Gospel Hymns and Social Religion: The Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Revivalism, by Sandra S. Sizer [now Tamar Frankiel] (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978)
A recent conversation about the history of hymns in Protestant churches reminded me of a book that I had read more than thirty years ago, Gospel Hymns and Social Religion: The Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Revivalism. In this book, based on her Ph.D. dissertation at Chicago, Tamar Frankiel (then Sandra S. Sizer) analyses a largely by-passed aspect of the history of American Protestantism.
Fortunately this book is still on my shelf despite my concerted efforts to reduce my inventory of old theological tomes. The fact that it is severely underlined makes it worthless on the used book market.
Clearly, I had paid close attention to Frankiel’s analysis, and as I reread the book in these later days I recognize some of the ideas that long ago became part of my approach to understanding nineteenth-century religion. Fortunately, I have kept the book jacket, which includes two full panels in which the author’s thesis is summarized.
The last paragraph on the jacket indicates why this old book can help us understand some of the dynamics in the current religious scene in the United States.
“This book, in short, goes far beyond the discussion of gospel hymns; it raises issues which go to the heart of white, protestant, urban America and suggests that the assumptions lodged there demand argument, not acceptance.”
Gospel Hymns, the first words in the book’s title, refers to a series of song books with that title, the first of which was published in 1878, that culminated in the “Diamond Edition” of 1894 and the “Excelsior Edition” of 1895. Although several prominent revivalist musicians were related to the development of these books, Ira D. Sankey, who worked closely with Dwight L. Moody, is the person most fully identified with the mature editions of the book.
“Authorities agree,” Frankiel observes, “that the series was by far the most successful of American hymnals.” She cites an observation by music historian H. Wiley Hitchcock that the final compilation “not only symbolizes the gospel-song movement of the late nineteenth century, but virtually embodies it between two covers” (p. 5).
Social Religion, the second phrase in the book’s title, also has a specific reference. Initially, this phrase is identified with the contest between two approaches to Protestant church life during the early years of the nineteenth century. “Prayer, testimony, and (lay) exhortation can best be understood as the basic forms of what I will call ‘social religion,’ a new complex of religious practices which dissolved the earlier Puritan distinction between private and public religious exercises” (p. 51).
Frankiel notes that “the conversion narrative,” which had developed in the Puritan tradition, linked private and public religion, but she also states that “the private ‘exercises’ of religion were still carefully distinguished from the public ones which centered on the Sabbath services and other fully ‘public’ meetings” (p. 51).
As the nineteenth century developed, the distinction between these two forms of religious experience broke down as the evangelists used social religion as the basic form for their revival meetings. Previously popular hymnals, especially Psalms and Hymns by Isaac Watts and A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists” by John Wesley, were suitable for public worship in the period of time that was disappearing. Gospel Hymns and other hymnals of similar kind were used to bring social religion into the public worship of the churches.
Rhetoric is an important word in this book’s sub-title. The author is interested not only in the words themselves and the messages they convey, but also in “the relationship between text and social situation” that these lyrics address. She wants to “keep in the forefront the question of the intention of the authors in any given case—how they perceived their situation, their allies and opponents, the problems which they thought needed to be solved” (p. 17).
The author demonstrates that the gospel hymns she examines were directly related to the emerging conditions in public life. She uses the revivals of 1857-1858 and 1875-1877 as examples, the one anticipating the sectional disputes that led to the Civil War and the other the end of Reconstruction and “the resurgence of the Democratic party” (p. 142).
Although there was a distinction between revivals and politics during this period, they were nevertheless tied together. “The key which unlocked the door between the two was the translation of political issues into moral terms” (p. 152).
I plan to reread this book carefully and gladly recommend it to others interested in the relation of religion’s rhetoric and public life. Although the author focuses attention upon the nineteenth century, much of what she writes is directly applicable to life in the twenty first.
Note: In later publications, Sandra S. Sizer bears the name Sandra Sizer Frankiel and now Tamar Frankiel. http://ajrca.org/faculty/dr-tamar-frankiel/