Hymns | The Canadian Encyclopedia



The simple verse-songs of the early Christian church and the chorales and metrical psalms of the Reformation have been sung by Canadians since the 17th century.


The simple verse-songs of the early Christian church and the chorales and metrical psalms of the Reformation have been sung by Canadians since the 17th century. Prior to the 20th century, hymn singing was not only a method of propagating religious doctrine but also a popular social activity and a means of cultivating knowledge of music. A missionary working among natives near Québec recorded in 1676 that the natives had "much aptitude and inclination for singing the hymns of the church" that were rendered into their language. Annals of 17th-century New France abound in similar comments. The "Huron Carol" ("Jesous Ahatonhia") attributed to Jean de BRÉBEUF adapted a French folk melody to Huron words; it remains in popular use at Christmas.

Transplantation to the Canadas

The singing-school movement of 18th-century England and New England became transplanted 1760-1800 to NS, NB and the Canadas by immigrants and Loyalists. After 1800, tune books in Canada catered to the psalm and hymn styles of this movement. Significant publications were Stephen Humbert's Union Harmony (1801), notable for its emphasis on fuguing; Mark Burnham's Colonial Harmonist (1832); Zebulon Estey's New Brunswick Church Harmony (1835); The Harmonicon (1836); Alexander Davidson's widely used Sacred Harmony (1838); Lemuel C. Everett's The Canadian Warbler (1863), adapted from a US collection, and one of the first tune books addressed specifically to children; George Linton's The Vocalist (1865 or 1867). During the same era several publications for Anglican worshippers appeared, notably George Jenkins's A Selection from the Psalms of David (1821); William Warren's A Selection of Psalms and Hymns (1835); and James Paton Clarke's The Canadian Church Psalmody (1845). For francophone Catholics there was Theodore Molt's La Lyre sainte (1844 or 1845) and for Protestants, Chants évangéliques (1862).


In the later 19th century, publication became more diversified; several books of hymn texts in native languages appeared, and the "gospel" style gained popularity. Church authorities began making their own compilations, pioneer instances being The Presbyterian Psalmody (1851) and Methodist Tune Book (1881). The interdenominational Canadian Hymnal (1889) became widely used. A Canadian hymnologist, Stanley Osborne, has remarked that the number of Canadian composers writing hymn tunes appears larger than the number of Canadian poets writing hymn texts. Productive early text-writers were the evangelist Henry ALLINE and the founder of the Children of Peace sect , David WILLSON (1778-1866); the latter's published and unpublished hymn verses total over 1400.

The barrel organ of the Children of Peace, preserved in the temple-museum at Sharon, Ont, provides valuable evidence of how the early settings sounded. Despite denominational distinctions, a large common repertoire unites the publications noted. At the same time, all contain originally composed tunes.

In 20th-century Canadian hymnbooks, a notable selection of locally composed tunes continues. The Canadian Baptist Church Hymnal (London 1902), the University Hymn Book (Toronto 1912) and especially the Methodist Hymn and Tune Book (Toronto 1917) contain tunes by prominent musicians such as A.S. VOGT, Alfred Whitehead, W.H. Hewlett, H.C. Perrin and the youthful Ernest MACMILLAN. The Presbyterian Book of Praise (London 1897) and The Hymnary of the United Church of Canada (Toronto 1930) place less emphasis on locally written music, but set new levels of editorial accuracy. Alexander MacMillan (1864-1961), a major figure in Canadian hymnology, worked on both publications. A Toronto magistrate, James Edmund Jones (1866-1939), was partially responsible for the Anglican Church's Book of Common Praise (Oxford 1908), although the influence of the composer Healey WILLAN is strong in the 1938 edition. Of the handsome joint effort The Hymn Book of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada (Toronto 1971), Osborne, secretary of the joint committee, states that 10% of the tunes are by Canadians. Responding to revised congregational usages following the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s were the Livret des fidèles (1966) and the Catholic Book of Worship (1972).

Familiar Response

Whatever changes in taste and performance habits have affected hymn singing, Canadians still respond familiarly to a repertoire embracing "Our God's a fortress firm and sure" (Luther's "Ein feste Burg," in the 1971 translation by Canadian poet Jay Macpherson) as well as "What a friend we have in Jesus" (with its text by a Canadian, Joseph Scriven, 1819-86) - although extensive Canadian-composed additions to that repertoire await revival. Questions of taste and standards often concern hymnologists and editorial committees as much as the cultivation of a broad repertoire. In 1851 Presbyterians were exhorted to sing their hymns "without any grace notes or ornamental flourishes"; in 1908 Anglicans were allowed such beloved hymns as "Tell me the old, old story," with the reminder that these "would be out of place in many churches"; and in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada (1981) Osborne judged that hymn singing in the 1970s showed immense improvement over that of the 1920s and 1930s. Recordings and radio broadcasts in the mid-20th century were a prevalent means of fostering hymn singing.

Historians have often observed that the customary life-expectancy of a hymnal is a quarter-century or a generation. Accordingly, hymnal-revision committees were convened in several denominations in the early 1990s; the Anglican and United Churches replaced the jointly published 1971 collection with separate new books; that for the United Church (1996), titled Voices United, reflected contemporary usage in containing larger amounts of folk and popular music than any previous collection.


Further Reading