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Songs of Zion opened doors for ‘songs of soul and soil’

 


Songs of Zion opened doors for ‘songs of soul and soil’

June 13, 2005        

By United Methodist News Service

Twenty-five years ago, a group of African-American United Methodists felt called to bring “songs of the soul and soil” from the black church into mainline church hymnals.

The power of those songs finally convinced church leaders to publish Songs of Zion.
 
The Rev. William B. McClain, in a paper on “The Story of Songs of Zion: Pioneering Paths in a Strange Land,” chronicles the efforts of the National Advisory Task Force on the Hymnbook Project as they worked to convince church leaders to print a songbook of African-American religious music.

McClain, a professor of preaching and worship at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, laid the groundwork for the songbook by writing articles and giving lectures and speeches criticizing the standard hymns of mainline Euro-American denominations. He pointed out that much was missing from the hymnals and being missed by not including the spirituals, gospel songs and hymns written by African-American sacred music composers.

The 1966 Methodist Book of Hymns included only one hymn by a black composer: Charles Tindley’s “When the Storms of Life are Raging.” Five African-American spirituals were in the hymnal, as well.

In 1973, McClain presented a workshop for the denomination’s Board of Discipleship in which he issued an urgent and critical recommendation to “develop a songbook from the black religious tradition to be made available to United Methodist churches.” The recommendation was adopted and McClain was given authority to form a committee to research the project.

The task force researched, sent out surveys, collected and compiled songs. Workshops and seminars were held in all sections of the country. Members of the Black Methodists for Church Renewal, a caucus of the United Methodist Church formed in 1968, encouraged and volunteered their time to work on the project.

“It was a labor of love and an effort to lay our contribution on the altar of the church we all loved so much,” McClain said.

When all the work had been done, a meeting was called and a vice-president of the United Methodist Publishing House was invited to attend to hear the final proposal for the songbook.

“The representative came with doubts about the quality, function and marketing possibilities of such a venture and expressed this opinion in abundantly clear language,” McClain said.

This executive also came with the authority to make a decision on whether the book would be published. “He seemed determined to exercise his pre-determined judgment,” McClain said.

After much discussion, one member of the committee, in frustration said, “Let’s stop talking about these songs, let’s sing them!” McClain said when the songs burst forth, a door opened for the project.

McClain describes how one member of the committee quietly went over to the piano and started softly singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” At the end of the song, everyone, including the publishing house executive, had tears in their eyes, McClain said. It was at that point that the executive decided a “few thousand copies” could be printed.

Published by the United Methodist Publishing House and Abingdon Press in 1980, Songs of Zion brought the sacred music of African-American culture to the pews of predominantly white denominations.

The United Methodist Publishing House received more than 85,000 orders within the first few months of announcing the book would be published. Since its publication, Songs of Zion has sold more than a million copies to denominations around the world. Its buyers are multi-ethnic and ecumenical.

McClain believes the effect of the songbook on the church have been significant, reaching across racial and denominational boundaries. Many of the songs are included in the most recent United Methodist Hymnal.

“In the almost 25 years of use of the Songs of Zion it has proven that the musical genres in worship in any Christian church can be broadened,” McClain said.

Though not the first hymnal representing the African-American church tradition, Songs of Zion was the first hymnal compiled by African Americans and published by a predominantly white denomination.

McClain believes the publishing of Songs of Zion led to other mainline denominations looking more closely at sacred music coming from African-American religious tradition and the black church.

Lift Every Voice and Sing was published by the Episcopal church in 1981; Lead Me, Guide Me, was published by the Roman Catholic Church in 1981; the Lutheran Church published This Far by Faith: An African Resource for Worship in 1999; and The African American Heritage Hymnal, an ecumenical hymnal, was published in 2001.

The United Methodist Church also gave attention to other ethnic minorities by publishing Hymns from the Four Winds, Asian, 1983; Celebremos I and II, Hispanic, 1992; and Voices: Native American Hymns and Worship Resources, Native American, 1992.

“Little did we know when we started work on the project that it would receive such acceptance, receive such wide use, stimulate such discussion and debate, set in motion a plethora of so many publications of other song books and shape so much of what has happened to church hymnals and continues to happen since Songs of Zion came out in print,” McClain said. “May it all be to the glory of God!”

*Information for this story is from “The Story of Songs of Zion: Pioneering Paths in a Strange Land,” written by the Rev. William B. McClain.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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