Much of what is written upon the character and quality of our hymns fails either to enlighten or convince; and this is because the writer, or, it may be, the reader, does not clearly distinguish the two points of view from which hymns may be regarded: for hymnody is at once a branch of literature and a branch of liturgies, and the characteristics of a hymn are not the same in the two departments. In literature, for example, both Coleridge and Shelley are looked upon as skilled in the right use of English words, and the one published a "Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni," and the other, a " Hymn to Intellectual Beauty " ; yet, from the liturgical point of view, these pieces are not in any sense to be recognized as hymns. Again, a piece of verse, properly spoken of, from a liturgical point of view, as " a good hymn," may seem to a mere literary critic quite unworthy of any such distinction. The methods and ends of poetic literature are one thing, and the uses of God's house are another, and, while they do not necessarily conflict, they do establish differing scales of excellence, and they do demand differing criteria of judgment. Unless we are to have confusion, one or the other point of view should be distinctly chosen, and then persistently maintained.
The title of this book suggests that we are dealing now with hymns for Church use, and that among such hymns we are seeking the best. But the mere announcement of that point of view is not enough. It must be adhered to. And just here it is that confusion so often creeps in. Some one starts out to test the quality of Church hymns, and then at once proceeds to test them, not by a study of the actual experience of the Church in their use, but by applying to them his personal opinions and judgment of what a good hymn ought to be. He is followed by other critics, each with the same aim and method, but with differing judgments, and each one discovers the hymns that are best—in his opinion. Out of it all comes confusion, and no standard is established but the fluctuating one of personal preference. And now, when an interest in hymns is so widely felt, is a good time to insist that the quality of a Church hymn cannot be determined in that way. The hymn is the people's share in God's praise, and is intended for congregational use. It can be tested only by the results of actual use in the worship of the Church; and to propose any other test (such as the opinions of critics) is, again, to confound literature with liturgies. In the case of an untried hymn, no man can say that it will prove to be "a good hymn.'' In the case of hymns that have been fully offered to the Church, and set before her to sing, and yet have failed to attain any real position in her hymnody, that result may be said to mark the end of their career as hymns. Such hymns, having been actually tried by the only competent tribunal, have, for some reason or other, possibly for none that is quite apparent, been found wanting. Here and there a hymn-book editor, with a happy knack, may light upon one of them which he thinks has not had a fair trial, and he may even start it upon a new career, mated to some tune that shall help it at last to win its way to the hearts of God's worshippers. But this is not to change the tribunal which decides the ultimate fate of all hymns. It is only to gain a new hearing before that same tribunal in the specific case. And from the decision of that tribunal there is no appeal in the matter of hymns.
A good hymn is one that commends itself to the Church, voices the religious feeling of the worshippers, and stands the test of congregational use. And just because God's people in all the different branches of the Church make but one larger congregation, with common needs and feelings, therefore the only hymns we are entitled to call " the best Church hymns'' are those which commend themselves to this larger congregation, and have come into actual use over the widest area, and by consent of the largest number of Christians in the different Churches. A so-called gospel hymn, which has temporary vogue in certain quarters, but which the great bodies of Christians reject from their worship, is not one of the best hymns. A wooden translation from the Latin, dear to the advanced section of the Anglican Church, is not one of the best hymns. Neither are our own personal favorites necessarily entitled to that distinction, which only the Church at large can confer.
If, then, the Church alone decides which hymns are the best, and her decision is necessarily final, what remains to us is the simple finding of the individual hymns which, as a matter of fact, have won widest approval and largest use. It would be interesting in several ways if we could pick them out of the mass, if we could get before us a group of hymns which, according to our definition, are beyond a doubt " the best Church hymns." The only practicable way of doing this is by the study of the hymn-books in present use in the Churches. These books, in the case of each denomination, are the last of a series which have been successively used there. They have grown up by a slow process of dealing with hymns, by way of selection and addition. They contain all the hymns now actually sung in their worship. By taking the whole number of these hymn-books, then, we have the entire body of hymns in actual use in the Church worship of English-speaking Christians. And, by collating their contents, we could determine what hymns are common to a smaller or greater number of books. Giving to each book one vote, the number of books in which a given hymn is found would determine the status of that hymn in the whole English-speaking Church, and we should finally arrive at a group of hymns which, being found in the widest actual use, are properly called " the best Church hymns.''
This collation, however fascinating, is a painful task. Fortunately it has been largely done for us already.
We may read this list with much satisfaction, with a new confidence also in the tribunal which gave such a decision. Time will work changes in this list, but it seems likely that they will be by way of addition rather than of subtraction. Heber's "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty ! " and Newman's " Lead, kindly Light," for instance, will, apparently very soon, range with these others. But of the thirty-two, few, indeed, seem likely to be superseded in our time. None could now be spared. A competent editor of a hymn-book for Church use at the present time would hesitate before omitting any one of them. They are indeed the best Church hymns.
And now that we have them clearly before us, two uses of this list suggest themselves.
2. An opportunity is suggested to those who are interested in the religious training of childhood.—How could more be done for the spiritual enrichment of a child than by storing its memory with the best hymns? If the good old custom of memorizing hymns has fallen into abeyance, it may have been from the embarrassment of riches, the discouraging length of the list of available hymns. But here is a short list of the best only, presenting a task not too great for the average scholar, making frequent review possible, and offering a treasure which will grow only the greater as life lengthens out, and until its close. "It is not surely a thought to be lightly passed over," as Mr. Ellerton has said; " it is not without a lesson of deep significance for us all, that our Divine Master sustained His spirit upon His awful deathbed, not with any new utterance of devotion, not with aspirations coming fresh from the lips of Him who spake as never man spake, but with the familiar words of His Church's Psalmody, the broken fragments of the Hymnal of His Childhood.''
It will be of interest also to examine the hymns included in our list, so as to gain an impression of what the qualities are which make up the standard of a hymn that the Church approves and loves to use.