Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Corporately sung songs of religious praise.

Facing declining membership and financial stress, American Lutherans stand firm at their national convention and sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." A new congregation opens its doors, and "All Glory, Laud and Honor" guides the inaugural procession. A few friends sing "Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide" as one who was long-loved is laid to rest. Whether embedded within formal liturgies or simply echoing the pathos of grief, hymns become the stories religious people want to tell each other.

American hymnody traces its roots, in part, to the writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John and Charles Wesley. Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists continue to sing the theology of the Reformation. Less formally constituted, Ira Sankey sang the message that Dwight L. Moody preached, and American revivalism became an international movement of religious style and musical theater.

Although it is widely recognized that African Americans used spirituals to focus their attention away from enslavement toward future freedom in a heavenly promised land, those field hymns carried a more worldly message as well. Certain lyrics of particular songs signaled the impending arrival of a "conductor" for the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglas has written that "O Canaan, Sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan" meant that someone was heading "north." "North was our Canaan," he proclaimed.

Hymns are part of what brings religious people together to celebrate specific religious traditions. Particular hymns serve to provide individuals special comfort in times of grief and need. Hymns also galvanize social movements and become the anthems of social change, as in the civil rights theme "We Shall Overcome."

The social and psychological dynamics of hymnody in the religious life of human beings represent a generally neglected field in the social scientific study of religion.

See also African American Religious Experience

Jerry Koch


S. S. Sizer, Gospel Hymns and Social Religion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978)

E. Southern, Readings in Black American Music (New York: Norton, 1972)

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