, Alma Blackmon, Robert Cowdrick, Allen W. Foster, Ronald D. Graybill, Frank B. Holbrook, Charles Keymer, Rochelle D. LaGrone, Samuel D. Meyers, Joihn W. Read, J. Robert Spangler, Ottilie F. Stafford, Michael H. Stevenson, Merle J. Whitney, Raymond H. Woolsey


Church Hymnal Update 2000

The regular edition has now been printed ten times for a total of 675,000 copies. Additionally, 65,000 compact and 70,000 larger leather, as well as 40,000 compact hardcover editions have been printed. The above, when combined with 100,000 of a word-only version, total just under one million copies.


This reprinted article and related materials were printed in the Winter 2000 issue of Notes, an IAMA publication