Last year, while visiting an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cape Town, South Africa, I was moved to tears by a teenage boy who fervently joined in the singing of my favorite hymn, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness." I must admit that I was really surprised to see that a child of the 21st century was familiar with a traditional hymn at a time when a growing number of Christian congregations have traded in hymnbooks for overhead projection screens that beam the words to praise songs. Nevertheless, the singing of hymns and the use of hymnals appear to be alive and well for many church folk of African descent. That has been made possible by the long tradition of publishing and updating hymnals of treasured songs.
The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church led the way in the publication of the first hymnal specifically designed for use by African American congregations. In 1801, Richard Allen, founder and first bishop of the AME Church, compiled a hymnal entitled A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns, Selected From Various Authors, which contained 54 hymns. Typical of hymnals of the era, Allen's collection was pocket-sized and it printed only the text of the hymns. Allen featured hymns that were widely sung by African American Christians of the day, about a third of which were written by well-known white hymn writers, such as Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. This was in contrast to the tradition of improvised Negro spiritual music, which had mostly been passed down orally and anonymously. Hymns, spirituals and gospel music--distinctively different types of music--coexist in black worship.
The AME Hymnal underwent revisions. Notably in 1818, the hymnal was expanded to include 314 hymns and was organized according to the "various stages of the Christian Experience." In 1898, for the first time, the hymnal included music as well as text. Today, the AME Hymnal, last published in 1984, has evolved to incorporate much of the liturgy.
Other predominantly African American denominations also began to publish hymns in the 19th century, including the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1838); The African Union Church (1839); the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (1891); and The Church of Christ Holiness (1899). The first official hymnal of the Church of God in Christ, Yes, Lord!, entered the scene much later in 1982.
The National Baptist Publishing Board began publishing Songbooks as early as 1898, but it did not publish its first official...