A Centennial Celebration

2021 marks a critically important year in the history of Churches of Christ.

2021 marks 100 years since Elmer Leon (“E.L.”) Jorgenson of Louisville, KY published the very first edition of Great Songs of the Church.

To say that this hymnal has had a monumental influence on the hymnody, the singing, and the worship practices of Churches of Christ (all flavors, all branches) would be an understatement. But I am certain that most folks (within and outside of Churches of Christ) have no idea just how different 20th century American church music, hymnody, and hymnals would look were it not for the work of this man.

Elmer Leon Jorgenson, 1886-1968

Jorgenson gave well over a decade to the preparation of the first Great Songs and its publication in 1921. According to individuals like Forrest M. McCann and his nephew, Dale Jorgenson, E.L. surveyed in excess of 600 different books to make his initial selection of 400 titles to be included in the first version…with additions and substantive editions in 1922, 1925, 1926, it became clear that the possibilities for a “#2” version would soon be needed.

As early as 1910, at only age 24, Jorgenson naively believed his work would be relatively simple and accomplishable…little did he know a decade of work would soon unfold, and a lifetime of works

(McCann 1997 Speech) E.O. Excell, Charles M. Alexander, neither would allow their copyrights in any hymnal together…shortly before their death, they relented and Jorgenson was the first to benefit from their change of heart, now appearing side by side in same book…

Just think about that…were it not for the tireless work of Elmer Leon Jorgenson, who knows if we’d ever have had a hymnal that had the hymns of Crosby, Kirkpatrick, Watts, Bradbury, and others in the same book…that’s right. Jorgenson was the FIRST to get the copyright owners to allow these different catalogues of hymns to be printed alongside one another.

E.L. Jorgenson, and his work for Great Songs of the Church forever changed the American hymnological landscape…and this is but one of numerous reasons why this monumental centennial year is worthy of celebration.

Great Songs Of The Church, 1921 Edition

Watch for other posts to come…and for information on how you can be a part of celebrating this important hymnal’s 100th anniversary.

Speaking of how you can help…

There are a number of special ideas, events, and publications being discussed and planned for a year-long celebration.I have been asked to reach out to friends and colleagues to see if you’d be willing to look through your shelves, closets, and church libraries in search of some older editions of Great Songs with the goal of completing 2 complete full sets, full runs of the hymnal from 1921 through its special printing in the early 2000’s. 

I know that from time to time, individuals, families, and even libraries acquire a pile of duplicate or triplicate books. This is one of those rare instances I’d dare to prevail upon you to see if you might be wiling to part with some of those duplicate copies to help me preserve a piece of our movements history. Would you be willing to look through and see what you and your library and special collections may have in this regard?If you’d be willing to do this and if you find some you’d like to give, please contact me at your earliest convenience. PLEASE CONTACT ME: email me, djbulls@mac.com.

I am working to raise some funds to help with these acquisitions/donations as well as with the events we’re working toward in 2021… if shipping costs are needed and if there should be a need to pay something very small for such a transaction, let me know.

Jesus Loves…YOU

It will not surprise regular readers of this irregular blog to hear me write “what we sing forms who we are.” It’s been that way as long as there have been humans singing…and heck, even animals, and nature, and heaven sing…so I guess what those created things sing forms them too.

I think about almost everything I do in my life through a hymnological lens. It’s who I am…and that started in my curiosity as a young child wondering why the song leader at my church where I grew up had a white-leather, special book that was different than the gold colored ones we all had in the pews.

So, i’ve been consumed with thoughts about the recent COVID-19 experience and the death of George Floyd especially through this lens…and here is what I’ve decided to write as of Tuesday, 0945 AM on June 9, 2020. (I’ve had lots of posts I’ve started, walked away, deleted, started over, and “rinse and repeat…”)

While I love the simple theology of “Jesus Loves Me,” it seems painfully clear that generations have been too focused on self as a result. I think that it’s time to make “Jesus Loves You” the main verse.

I love that I and you and generations of others learn that we’re loved by Jesus with this simple hymn as youngsters. But here’s the problem: its selfish.

And the root of each and every problem of race, bigotry, cultural and societal elitism, is a hateful selfishness that may even be subconscious.

Until we realize we are called to love and serve ALL (read that as someone other than yourself…no exceptions) just as Jesus did.

When we sing “Jesus loves YOU” it’s more for our heads and hearts to believe others are more important than it is anything else.

John tells us that “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” But until we believe this at the core of our being that other people (regardless of race, gender, financial status, job status, etc.) are more important than we are and live like it, things are not going to really change.

Change starts with ME. And Until My heart & head believe and are ready to act like “Jesus Loves YOU,” change can’t happen.

Jesus Loves Me (Anna Warner/William Bradbury)

It Happened Again

I am still amazed at little, seemingly hidden verses that strike me from time to time. In recent years, it seems to always happen at Christmas. Last night was no different.

Our congregation travels to a local rehabilitation and nursing facility every other Wednesday night to sing and fellowship with a special group of residents. Last night was our final visit for 2017. So, we sang through the entire Christmas, er, I mean, “Special Themes” section of our hymnal. True, there are several important Christmas hymns and carols noticeably absent from this particular compilation (O Come, O Come Emmanuel, God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, Sing We Now of Christmas, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Infant holy, Infant Lowly, just to name a few).

We came to It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. And we started in, just like we’d sung it time and time again. But we came to the third verse, and there it was, and it hit me right between the eyes.

I must make a note here before going into that lyric: We in Churches of Christ have missed the boat on a LOT of the rich, broader Christian hymnody of Advent and Christmas. Not only that, but we’ve bred a culture of singing that skips stanzas. So many of our hymns and songs were constructed to tell a story…especially, this is the case in so many of these Christmas carols and songs…they tell of the full narrative, of the prophets foretelling the coming of Messiah, of Mary’s encounter with the angels, of the manger, and of the upside-down-ness of Jesus’ coming and our waiting for his second advent, his return…living in that in-between. We’d do well to sing all of these stanzas, and to broaden our choices to include hymns and carols with a rich heritage, while also looking to include new hymns such as Matt Boswell’s Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery which tell the Christ story in with a wonderful new tune and rich text. Listen to the original here, then you can buy the a cappella version here. One of my professors and friends, Dr. Scott Aniol of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth offered good perspective on this in an interesting Baptist Press article as well.


I digress…
So often, these Christmas hymns include a story of how our world is doing anything but living in the reality of God’s world-changing love, as shown through Jesus. I’ve written before about hymns like O Come, O Come Emmanuel and O Holy Night and how they sing into just how we are to live out that love in the here and now. So often, these ignored stanzas speak of the sadness of war and the lack of love for brother and sister humankind…

This verse is no different. Consider these lyrics.
Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)

3 Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not
(Some hymnals use the original, “and man, at war with man hears not”)
the love song which they bring.
O hush the noise and cease your strife,
and hear the angels sing.

Considering this hymn was written over 140 years ago, the commentary on the warring between humankind and the plea with us to cease our strife is all the more powerful, and all the more relevant for us today.

And it sets up the closing stanza, now more important than ever to sing in light of stanza 3.

4 For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the time foretold.
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

In our living and loving, may we send back heavenward, and to our brothers and sisters, the “song the angels sang.”

And may we sing these hymns and the rich stories they offer in their entirety…and may we be changed because of it.