SONGS OF FAITH August 17, 2012

I recently asked about novels that could provide useful background for teaching a course on evangelical Christianity. Of course, my question indicated a familiar error, namely that the written word is the best means of teaching in this area, and often it is not. Years ago, I learned the fundamental lesson that if you talk about Christianity – any part of Christianity – without covering its music, you are missing a critical part of the story. Protestants think of themselves as people of the Bible, but in reality they are followers of the Bibleandhymnbook, one word.

Throughout my courses on American religious history, then, I always use musical illustrations, including for instance Catholic liturgical settings and Shaker hymns, but I just wanted to offer one resource that I have found immensely valuable as a teaching tool.

Bobby Horton is an Alabama-based musician who specializes in recording Civil War music on contemporary instruments, and he has issued many albums of “Homespun Songs” of both the Confederate and Union sides. These are splendid in their own right, but he also issued two albums of Homespun Songs of Faith, including hymns that would have been sung in the 1860s. A wide selection includes (of course) Amazing Grace, but also He Leadeth Me, Promised Land, Come Thou Font of Every Blessing, and many others. He accompanies this with a wonderful range of instruments ranging from guitar and dulcimer to a small brass band, evoking the different settings in which the hymns would have been heard, from the battlefield and the campfire to the homestead and the revival tent.

The results make for a superb teaching tool. I play a hymn, then we go over the lyrics in some detail. I then get the students to describe what kind of message the hymn is sending, how it fits with the theological or social settings we have been discussing in the course. Horton’s music is particularly good for discussing revivalism. BTW, I know this shouldn’t surprise me, but I am repeatedly shocked  by how many regular churchgoers are singing things that they do not begin to grasp theologically …

On the positive side, and  gratifying for me personally, Horton’s innovative musical treatments really intrigue students, and I usually deal with multiple requests to borrow the CD’s. (The music is now available as MP3s)

Please take this as a major recommendation for teaching!

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  • johnturner

    Thanks, Philip. Extraordinarily helpful (and timely in my case).

  • Betsy Wilson

    Also check out the hauntingly beautiful and meticulously researched CDs of the musical group Anonymous 4: “American Angels: Songs of Hope, Redemption and Glory” (2004) and “Gloryland.” (2006) These four women usually hang out with medieval music, but have made a great contribution to this field as well.

  • Philip Jenkins

    I’d never heard of the AMERICAN ANGELS album but I’m most grateful for the introduction. It sounds exactly appropriate.
    BTW there are lots of miscellaneous collections of (eg) early gospel recordings; Shakers hymns; and early Mormon pieces. The resources really are abundant