A Short History of Mennonite Hymnals – Presentation by Ken Nafziger

nafzigkjHow our hymns influence and reflect our changing theology

Dr. Kenneth J. Nafziger, longtime and noted professor of music at Eastern Mennonite University—plus a key figure in putting together a hymnal and two song supplements—spoke at a recent breakfast meeting of a group called Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society (ACRS).

His topic? How our hymns influence and reflect our changing theology.

Former radio speaker Margaret Foth introduced Ken and reflected on memories of her mother singing—almost every morning—the familiar “I owe the Lord a morning song, of gratitude and praise . . .” There were numerous affirmative nods around the room—obviously a similar remembrance for many.

As Ken got up to speak about the history of Mennonite hymnals, he first told a story of P1080508the origins of this “quintessentially Mennonite” hymn, written by Amos Herr, a Lancaster County (Pa.) bishop. One Sunday morning when the snow was s deep Amos’s horse couldn’t make it through the drifts to church, Amos wrote this song of gratitude. “It has been in every hymnal since then,” Ken noted, a “simple and sturdy tune like Shaker furniture, with clearly conveyed ideas.”

This story reminded Ken of the time he took a group of EMU students to southwestern Germany, an area from which the predecessors of many North American Mennonites hail. Some in that tour group were music students, and someone in a congregation they were visiting asked that they sing “I Owe the Lord a Morning Song.“ Many of the EMU students, youngsters that they are, didn’t know it! So the congregation in Germany sang it in English for the EMU students! They said that PAX and CPS volunteers in the late ’50s and early ’60s had taught them the song.

Ken followed his wonderful story by launching the roomful of expectant listeners into a rich a cappella verse or two. I don’t think anyone was disappointed to sing this old song, nor in Ken’s rundown that followed of Mennonite hymnals in the U.S. (an admittedly incomplete history, he noted). Many of the old timers (I’ll count myself as one) in the audience remembered these titles, all published by Mennonite Publishing House or Herald Press (the ones with links are still sold on the MennoMedia store).


Below are just 11 out of his list of 25 of “Mennonite Hymnals in the U.S.”

1902 Church and Sunday School Hymnal
1916: Life Songs #1
1924: Children’s Hymns and Songs
1927: Church Hymnal
1938: Life Songs #2
1947: Junior Hymns
1969: The Mennonite Hymnal (from whence came #606)
Sing and Rejoice, Sing the Journey, and Sing the Story, 1979, 2005, and 2007, respectively
1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book (co-published with Brethren Press for Mennonite and Church of the Brethren congregations)

Ken gave additional juicy one-liners about the difficult job of producing a new song collection that pleases everyone. Some of these may have been quotes from other people:

  • The only thing wrong with a new hymn is that no one knows it yet.
  • It is easy to slide into ruts in our music.
  • The power of social singing—for the fun of it—is underestimated.
  • #606 was put into a section of the 1969 hymnal that had songs more difficult to sing. When its new number in Hymnal: A Worship Book, #118, was first announced in some venues, there were audible boos and hisses!
  • New hymnals unleash new creativity by poets, pastors and musicians who want to publish new hymns they’ve written or composed.
  • Catholics originally did not sing during their worship—that changed with Vatican II when they were told they could or should sing.
  • Many of us remember the Medical Mission Sisters, a nun’s group out of South America in the ’60s, which popularized folk-type music for Catholic worship.
  • Old Mennonites did not traditionally use instruments; Ken remembers one Gospel Herald editor writing that a guitar was the perfect accompaniment for worship because it was “so cheap.”
  • Songs with rhythm have been a serious challenge for Mennonites.
  • The first printing of Sing and Rejoice was withdrawn and destroyed because it had a stanza with the word “gay” in it.
  • The 1992 hymnal was the first hymnal for Mennonites to be organized according to different acts or movements of worship such as gathering, praise, thanksgiving.
  • It was also the first hymnal with a section on “doubt.” Ken said people thanked him for helping to create a section on doubt in a hymnal.
  • “How Great Thou Art” cost more to include than any other song; it should perhaps never have been copyrighted.

P1080509Finally, Ken offered practical ideas and thoughts as you use music in your congregation:

  • Consider giving children or youth a hymnal upon baptism or confirmation.
  • You can tell if you’re getting into ruts with your music if there is one or more section of pages whose edges are very well used or smudgy from hands.
  • Always use a song from the global church in every service, as a reminder that we have a global church, and a prompt that the way we live in the world is different.
  • Congregants are often more moved by songs than the sermon. Music moves words close to the heart and soul.

Work on a new song collection begins in earnest in early 2016. The new hymnal project organizers are soliciting applications for paid staff (full and part time), and volunteers.

Anyone who is an active member of a Mennonite Church Canada or Mennonite Church USA congregation can apply to be on the hymnal committee. In addition to a short application, those applying to be on the hymnal committee must provide three references, including one pastoral reference. To apply or get more information, click here. To read the complete news release on the project, check here.



 If you’re on Twitter, you can help spread the word with this ready-made Tweet:

Want to be part of shaping what Mennonites sing?@MennoMedia staff are working on it! Site goes live Jan 1. Watch for more on #project606.


Have you ever wondered, are all Mennonites good singers??


In addition to his EMU course load, Kenneth Nafziger is artistic director and conductor of the annual Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival (Harrisonburg, Va.), and of Winchester Musica Viva (in Winchester, Va.). He was music editor of ‘Hymnal: A Worship Book’ (1992), editor of its accompaniment handbook, and assistant to the editor of ‘Sing the Journey’ (2005) and ‘Sing the Story’ (2007). He is active in the United States and Canada as a guest conductor, workshop leader and clinician. He co-authored a book ‘Singing, a Mennonite Voice’, which was released in 2001. For more information on Ken go to his personal web page.

A New Song Collection and Hymnal is Coming!

Mennonites sing to express their faith. That’s what we said in our first hymnal planning session last week in the Twin Cities.

Representatives of Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada and MennoMedia spent a day in some intensive, but very good meetings, planning a new hymnal for our churches. This was a follow-up on some decisions reached last fall, where the two denominations asked MennoMedia to take the lead in planning and producing a new song collection.


While this first meeting had just four of us—Amy Gingerich and myself from MennoMedia and Dave Bergen and Terry Shue from Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA, we agreed that our next meeting will include one more each from our denominations, in particular persons with expertise in music and worship. This group will not actually produce a song collection or hymnal; rather we are just a “steering committee” who will hire and select the team that will produce the final product. Besides one full time project director and some other, part-time staff, there will be a committee of 10-12 persons from across the church, hopefully representing the broad diversity of our denominations and especially gifted in music, poetry and worship.


This sign in the children’s Sunday School classroom at Faith Mennonite seemed very appropriate for us as we go forward!

One important bit of work for us was the statement of some values that we hope this process and final product will express:

  • Collaboration and cooperation.
  • Openness and transparency.
  • Leanness and responsiveness—meeting perhaps more intensively, over a shorter time period.
  • Lots of communication, since people want to know what’s happening. Good marketing will be included in this.
  • An excellent product that will help form faith for a new generation.

Lots of questions remain unanswered:

  • Who will be on the committee?
  • How many new songs versus old ones?
  • What kinds of supplementary products will be included (such as audio and visuals)?
  • Will “Praise God From Whom” be #606 again?

We look forward to the next five years as we see this product take shape and hope and pray for a resource that helps preserve and treasure a faith tradition in music.

~Russ Eanes
Executive Director, MennoMedia

Read the complete news release on the project sent out this week.

WANT TO STAY IN THE KNOW? Sign up for quarterly (approximately) email news releases/updates on the song collection project by sending your email to this address: HymnalInfo@MennoMedia.org.

Check out existing and vintage hymnals and songbooks we still sell!

I Don’t Have a Hammer, But I Have a Mennonite Hymnal

Guest post by Bobby Switzer, student at Goshen College, Goshen, Ind.

Speech made at Laurelville Worship and Song Leaders’ Retreat — 10 January 2015

If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land, I’d hammer out danger, I’d hammer out a warning, I’d hammer out love between my brother and my sister, all over this land!

(Pete Seeger and Lee Hays).

I don’t have a hammer, but I have a Mennonite hymnal.

I did not grow up Mennonite or singing, and now I cannot imagine my life without either. I distinctly remember the first time I heard a congregation sing. It was on the way back from a work weekend at Camp Friedenswald. I had made some friends from Bluffton, Ohio, and they invited me to join them for the weekend. We stopped in Goshen on Sunday morning to attend church, and I remember feeling nervous because I hadn’t brought proper church attire. All nervousness fell away when I heard the congregation sing You are Salt for the Earth (HWB 226). Immediately upon hearing the verse, I thought, “Wow, this congregation can sing!” But when the congregation got to the refrain and sang its harmony, something in the world shifted. Something in me shifted, and the world seemed illumined. The profound beauty of voices joining together creating this harmonious music struck me then, and I’ve been hooked ever since.


The Goshen Hymn Club in front of an old Goshen College sign. 

As a senior at Goshen College I’ve had the privilege of singing from Mennonite hymnals in Goshen’s Hymn Club for almost four years. At this stage in my college career, I often look back and think about the moments that have shaped who I am, and many of the most meaningful experiences have been because of these hymnals and the songs contained therein.

At Goshen these hymnals do not gather dust in pews or remain stagnant on students’ shelves as forgotten gifts from congregations; they are used.

Hymnal: A Worship Book, Sing the Journey, and Sing the Story are not hammers, but rather entire toolkits.

Each hymn held in these books has a story and serves a purpose. Hymns do work. I’ve seen college students in the last four years use hymns in many and varied ways outside of the traditional church setting. They’ve sung in the morning, they’ve sung in the evening, they’ve sung all over campus; they’ve sung out warnings, dangers, justice, and freedom. And most significantly, they’ve sung love between their brothers and their sisters, all over the land.

GoshenHymnSingForPeaceWhen gun violence touched close to home with a local shooting at Elkhart’s Martins (grocery chain), we turned to our hymnals. When news of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson highlighting systemic oppression and racism reached our ears, we turned to our hymnals.

And when stories of drones and new wars in the Middle East appeared on every news station, we turned to our hymnals. If the war goes on and children die…who will keep the score (STJ 66)?

We sang our frustration and lament; we sang our sorrow and weariness. And yet, we sang our hope: Healer of our every ill, light of each tomorrow, give us peace beyond our fear, and hope beyond our sorrow (HWB 377).

These hymnals gave us words when they were so hard for us to form. They gave us voice when we struggled to speak. They helped us to acknowledge real pain, to lament as a community, and they enabled us to cling to the hope that our faith gives us: death does not have the final word.

Beyond naming our hurt, expressing our anguish, and granting us hope, the songs in these books have been used to create. We’ve sung with folks at Greencroft retirement communities in Goshen and formed intergenerational relationships through stories, shared experiences, and song. We’ve facilitated a mid-day hymn sing at Indiana-Michigan’s Mennonite Relief Sale. We’ve said no to divisive political polarization by singing our commitment to community through love by having an Election Day Communion hymn sing.

We are people of Gods peace as a new creation; Love unites and strengthens us at this celebration (HWB 407).

goshen-hymn-marathon1Sing for Peace Hymn Marathon. Photo by Brett Conrad, used by permission of Goshen College Communications and Marketing Office.

Most recently, we’ve used hymns creatively for peacemaking by singing every verse of every hymn in Hymnal: a Worship Book, in our student initiated and led Sing for Peace: A Hymn Marathon. Over 4000 people in more than 40 different countries viewed our singing on the live stream, with people singing along as they cleaned, and cooked, or worked at their computers. Our 30 hours of singing were multiplied nearly 50 times for a total view time of over 1500 hours. A group of over 350 students, faculty, and community members of vastly different backgrounds and theology came together, sang, and raised more than $15,000 for Christian Peacemaker Teams. We sat in a circle, with a Christ lamp at our center and joined our voices despite our differences; we forged relationships with each verse of each hymn.

Hymns truly are the instruments of peacemaking.

Let woe and waste of warfare cease, that useful labor yet may build its homes with love and laughter filled! God give thy wayward children peace (HWB 371).


O day of peace that dimly shines through all our hopes and prayers and dreams, guide us to justice, truth and love, delivered from our selfish schemes. May swords of hate fall from our hands, our hearts from envy find release, till by God’s grace our warring world shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace (HWB 408).

GoshenHymnClubWithBobbySwitzerInMiddleThe Goshen Hymn Club; Bobby Switzer is in the center with a plaid jacket and blue shirt.

What I consider most significant, though, is not a 30-hour hymn marathon, but rather a four-year history of gathering in a circle to sing every Tuesday night. For four years on Tuesdays at 9 p.m., Hymn Club has gathered in the choir room, pulled chairs into a circle and grabbed our hymnals. For an hour, we sing hymns, one after another. Hymn Club started with 15-20 people regularly attending my first year, and now our attendance is averaging 40-60 with over 120 attending our larger, campus-wide hymn sings. We’re doing something right, and people can feel it. I believe that each time we gather and sing we form a type of God’s reconciled community, where each person can know and be known by one another. When we sing, we say no to a society that continually seems to drive us apart and say yes to forming community. Hymn singing allows each voice to be held as beautiful and unique, and even more beautiful when joined with others’ uniqueness to create harmony.

I believe this is a radical act of peacemaking: being in a circle singing, and looking on each face as a beloved child of God made in God’s image. When sharing a hymnal while singing, it is hard to harbor hate, and walls of division begin to break down. Hearts that are cold melt, and a community forms. This is what I’ve experienced these last few years because of this hymnal, and this is what I pray we can experience in Kansas City this summer. I pray that we can use our songs, our voices, and our hymnals to sing past our differences and to see each other as beloved children of God.

When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony, born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony. Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too. (HWB 307)



Bobby Switzer, Goshen, Ind. 2015


The Goshen College Hymn Club posts many wonderful hymns on You Tube, such as this one, “Praise, I Will Praise you Lord.”

For Mennonites singing #606 “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” at this same Laurellville Music and Worship Leaders retreat several years ago, check this YouTube video.


For all these hymnals and more, visit the MennoMedia store under “Hymnals and Songbooks.”