Campbell’s Preface to “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs”

I’m sorry for being so long-gone from  My wife and I are expecting our first child soon and so my books and the shelves upon which they sat were removed from our house and banished to the garage until such time as the living quarters were rearranged to make room for Baby (sex is unknown; names are top secret). Well, the bookcases are now back up and books are coming out of their boxes!  I’m excited to have my collection back again.  I hope you enjoy today’s little glimpse into the history of the hymnals of the churches of Christ. I hope to get back to as my time permits.  This entry is regarding a revision of the first major hymnal of churches of Christ, compiled/edited by Alexander Campbell in 1851. This revision is said to contain “numerous additions and emendations” and is “adapted to personal, family, and church worship.” Campbell was assisted in his hymnal work by Walter Scott, Barton W. Stone, and John T. Johnson, all leaders in the back-to-the-Bible movement of the 1800s.


Alexander Campbell is known as a great intellectual theologian of the 1800s.  Though sometimes credited as “the founder of Churches of Christ,” most of those churches would not acknowledge themselves as “Campbellites” (as some have pejoratively called us).  Campbell was not solely a preacher and theologian, but also an educator, statesman, and writer/editor.  His influences are felt not only in the religious world, but in many other areas as well.

Historically, however, no one can deny the impact Campbell had on religious reformation in the United States.  Weary of denominational bickering, the young Campbell and his father Thomas urged the Christian world to unite under the Bible alone, leaving behind all manmade elements of religion.  This movement became convinced of and accepted two overarching emphases in their work: Christian Unity and Church Restoration.  For the church to truly be united as one, it would have to restore biblical beliefs and practices, shedding all other creeds, belief systems, and practices which divide men. Regardless of how one judges the results of Christians to have achieved these goals, the ideal they represented is a noble one.  As all over the nation honest believers began to leave their denominational worlds behind, they searched for ways to be united more closely together. One of the greatest ways for Christians to be united over great distances is to have a common hymnody (or, as Campbell writes, “psalmody”).

Have you ever travelled internationally and found an assembly of Christians with whom to worship? Perhaps you’ve visited church when you’re across country, away from home, and you’ve see the familiar sign: “The church of Christ meets here” (at least the sign on our church building growing up said). The culture of the folks inside may be different, the language they speak may be different, the order of service, etc. But if they sing some of the songs with which you are familiar you know you are home.  Growing up in Russia as the son of missionaries, we sang Takov Kak Yest’, Kak Ti Vyeleek, Ti So Mnoi (Just as I Am, How Great Thou Art, and It Is Well with My Soul). I was more at home with the Russian lyrics than I was with the English, but even when visiting the United States, I knew we were welcome among Christian family because of the shared songs of faith.

Interesting to me was Campbell’s assertion that lyrics are more important than the music to which they are set. Thoughts?  What about the idea that the hymnal is the Christians #2 book – do you think that still describes the church today? What do you think about the idea that if you can’t preach a sermon to an unbeliever, then you may be able to sing him one?  Enjoy your reading – I hope to see some interesting comments on this piece.

My next entry will be the Introduction of which Campbell writes at the end of this Preface.


Our Brethren in collective bodies, as well as in private circles, have expressed a desire for a larger compilation 1851 Campbell Title Pageof Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, as well as for a greater variety of subjects. To meet their wishes, and to redeem our promises, we have modified and enlarged our Hymn Book, and have subjected it to a severe revisal. We have spent much time and reflection upon the subject, and have examined the best Psalmody[1] of Protestant Christianity in our own country, with very considerable care and attention. We flatter ourselves that we have in the volume the cream of the most evangelical and scriptural poetic compositions now extant, and on a variety of subjects and occasions as will be all the wants and circumstances of the Christian community, as individuals, families, and congregations.

We have made the divinely inspired psalmody of the sweet Psalmist of Israel our beau ideal[2] of Christian psalmody, with the mere difference of dispensation, believing that the materials of the Psalms of David furnish a perfect standard of the proper materials of all praise, whether contemplated as psalms, hymns, or spiritual songs.

These distinctions respect the subjects and not the forms of Christian praise or prayer. Lyric poetry is equality apposite[3] to them all. They differ in matter and not in form.

In our former compilations tunes were prefixed as a guide to the appositeness of the sound or tune to the sense.

This prefixing of a tune to each composition has been objected, to for two reasons. The taste of musicians and of those who select tunes differs. Some prefer one tune and some another; and in the judgment of one precentor[4], the tune named at the head of the composition is not so suitable as another which he would prefer.

Again, the tunes named are not universally known. For these objections or reasons we have left everyone to choose for himself. Our Hymn Book being used in every State of the Union, and in the British provinces, we have given no index to any song as to the tune most appropriate. In this as in all things merely circumstantial, let every community judge for itself. It is infinitely more important that we should have one pure speech and one evangelical psalomody than one and the same tune.

Again, in this selection we have had respect to another fact. All the compositions in a hymn book will be read but not all sung. Indeed, my observation goes to prove that in no one community are there more than one or two scores of favorite songs, I mean songs or hymns frequently sung. In all my travels, and they are not within narrow limits, I find only one or two dozen universal favorites, sung almost daily, especially at large public meetings.

This fact is not confined to what are called human compositions.[5] I remember it obtained in Europe in my youth when the psalms of David were sung in Scotland and Ireland. A score of these were universal favorite and almost weekly or monthly sung. But the synods occasionally enacted that they should be first explained and then sung. Hence the one hundred and fifty were generally sung in some churches once in two or three years.

But on the hypothesis that only a tithe[6] of all the compositions in our hymn books would be sung, they should contain both in number and variety an adequate supply for all persons, conditions, and circumstances, and on all subjects of praise or prayer for another and a great purpose.

The Hymn Book of a Christian community, next to the Bible, is more generally read, and much and often read by all true Christians. It is assumed that it does, and certainly it ought, to contain the marrow and the fatness of the gospel and the exercises of the Christian heart on all the themes of Christian faith, hope and love. It is the best substitute in the world for what is usually called a confession of faith, an exhibit of Christian doctrine and Christian instruction.

It is, moreover, a sort of stereotyped preached gospel, and to unconverted persons it is the next best thing to a sermon or to an exhortation on the great themes of Christian salvation. One this account it may without any offence against good taste and good sense contain various compositions which may be regarded as not so apposite to be sung as to be read. But even these may be sung in obedience to an apostolic injunction: “Teach and admonish one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with gratitude in your hearts to the Lord.” We may, therefore, sometimes sing the gospel to sinners as well as preach it to them.

This object is not lost sight of in the following selection. But for this and other matter we solicit and attentive perusal[7] of the following introduction.

[1] the act, practice, or art of setting psalms to music; psalms or hymns collectively; the act, practice, or art of singing psalms.

[2] a conception of perfect beauty; a model of excellence.

[3] suitable; well-adapted; pertinent; relevant.

[4] a person who leads a church choir or congregation in singing.

[5] In Campbell’s time there was much debate whether to sing only biblical texts set to music (literally, singing the psalms) or if it was permissible and appropriate to sing texts of more recent, uninspired origin.  Isaac Watts was a great promoter of singing such “human compositions.” Campbell seems to be addressing the possible argument from a reader that the reason such a limited number of songs are sung is because they are not “divine compositions,” which would – to that reader’s mind – naturally meet with more success.

[6] That is to say, only ten per cent

[7] Although our typical usage of “peruse” would mean “to give a quick once-over,” its real definition is the opposite: “to read through with thoroughness or care.”

3 thoughts on “Campbell’s Preface to “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs”

  1. Wow, congrats on the upcoming addition to the family!!

    I can’t imagine singing without music. Did the lay person really have those tunes memorized? If, as Campbell said, most people didn’t know the tunes by name, how did they even sing together?


    • Tim,

      I echo your thoughts about not liking the idea of singing without sheet music, especially an unfamiliar song. It makes it so much harder to sing together when we not all – literally – on the same page. Considering this, do you find it disheartening (for the sake of quality singing in our brotherhood) that so many are going to projecting only the words to songs? James Tackett publishes the Paperless Hymnal (a fantastic product), which provides the words and the music in a large enough format for anyone to see, but some folks “argue” that it brings the focus back onto the music and that a truer spiritual focus should be on the words, not the music. Many congregations find themselves “needing” to shift to praise teams after taking the notes away from those of us who can read music. I’ve worshiped with some of these congregations. They are pretty insistent that “no one” needs the notes, just the words. However, they have a praise team practice session on Wednesday nights (instead of Bible class) or they meet early Sunday morning to go over the songs. My question is this: How many praise teams sing without the sheet music? You’ve taken it away from me, but you give it to them? I call foul!

      I don’t suppose any of the above is a theological/doctrinal statement regarding praise teams. I’ve sung on them before where that was the culture of the given congregation, but I’m opposed to them on the practical principle that giving mics to the few who are musically gifted does not make the congregation sing better – it doesn’t teach the congregation to do anything better. In stead of praise teams, what if we emphasized congregational singing training in our churches … I think we’d find that we would sing better, wouldn’t need praise teams, would avoid certain divisions over worship styles, and would be in a better position to praise the Lord!

      I gave a presentation to a local ladies’ civic group last week on Singing Schools and Congregational Singing. All but one of the ladies were from denominational churches which use instruments. They, however, were quite taken with the idea of congregational singing, responded well to the program, and one even asked if I might teach a singing school here in Floydada for the community (like in the OLDEN days). Singing together builds community. I believe that’s why God included it in the forms given to the church for edification and worship. “Sing to one another,” says my Bible (well, “addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…” actually, but you get the point). I don’t understand why so many of our people are embarrassed about congregational, a cappella singing — it’s something that we can use as a friendly invitation to investigate the church (rather than only berate people for using instruments). The idea of a positive “spin” on a cappella music in the church may be a good blog post for the future.

      Interestingly: at this local meeting I mentioned hymnals that are “words-only.” My maternal grandfather’s people were Methodist and I have the old words-only family hymnal which I brought to the meeting for illustration. Several of those ladies knew “Old One Hundredth” by that name and associated it with The Doxology. I suppose, then, that the system of using numbered tunes that could be associated with many sets of lyrics (as in Campbell’s day and hymnal) was “good enough” for them and still has left its impact on the religious world of today. I’d like to see the psalter in which that tune was #100 and see if there are other tunes we still use today.


  2. Mr. Levi,

    I think it’s a huge step backward for the quality of the worship experience to remove the music, considering how far we’ve advanced. Our software and typesetting ability makes notation and words easier to read than ever before, our shaped notes simplify music enormously so anyone (ANYONE) can understand enough to sight-sing with basic direction, and projected slides gets people looking up out of their books and toward the worship leader (and eachother). To go back is a solution in search of a problem.

    Brian Ellis developed a similar system for the Stevenses that has been particularly effective, though Tackett’s program definitely has way more songs available in its library. I’m a huge fan/advocate of projected songs for many reasons.

    Trained worship leaders leading a very basically trained audience with both words and music at their disposal will most definitely lead a more effective and powerful worship. I’m not about “experiential worship”, per se, but true worship as you know IS an experience and truly encouraging. I can’t think of any good reason we would limit our worshipers in that way.

    I used to not be proud of our acappella worship. I knew that was what God asked for, but it wasn’t something I bragged about. But I also grew up under church leadership that largely didn’t care if worship leaders knew a thing about actually leading, so it’s no wonder I wasn’t proud of it. In recent years, having studied music as a hobby/service and been to Singing Schools, I understand the power of acappella worship and why God asked for it. It is a tremendous fellowship experience when you hear all those voices uniting to sing to eachother and the Lord, a symphony the greatest instruments ever created, the voices of His children. Experienced and inexperienced singers alike blend together to make a beautiful sound. Particularly 4(+) part harmony, which is a rich piece of heritage we should cherish.

    On Old One Hundredth, I don’t know if you’ve played around with Google Books, but there are a TON of really old books that have sunk into the public domain, and been indexed into Google’s free library. Here’s one that talks a bit about the origins of that old tune:

    Read pages 253-255. There are thousands of public domain hymnals in there, and I’m sure a Psalter with that tune, but alas, I’m out of time today to look them up.




Leave a Reply to hymnalcollector Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.