At work-related Board meetings that I attended last month, the Chairman was at pains to ensure that all the parties involved were pulling in the same direction. At one stage, he said to his fellow Board members, “we must all be singing from the same hymn book”.

Well, it is not often that we hear such expressions in a worldly setting, but they are interesting to reflect upon, for everyone around the table knew what he was meaning, despite the fact that they are not particularly religious.

The force of the words for us is the unifying value for Christadelphians in having our own Christadelphian Hymn Book, even though at least three versions of this are being used concurrently around the world. Imagine how the Truth would have developed if we came along to the meeting, some with an old Methodist hymn book with its light Wesleyan sentiments, some with an Anglican book with its high church chants, some with a Pentecostal “swinging” songbook, and then tried to exhort ourselves “in unity to dwell”.

At a very early stage in ecclesial development, in 1864 when the word “Christadelphian” was not yet a year old, Brother Roberts compiled the first Christadelphian book of hymns and anthems—The Golden Harp. This small collection consisted of thirty hymns with words only. The idea of good hymn singing had been promoted earlier by Brother Thomas, who wrote in 1847: “As to singing, when the matter is scriptural, the music good, and heart attuned to praise, it is a most delightful, soul inspiring and reviving exercise—a spiritual sacrifice of fragrant odour to the Lord”.

Five years later on, the first hymn book edition with the title “Christadelphian Hymn Book” was published. The important point to note for us who “are singing out of the same hymn book” (though in different editions) is that it was produced to delineate us doctrinally from “Christendom astray”. In an editorial in The Christadelphian magazine in May 1869, Brother Roberts commenced by addressing the clear doctrinal role of the Christadelphian Hymn Book:

  “The appearance of this Hymn Book marks another stage in the progress of the truth. The Christadelphians, or those who have cast off the doctrines of the Romish apostasy, whether embodied in Papal or Protestant form, and have embraced the revived gospel of the apostolic age—(the things of the kingdom and the name of Jesus Christ), and who think it necessary to distinguish themselves from all the sects of “Christendom” … are now numerous enough to require and provide a Hymn Book of the present enlarged dimensions”.

 In the same editorial he wrote,

“As to Hymn Books in general use, it is impossible that Christadelphians can use them. The truth is scarcely to be found in them; and where it does perchance receive a passing expression, it is generally spoiled by an unnatural and effeminate style of language which is utterly distasteful to the mind imbued with Bible ideas on the subject”.

 Interestingly this strong connection between Christadelphian doctrines and hymns was commented upon recently in an article in the July 1997 edition of a magazine called “The Hymn”. The article was written by one Wesley Roberts, a non-Christadelphian, who is a professor of music at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Kentucky. He had this to say about the beginning of our hymn book:

“Hymnody was an important part of Christadelphianism from its beginning, and, along with the journal, The Christadelphian, gave independent ecclesias a broader fellowship. Hymns reflected the essential doctrines and principles of their faith. These principles were anti-Trinitarianism. They also believed that God would establish his kingdom on earth through the return of Jesus to reign a thousand years in Jerusalem”.

 The essence of us singing out of a Christadelphian Hymn Book is to help give independent and autonomous ecclesias a “broader fellowship”, and to reflect upon “the essential doctrines and principles of our faith” (to use Wesley Roberts’ words).

The Role of Music in Our Hymn Singing

 Music is one of God’s richest gifts to His creation. Though our musical abilities may differ, music makes up an important part of our worship. Most Christadelphians would sing at least eight hymns a week which makes over 400 per year. In a lifetime in the Truth, we could well sing 20 000 hymns. Hence the importance of the words we sing and the care required in compiling a hymn book.

Imagine 20 000 servings from “oceans of slop”, which is the colourful expression which appeared in Robert Roberts’ May 1869 editorial about the general run of Church hymns. The same editorial quoted words of J J Andrew: “It is really astonishing how men professing to believe the Scriptures, could have composed such theological rubbish”.

Fortunately not all hymns by non-Christadelphians are in that class and, by careful selection and adjustment, successive compilations of The Christadelphian Hymn Book enable those 20 000 hymn singings to elevate and progress our minds.

The music can be stirring and emotional, but its function in worship is to lift and enhance the sense of the words, so that praise may be heightened. A practical example of this comes out in the voluntaries which we commonly play during the collection after the breaking of bread. We use appropriate hymns for this purpose, not pleasant organ-recital music, because the purpose is to place words and ideas in the minds of the listeners.

That concept builds upon a rather remarkable feature created in the human brain. If we are asked to quote verses from a nominated book of the Bible, say Colossians, we may well be struggling after one or two stumbled verses. But hear a hymn tune, and we can instantly think of some of the words, even if not in their right order. That of course applies with any song. We forget that songs we knew twenty or thirty years ago ever existed, but hear a few bars of the music again after all those years and instantly we recall the words.

That emphasises the need and skill of the hymn writer/compiler to choose the appropriate tune to go with the words. Some achieve this by writing both the words and music, as did Brother John Lea of Philadelphia when he composed the Sunday School favourite “Christ the King is coming”.

What it also emphasises is that we do not want catchy tunes with weak and ambiguous words which go nowhere, for recollection of the tunes at later times will fill our minds with those weak concepts. For instance, if we are going to recall a tune which is related to the work of reconciliation achieved by our Lord Jesus Christ, it is not very uplifting to have the words “O happy day when Jesus died” going through our heads, when we could have Brother Charles Caldicott’s “We shall be like him, O how rich the promise”, or Brother C A Ladson’s “We praise thee heavenly Father” with its verse:

“We take, O Lord the token; Life out of death we see, Sin and its condemnation, Love and its victory”.

And with these particular words, we also get music harmonised by the great J S Bach!

Robert Roberts was foremost in ensuring that the music did justice to the thoughts of praise in the words. In 1883 he defended the use of instruments in ecclesial worship, saying: “When the voices were few and poor, singing was found to be a painful exercise instead of a source of edification. A backbone of correct musical sound gave the voices something to rest on, and left the mind more at liberty to rise on the wings of the sentiments expressed”.

Robert Roberts’ interest in things musical is emphasised by the fact that, as from the second edition of the Christadelphian Hymn Book in 1873, he only printed hymn books with music shown in them. He claimed that this contributed largely to the excellence of congregational singing that has been remarked upon in more than one Christadelphian meeting by competent music critics, while adding that perhaps a stronger reason was: “the Truth intelligently received, loved and obeyed generates intelligent enthusiasm in praise”. In the 1883 Christadelphian he rejected a suggestion that a hymn book be published with words only.

Robert Roberts must have been a good singer himself as, while living in Edinburgh in 1858, he joined the weekly practices of a Christadelphian choir conducted by George Dowie. At that stage he was a reporter with the Caledonian Mercury. Following a public concert one night in which he sang, he reported in the newspaper the next day that “the choir, though small, was very effective”!

We can imagine that Robert Roberts’ attendance at weekly choir practice would have been most consistent, for one of the four sopranos in the choir was a twenty seven year-old sister with a taste for intellectual, and spiritual things, by the name of Jane Norrie. During the next year she became Sister Robert Roberts!

The Growth of the Christadelphian Hymn Book and Christadelphian Writers

 One of the features about the Christadelphian Hymn Book as it has gone through its various editions has been the involvement of Christadelphian hymn writers. In his article referred to above, Wesley Roberts concluded with these words:

“Considering the scope of hymnic literature by Christadelphians, we might conclude that few branches of Christianity can claim such a close relationship between hymn writing and their own religious development, and such a high percentage of hymnists in their membership. As their hymns become better known, this close relationship will reveal that the heritage and faith of Christadelphians has been enhanced through a strong emphasis on hymnody from their beginnings to the present day”.

 Perhaps the need to express precisely the Scriptural doctrines which are our “heritage and faith”, has led to us having such a “high percentage of hymnists”. Or perhaps the intensity with which we approach the Truth has led our brothers and sisters with a poetic and musical touch into hymn writing.

The 1864 Golden Harp, whose name Robert Roberts said at the time was “a pretentious name for a very poor production”, contained hymns by Brother David Brown which are still amongst our favourites: “Glory and blessing be, uncreate unity”, “We come O God to bow” and “Jesus! Thou son of righteousness”. The first and third of these were sung to music newly composed by Brother James Flint of the Birmingham ecclesia.

Interestingly, the Golden Harp is said to have arisen out of an interest stimulated by the advent in Birmingham of a musical family who led the ecclesial singing with a flute, violin and basso.

In the first Christadelphian Hymn Book (1869), Brother Roberts included further anthems because he strongly believed that anthems represented a form of praise that Christadelphians should come to use. He advocated the use of Biblical texts, feeling that “the most appropriate thanksgiving we can offer to God is in the language which the Spirit has indicted”. Some of the anthems were from an 1864 publication by George Dowie of the Edinburgh ecclesia—a sixty four page book of thirty five anthems entitled “The Disciples’ Choral Service of Bible Themes and Motets in the Words of Holy Scripture”. George Dowie’s own contributions included the words of “Now unto Him”, “Holy, holy, holy” and “Amen, blessing and glory”, anthems which became standards in Christadelphian hymn books.

The 1869 Christadelphian Hymn Book contained no acknowledgements of authorship, in the light of the alterations made to words composed by non-Christadelphians and because of Brother Roberts’ desire that external praise not be given to their authors and composers. That practice was maintained in subsequent hymn books until 1964 when the Hymn Book Committee felt (perhaps overzealously) that copyright laws required acknowledgements on each page. A number of ecclesias reacted against that concept. Hopefully this practice can be reversed in a new edition, with acknowledgements being kept to the back pages.

Coming back to the story, the 1874 edition introduced a number of hymns of Christadelphian composers who were not therefore identified at the time. For instance, Brother Joseph Stones wrote the words of a favourite: “Father supreme whose wondrous love”.

In 1903 a major hymn book revision took place in the Fraternal Visitor fellowship (Suffolk Street), introducing further hymns by Christadelphian authors, for instance Brother Joseph Bland’s hymn about the seasons of life which lead to resurrection, “In the bud of early springtime, in the days of early youth”. These new hymns were bypassed by Brother Walker when he revised the Central fellowship’s book in 1932, but were incorporated in the 1964 book following reunion.

In 1932 Brother Walker introduced some of his own hymn words (for example, “The evening and morning we see the Lord making”) and also works by Brother Islip Collyer (the anthem, “The Lord is my shepherd”) and Brother C A Ladson (“Lift up your heads, ye saints”). “The days are quickly flying” by Brother Ernest Tipping was added into the 1951 reprint of the 1932 book.

The 1964 book, with its pluses and minuses, brought in a range of new Christadelphian hymns, including Brother Islip Collyer’s sensitive “Shall we behold the promised land”, Brother Alfred Nicholls’ “Lord Jesus Christ our living head”, and hymns by sisters such as Catherine Morgan and Edith Ladson.

And so the development continues, with ample material of sound scriptural basis being available for a new revised Christadelphian Hymn Book coming from the UK, America and Australasia.

Our Heritage

 Our heritage is the result of energy put into our Christadelphian Hymn Book: energy devoted to ensuring the distinctiveness of our doctrine in the words of the hymns, the elevation of our minds through the thoughts of our praises, and the fellowship of the Truth in singing from the same series of hymn books—things worth preserving; rather, things essential to preserve.