Photo is from the United Methodist Hymnal (1989); the first hymn in the book, Charles Wesley's "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing"
If you’ve read any of the Saint Maggie books, you’ve probably come upon the characters singing a hymn. A hymn is, according to dictionary.com, “a song or ode in praise or honor of God, a deity, a nation, etc.”
All four of the full-length Maggie novels have hymns that people would have sung in the 1860s. I even used an 1857 Methodist hymnal, so readers encounter lyrics from the 18th or early-mid 19th century.
People in the nineteenth century sang. It was a form of entertainment and it was communal. Today, we don’t do much communal singing. A couple of exceptions come to mind: worship services, rock concerts, and the National Anthem at sporting events. For the most part, though, twenty-first century folks seem to be under the impression that they need to sing like professionals. I’m here to tell you, “No, you don’t need to sing like a professional.” If you like music, and want to sing, then sing! It’s good for the soul and mostly likely good for your health, too.
I am pretty sure that Maggie and family would have sung hymns at church, a camp meeting, or around the piano at home. They would have sung them accompanied by organ (pumped by foot), or piano, or they would have sung without accompaniment.
In terms of hymnody, the things they would have sung was chiefly determined by their denomination. As far as Maggie, Emily, and the boarding house family are concerned that denomination is Methodism. The exceptions are Grandpa O’Reilly who is Roman Catholic, and Eli who was raised in the Society of Friends.
And now, some things you should know the people called Methodist:
1. I am a United Methodist (okay, we’re not so united these days, but we still hold out hope).
2. Historically, we Methodist-types have been known for our love of singing. Garrison Keillor even gently poked fun at us in a short essay. He wrote:
…nobody sings like them. If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Methodists, they'd smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!
Many Methodists are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony, a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person's rib cage.
Click to read the whole essay. .
3. The Methodists’ chief hymn writer is a guy called Charles Wesley (1707-1788). Charles was the younger brother of John Wesley, who is the founder of Methodism. The name “Methodist” was originally a pejorative laid on a group John, Charles, and other Oxford University students had created. You see, they did things rather “methodically:” they fasted, visited the imprisoned, helped the poor, studied the Bible together, etc. Hence, the nickname. Other names designed to insult the group included, “Bible Moths” and “the Holy Club.” Anyway, Charles Wesley was rumored to have written an astounding 6500 hymns. Now, there is no way that many hymns would make it into a hymn books, and even if they could, you wouldn’t be able to lift it. However, if you ever happen to open a Methodist hymnal, you’ll see that we did retain quite a few. It’s only natural that some pop up in the Saint Maggie series.
Tomorrow, I’ll post links to some of the hymns on Youtube and discuss where they appear in the series and why they are there.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder