One of the many factors that won me over to embrace Reformed theology and practice was the fascinating Trinity Hymnal (c. 1990). Back when I worked at what I endearingly call “The Reformation Station,” the print shop where God cornered me after years of on-again, off-again confrontation by the TULIP and other aspects of Reformed belief and behavior, I had the opportunity to print the bulletins for a local PCA church, which would include in its liturgy hymns selected from the Trinity Hymnal, printed in the bulletin, music and all! For this reason, there was a copy of the hymnal in the office, which they could use to prepare those bulletins, and which I could peruse from time to time and thereby enter the world of Reformed psalmody and English hymnody, and further tie my heart to my future spiritual and theological home in the Reformed tradition.
Due to my abundance of affection for the Trinity Hymnal, I was very pleased to notice that I wouldn’t have to wait long to learn its history in Daryl Hart’s OPC history, Between the Times: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 1945-1990 (c. 2011, The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). The reader of this volume is treated to the story of the hymnal in chapter two, under the simple title, “Trinity Hymnal, 1944-1961.” Here’s a synopsis of what you’re in for if you purchase Hart’s history.
In 1933, the PCUSA revised their hymnal, dropping 400 traditional hymns in favor of songs that reflect the liberalizing trend in the mainline denomination. J. Gresham Machen knew this was a problem. Reasoning from the old adage that the laity learn more theology from singing hymns than from systematic theology, he resolved that something had to be done about it. In the Lord’s providence, from the seed of this thought process on the part of Machen in response to the PCUSA’s threat to further corrupt the doctrine of rank and file Presbyterians, until the final publication of the Trinity Hymnal, a truly orthodox Presbyterian hymnal, 28 years would come and go. But what a glorious harvest of sound theology and biblical doxology would result from such a careful process of cultivation and fertilization.
With this opening anecdote, Dr. Hart surveys the history of American Presbyterian hymnals. Since the first one rolled off the press in 1831 there had been an average of one new hymnal per decade due to the number of controversies and divisions within the PCUSA between 1831 and 1961 (the date of Trinity Hymnal’s eventual publication). Although it would not be published under the auspices of the liberal mainline denomination, the Trinity Hymnal shares this common origin with its predecessors in the crucible of theological controversy. For this reason, it would be compiled with a commitment to aid the worship of the church in accordance with eternal truths, not contemporary trends.
American Presbyterians also produced so many hymnals so frequently because Reformed and Presbyterian practice regarding the Word of God sung as an element of corporate worship was undergoing a transformation from the Scottish and Dutch commitment to exclusive psalmody, to embrace the English hymnody of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and others, in order to better respond to the gospel of Christ in terms of the full revelation of Christ in both Testaments.
Much discussion among the members of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God over the propriety of this historic move away from the stance of earlier Reformed churches would consume a number of General Assemblies between 1944 and 1961. Dr. Hart reports for us the discussions between the “foreign” element of “psalm-singers” on the committee lead by the Scottish John Murray and his cadre of Scottish and Dutch dissenters and the more Americanized majority who would eventually prevail in the appropriation of English hymn into the practice of not only orthodox Presbyterians in general, but the OPC in particular.
With the conclusion of this discussion would arise more rubber-meets-the-road problems like financing the hymnal. We learn the various ideas considered and how the Lord would provide just in time, enabling them to pay off the loans obtained to supplement the giving of Orthodox Presbyterians toward this end, neither too soon, nor too late.
Finally, the reader is pleased to learn just how successful the hymnal was once it hit the market. There really was a need for just such a hymnal among many conservative Protestants outside the OPC.
Chapter two of Hart’s Between the Times is a joy to read, especially if you love the Trinity Hymnal as much as this reviewer does. But with the recent 78th General Assembly of the OPC, we learn that the work of compiling psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to aid the worship of the Reformed is to march forward as it was announced that the OPC will be teaming up with the URCNA to publish a new Psalter-Hymnal in the years to come. I believe there will be enough love in my heart for both of these hymnals to share!