Brother Robert Roberts saw that “good singing greatly helps to open out the mind to the glorious thoughts embalmed in the words that are sung” and was the one instrumental in compiling the first of our hymn books in 1864.

How has our Hymn Book developed? Let us investigate, from that first very small 1864 words-only volume to the current greatly expanded 2002 Christadelphian Hymn Book. To understand this present book, we must trace its development from the nineteenth-century days of Brother Roberts. To do this, we must understand the circumstances of the young Roberts couple, who had been married in April 1859.

On his first visit to Great Britain in 1862 while staying with the young brother and sister Robert Roberts in Huddersfield, Brother John Thomas had the foresight to see that Birmingham was a more favourable centre for radiating the Truth, and advised the younger man to remove there. Birmingham had a large population, lay in the middle of the country geographically, and the people favoured politics rather than the church, a circumstance which seemed to specially favour religious independence. An interest in the Truth had been aroused by Brother Thomasʼ lectures, and a capable brother was needed on hand to follow up that interest. Brother Thomas saw in Brother Roberts the man who could fill those requirements, for, although the ecclesia was small (only 15–20) the interest of up to 75 had been aroused, promising great ʻfruitʼ.

In late 1863 circumstances combined to force the removal of the Roberts couple to Birmingham. This seemed a bad move at the time, as a prospective employment vacancy did not occur, and the Roberts household then included parents and an ailing sister and her family. But such are the ways of the Almighty that employment opened up, Brother Roberts resumed work after a lean time, and the ecclesia flourished. How encouraging to that young brother to have an audience of 50–75 to nurture on Sunday evenings on the things of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ!

Two developments followed fairly quickly. In 1864 brother Roberts followed brother Thomasʼ advice to begin a monthly magazine devoted to the exposition and defence of the faith preached by the apostles, with a view to “making ready a people prepared for the Lord”. This magazine was named The Ambassador of the Coming Age, later re-named The Christadelphian in 1869 at Brother Thomasʼ suggestion. Due to the publication of this magazine, much of the interest shown in the Truth earlier was able to come to fruition. This brought about the need for the second, unpremeditated development, which was the publication of a Hymn Book.

We learn from My Days and My Ways that the few who met together in Huddersfield had fallen into the use of a dozen or so hymns collected and stitched together by a worthy old man named Truman. These hymns were “millennial and fairly Scriptural in character, but were so spoiled with the current theological taint as to be quite unfit for the use of enlightened believers” as well as being far too limited for regular use. Thus, with the growth of the ecclesia, a larger and more Scriptural compilation pressed upon Brother Roberts, this interest being stimulated by the advent in their midst of a musical family who led the ecclesial singing with flute, violin and basso. So in November 1864, Brother Roberts published The Golden Harp—“a pretentious name for a very poor production”, as he himself commented, recognising its limitations.

To our eyes, accustomed as we are to the bounty of twentieth century printing and music, it was a very meagre book indeed, but to those in 1864 it was a beginning. Though it came about because of the necessities of the Birmingham ecclesia, it was offered as a suitable text book of praise for all of like precious faith throughout the world. A hymn book published without music created its own problems, but these were solved by many ecclesias having official Leaders of Song who were familiar with church hymn tunes, and who were able to lead the singing.

The Golden Harp comprised 136 hymns and 21 anthems, totalling 157 in all. Some of these were taken from the Scottish Psalter (“the best of Davidʼs psalms”) and “the most scriptural of uninspired compositions” were chosen from other published hymn books. As well, we learn from Robert Roberts’   Preface, a few original contributions and a selection of anthems were added. Four hymns bear the name D. Brown, and one the name F.R.Shuttleworth. We are not certain as to which tunes these hymns were sung, but the anthems may have used some tunes familiar to us.

Of these 157 hymns and anthems, 94 are used in our 2002 hymn book (80 hymns and 14 anthems), with at least 11 having input by brethren or sisters either in words, music or both. One of the brethren involved in early hymn writing was David Brown, who was baptised in London by Brother Thomas in 1862. This brother wrote the words of four of our all-time favourite hymns, We come, O God, to bow (now 174), with the majestic and appropriate tune named Devotion No. 1 (sadly, now deleted) possibly the work of Brother James Flint or Charles Rayer. Brethren Brown and Flint combined also to produce three other beautiful hymns in this book:

Hymn 83 “Glory and blessing be”

Hymn 366 “Jesus! Thou Sun of Righteousness”

Hymn 308 “Yahweh Elohim” (now an anthem, but first printed in quatrains as a hymn).

Using hymns direct from the Scottish Psalter or Scottish Paraphrases had its drawbacks. The language was often stilted and lacked the ʻflowʼ of classical poetry. In the words of one English brother who has done much searching to uncover the origins of our hymns, the Golden Harp was “full of gloom, doom, and awkward phrasing”. One deleted example of this awkward (though Scriptural) phrasing is Hymn 44 from The Golden Harp.

“Whoever they be that in their wealth

Their confidence do pitch,

And boast themselves, because they are

Become exceeding rich. “

and the last verse,

“They to their fatherʼs race shall go, They never shall see light,

Man honourʼd wanting knowledge is

Like beasts that perish quite.”

Several hymns were shortened, a notable example being the previously-mentioned We come, O God, to bow, which had six verses, only three of which are in the 2002 book.

Other examples are O blessed is the man whose trust, which had eight verses, only four of which we now have as Hymn 22 (with alterations and additions). The included paraphrase for Isaiah 42,   Behold My Servant, see him rise contained eight verses, only four of which we now sing as Hymn 198, with alterations to the final verse. Hark! ten thousand thousand voices, now Hymn 296, also had one verse omitted.

However, many other hymns come to us unaltered from this volume. In one instance we have gained two hymns from Golden Harpʼs Hymn 124, (the Scottish paraphrase of Isaiah 55) where it consisted of eight verses. The first four verses are now as Hymn 329, “Ho, ye that thirst! approach the spring!” while the last four verses have become Hymn 272, “Behold he comes! your Leader comes”.

Second Hymn book, March 1869: First to be Designated “Christadelphian Hymn Book”

We move on to 1868. In May of that year the advance of the Truth had “outgrown the capabilities” of The Golden Harp. So with the assistance of then brethren JJ Andrew and his brother Arthur, hymn book literature was “ransacked” to “rescue hymns from the prevailing quagmire” suitable for inclusion in an enlarged hymn book for the brotherhood. From their remarks after this effort we find that orthodox hymn books had been compared to “oceans of slop” by others. With all printed copies also having been sold, Brother Roberts also sought “original contributions of excellence” in the August Ambassador for inclusion in this improved and enlarged hymn book

So The Christadelphian Hymn Book was published in March 1869. It was another volume with words only and contained all but 26 hymns from the Golden Harp. The remaining 131 hymns and anthems were included with a further 113 hymns and 29 anthems added—a total of 273 in all (223 hymns and 50 anthems). This Hymn Book was divided into three sections—Psalms, Hymns, and Anthems, which Brother Roberts felt was about as close an approximation as can be made to the apostolic division of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”.

The extra anthems were added as “selections from the unaltered language of Scripture, and set to the free and expressive style of music which this form of praise admits.” Brother Shuttleworth advocated the use of Bible words in the offering of praise thus: “the most appropriate thanksgiving we can offer to God is in the language which the Spirit has indited. The words of heathens—which is too often the character of hymns sung—or even the words of brethren, fall infinitely short of the majesty, significance, and purity of the Spiritʼs own words. The Spiritʼs words contain the nourishing kernel, whereas uninspired words are, too often, empty shells. What can surpass the beauty and effectiveness of chanting the high praises of Yahweh, in the very words in which His mind has been communicated to us!” (This from the brother who penned the words “Lift now your voice and sing”.)

The 1869 Christadelphian Hymn Book without music was offered to the brotherhood in March 1869, that they might “indulge in the luxury of collective praise, without having their intelligence outraged, and their religious emotions checked and violated by the use of foolish and unscriptural words”. It was possibly a coincidence that the Hymn Book came into use at Birmingham for the first time during Brother Thomasʼ third visit to England in May 1869, on his first Sunday at Birmingham ecclesia, when he addressed the 120 strong ecclesia with words of weight and power so moving that no one attending was capable of taking notes. On that visit to Britain, the collective singing of the ecclesia must have impressed the doctor, for he recorded the next year while visiting Philadelphia that, “the singing is better than in any ecclesia except Birmingham”.

Of the 142 new hymns in the 1869 Christadelphian Hymn Book (no music) 77 appear in our current book with small input from brethren and sisters, among them Brethren William Osborne, Joseph Stones, Philip Davies, David Brown, and Sister Mary Turney (later Randles).

Brother Roberts regretted that it was not then possible to publish a book with music. He saw that a hymn book with no music created problems of division, for often those with musical ability were issued with music before meetings, tending to create a ʻchoirʼ intent on technical performance rather than uniting all in spontaneous and wholehearted praise to the Creator by all who were made worshippers by the Truth. He believed that a Hymn Book with music would unite the brotherhood and bring many benefits.