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.

Holy Pancakes Races! Getting From Shrove Tuesday to Easter

By Mary Ann Weber

Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Day, is a fun day for our congregation. We gather in the evening to eat pancakes and listen to poetry. And because it’s the day before Lent begins we also acknowledge our need for confession. All of these things are prelude to the highlight—pancake races!

Pancake races are a tradition in some countries and the oldest one began in 1445 in Olney in the United Kingdom. It’s believed to have begun when a woman who was engrossed in trying to use up fat (traditionally forbidden in households during Lent) making pancakes, when she realized she was late for a service at her parish church. She grabbed what she was doing and ran down the street to the church. Today the race continues and women run in traditional housewife attire holding frying pans with pancakes. In the U.S.,

Summer Parsons crosses the finish line Mar. 4, 2014, to win the Liberal leg of the International Pancake Day race in 63.5 seconds.

Summer Parsons crosses the finish line Mar. 4, 2014, to win the Liberal leg of the International Pancake Day race in 63.5 seconds. (Photo Courtesy of International Pancake Day Board)

there is a big pancake race in Liberal, Kansas, and they were good enough to share photos for this blog post from their races so you can get the idea.*

Our church in Indiana modifies the race by including everyone regardless of age or gender, as long as they are dressed in traditional homemaker clothes including a long skirt, apron, and a head scarf. Women, men, boys, and girls look forward to getting their outfits together and running around the church with a frying pan and pancake. They need to flip the pancake during their run.

Pancake Day racers at Mary Ann's church--male, female, all ages--ready for the big event.

Pancake Day racers at Mary Ann’s church–male, female, all ages–ready for the big event.

Shrove Tuesday, which has turned into Fat Tuesday for many, is a day of excess and fun. It is in stark contrast to the Lent season.

Lent is a time to reflect on Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice. Christians experience renewal and are transformed through acts of prayer and confession. Some people follow the practice of sacrificing something during this season so they give up special treats or foods. I’ve known quite a few who have given up chocolate for Lent, and those who have made efforts to ride a bike instead of drive their car. Still others add something to their lives during Lent, usually in the form of a spiritual practice to aide in prayer or confession. For example, a young man in our congregation studied Lent texts and then wrote a hymn each week. We sang the songs and benefited from his thoughtful, wonderful compositions.

Lent gives way to Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. This is an eventful time in the church calendar year. Leader magazine (http://www.leaderonline.org/) offers resources for planning worship services throughout Lent. The resources invite us to encounter God as we reflect on things that we have witnessed. The worship resources, as with Lent, all lead up to Easter Sunday, when we share what we have witnessed through Jesus’ empty tomb.

May we all experience God’s love and grace as we observe the events during this time of the year.


Mary Ann Weber
Managing Editor for Curriculum



*In Liberal, Kansas, the winner (center, below) receives, among other prizes, a small hymnal from St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Olney, England where the tradition began. One hymn that is always sung during the Shrove Tuesday service in Liberal is “Amazing Grace,” penned by John Newton when he was the curate of the church in Olney between 1765-1780. The Olney Hymns were first published in February 1779, and are the combined work of Newton (1725–1807) and his poet friend, William Cowper (1731–1800). We thought this footnote was appropriate as the publisher of a long and rich tradition of Mennonite hymnals.

Liberal’s International Pancake Day winner, Summer Parsons (center), holds the Olney Hymnal, her gift from Olney, England, which she has just received from Olney representatives Tony and Viv Evans (far left and far right). The Evanses presented the hymnal to Parsons immediately following the shriving service on Pancake Day.

Liberal’s International Pancake Day winner, Summer Parsons (center), holds the Olney Hymnal, her gift from Olney, England, which she has just received from Olney representatives Tony and Viv Evans (far left and far right). The Evanses presented the hymnal to Parsons immediately following the shriving service on Pancake Day. (Photo Courtesy of International Pancake Day Board)