Mennonite Life – summer 2012, vol. 66

The Cost of Cooperation in the Creation of Hymnal: A Worship Book

Austin McCabe-Juhnke

Austin McCabe-Juhnke is a 2011 graduate of Bethel College and will begin a PhD program in musicology this fall at Ohio State University.

Anabaptists are known for their congregational singing. The Ausbund, a collection of hymns written by Anabaptist prisoners in Passau near the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, marks the beginning of a close relationship to song and songbooks that the Anabaptist movement carried with it. This passion for songbooks has most notably manifested itself in the last 20 years in Hymnal: A Worship Book, a hymnal compiled by the Church of the Brethren (COB), the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) and the Mennonite Church (MC).1 Although congregational singing usually brings up images of unity and harmony, the Hymnal Project that produced Hymnal: A Worship Book was often quite discordant. Despite a painful process whose conflicts came to center around the issue of inclusive language, members of the Hymnal Project persevered to create a hymnal that is widely appreciated among COB and Mennonite congregations alike.

Mennonites had been in the business of publishing hymnals long before Hymnal: A Worship Book, published in 1992. The first notable hymnal published by American Mennonites was the Franconia Conference Mennonite' Zions Harfe (1803). The first English Mennonite hymnal was A selection of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (1851), compiled by "a Committee of Mennonites" as the extended title reads.2 This book drew from Joseph Funk's Genuine Church Music and marked not only a shift away from the German language, but also from German music and toward a more English-influenced collection of hymns that was popular in its day.3

The 1890s saw publication of three Mennonite hymnals: Hymns and Tunes from the MC, which followed in the South German-Swiss heritage of the previous American Mennonite hymnals, and the GCMC German hymnal Gesangbuch mit Noten and a hymnal published in English four years later.4 In the first half of the 20th century, the MC would update its hymnal once, in 1927, and the GCMC twice, in 1927 and 1940.5

In the 1960s, the GCMC and the MC began work on a joint project that resulted in The Mennonite Hymnal. Mary K. Oyer, who worked on the project, identified two difficult problems during the creation of The Mennonite Hymnal: conflicting tastes in styles of music, and importance of text versus importance of music in hymns. According to Oyer, at that time the conflicting styles of music were traditional chorale-style hymns and gospel style. The cooperation between the churches in this project, Oyer felt, was generally mutually beneficial: "The GCs [General Conference] brought their rich German chorale background to the MCs [Mennonite Church]... The MCs brought folk tunes from their singing school heritage."7 The Mennonite Hymnal was published in 1969.

Despite generally positive feelings about the 1969 hymnal project, a second joint venture would prove to be less positive. At the COB Annual Conference in 1982, it was decided that the church should take action to prepare a new hymnal. At the same time, the GCMC and MC denominations had already begun to think about a long-term plan for a hymnal revision. In November 1982 and January 1983, at the invitation of the COB, representatives from the two Mennonite denominations and the COB met to discuss the viability of a joint project. It was decided there would be advantages to sharing the costs of producing a new hymnal and plans went ahead to begin work on a joint hymnal.8

A large committee (the Hymnal Council) was formed to complete the task of creating the new hymnal. Each church was allowed four appointees to the council, who would be in charge of making all executive decisions about the hymnal, as well as three appointees to serve in each of the three subcommittees (Music, Text and Worship) and a fourth subcommittee of representatives of the publishers of each denomination. "The mechanics of organizing were far too complex," notes Oyer. "The whole group of around 30 committee members tried to resolve the inevitable problems of making decisions about quality in poetry and music." Nonetheless, it became this complex committee's job by 1992 to create, out of The Brethren Hymnal and The Mennonite Hymnal, one hymnal which would please not only two different Mennonite constituencies but a Brethren one as well.

Although plans for the Hymnal Project (Hymnal: A Worship Book) began merely 13 years after completion of The Mennonite Hymnal, the climate among Americans and American Anabaptists had changed drastically since 1969. Oyer, who in the 1960s was the only female representative serving on the group that created The Mennonite Hymnal, was called on to serve the Hymnal Project as chair, this time in company with a whole set of other women from all denominations involved.11 Women's issues were becoming more and more prominent in American society and in the church by the 1980s and this manifested itself with differing expectations on how the new hymnal project would deal with masculine imagery of God and humankind. The male-dominated committee that created the 1969 hymnal, although successful in updating the hymns to represent the increasing cultural diversity in the broader Mennonite Church, left the Hymnal Project little precedent on inclusive language in the hymnal. The congregations, as evidenced by the Hymnal Project's early papers, were aware that inclusive language was an issue the project should undertake. In a preliminary list of issues the project would address, under the seventh and last point of the document outlining the purpose of the Hymnal Project, "Inclusive Language" appears as its own sentence at the end a list of "other issues discussed."12 "Inclusive Language," however, would soon become the defining conflict of the Hymnal Project.

Just how the Hymnal Project was to deal with the issue of inclusive language was unclear. Rebecca Slough, a member of the Worship subcommittee (1984-89) and managing editor for Hymnal: A Worship Book (1989-92), writes:

"Many women and men in the supporting denominations expected the new hymnal to reduce use of or eliminate the words men and man where they referred to all human beings, male and female.... A second expectation, held by some, was that male pronouns and other male language referring to God would be reduced or even eliminated.... Those involved in the hymnal project ran the gamut from conservative to radical in their views on inclusive language."13

In some cases the issue divided people along the lines of Mennonite and Brethren, in others, between traditional ideals and progressive ones. Several participants identified different conceptions that Mennonites and Brethren had of what role a hymnal should play in worship. Nadine S. Pence (Worship subcommittee, 1987-92), a COB representative to the Hymnal Project, describes the Brethren as valuing a "contemporary relevancy in their hymns" where Mennonites seemed to prefer a more historical approach where "the earliest [version of a hymn] was always thought to be best."14 Marlene Kropf (Worship subcommittee, 1989-92), a representative of the MC, sees a similar difference between the two denominations: Brethren, according to Kropf, used hymns in worship to "move the service forward" (i.e. gathering music, hymns of confession, etc.) and wanted to make a hymnal that "represented songs people already enjoyed." Mennonites used hymns to "accomplish the act of worship" and sought to build a hymnal that would "challenge our people both musically and theologically."15

The Hymnal Project seemed caught by surprise by the extent to which inclusive language was an issue. John Rempel (Worship subcommittee, 1984-91) says: "I think no one considered in advance that for all three groups a hymnal expresses the very soul of the community." He goes on to express that the difficulties experienced in the Hymnal Project put emotions at stake in a way that other joint church projects had not.16 Soon it became clear to project chair Oyer that the Hymnal Project would need an editorial policy on inclusive language.

In their fall meetings of 1987, the Hymnal Project established a two-point policy to deal with issues of inclusive language. First, "Traditional hymns and prayers of the Christian Church will be used essentially in their original or standard form." The committee wanted to remain faithful to the "memory and deep associations church hymn-singing contributes to worship." Second, hymns "written since 1960 or whose authors are still living" were to be examined for the "benefits of the current evolution of language."17 This felt like a major step forward for the Hymnal Project and the members, at least publicly, seemed excited to have an approved policy. However, the policy was more of a general guideline than an exact process by which certain hymns should be edited and it would soon be put to the test in an event that became the culmination of the conflict in the Hymnal Project.

In 1987, Oyer agreed to put together a hymnal sampler for the joint MC-GCMC assembly to take place in Normal, Ill., in 1989. Upon hearing of the plan, the COB representatives on the Hymnal Project made sure the sampler would be used at their planned 1989 gathering as well. This accelerated the need to make decisions about hymn texts. The stumbling block in this project became the hymn "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow" (also known to Mennonites by its number, "606," in The Mennonite Hymnal). A clear favorite of the Mennonites, this hymn appeared in the Brethren Songbook as well, but with revised language ("praise Him above" became "praise God above", etc). Rebecca Slough describes the ensuing conflict:

"Most Brethren on the project, and the majority of the Text Committee, wanted [the inclusive language] version to appear along with the original text in the Hymnal Sampler. Many Mennonites - and the majority of the members of the music committee - found this proposal offensive... During one turbulent meeting, in which the entire process nearly collapsed, the hymnal council voted to include only the original Thomas Ken text in the Hymnal Sampler. The possibility of including both texts in the future remained open."20

This incident caused immense emotional stress for all members of the Hymnal Project, and exposed latent conflicts within the project. The conflict played a large role in Oyer's eventual decision to resign from the project after the completion of Hymnal Sampler. It would take the project almost a year to get back on track.21

In October 1988, the Hymnal Project reconvened with two facilitators (Barbara Daté and Phyllis Senesi) who were designated to help in the decision-making processes. This seemed to help whenever the facilitators were present, but the last four years of the project remained a constant grind to compile the music and text. The conflict around inclusive language continued to be a source of tension for the remainder of the project.

Few of the participants had positive views of the project. It was an incredibly painful process. Yet despite the conflict and divisiveness that characterized the project, its product became a broad success. Even with concerns22 that Brethren views were underrepresented, and thanks in no small part to the Sampler project that precipitated so much conflict within the Hymnal Project, both COB and Mennonite congregations have widely claimed the hymnal as their own. "We have a lovely hymnal," said Pence in an e-mail interview, "and it is a joy to attend both Brethren and Mennonite congregations and to sing out of the same book."23 In 2002, Stephen Jacoby, professor emeritus of music at the Bluffton (Ohio) University, did a study on the usage of the hymnal. Mennonite Church USA (the result of a merger of the GCMC and MC in 1999), whose congregations represent a wide range of Mennonite beliefs and heritages, used the hymnal at a rate of 68 percent. A 2008 survey by Mennonite Church USA found that nearly three-quarters of congregations surveyed used the hymnal.24

Currently, Mennonite Church USA is again trying to discern when a new hymnal should be produced. Most congregational hymnals have a 20- to 25-year life span, and Hymnal: A Worship Book is nearing this threshold. In order to extend the life of the current hymnal, and to test new hymns in a worship setting, Mennonite Church USA has released two supplemental hymn collections in the last decade: Sing the Journey (2005) and Sing the Story (2007). Some of the issues that a new hymnal committee will have to take on will be the same: How will the hymnal accommodate the growing popularity of new genres like "praise and worship" music while still appealing to more traditional styles of worship? How can the new hymnal represent an even more culturally diverse Mennonite church than the Mennonite church of two decades ago? How will we pay for a new hymnal?

Many of the questions, however, will be new. In recent decades, new electronic media have changed the way society functions. How should new hymnal resources cater to those congregations who sing from a projected image? How might new computer software make hymns adaptable to the needs of each congregation?26

"The stakes are high, and they are more than financial," says Everett Thomas, editor of The Mennonite, about the possibility of a new hymnal project. "Our hymnal is our prayer book. It is the way we, together, speak most passionately to God." Singing, which speaks so deeply to one's spiritual being, is sure to keep future hymnal projects contentious. "Our singing reveals much about who we have been and who we are as Anabaptists and Pietists," says Slough in her introduction to Hymnal: A Worship Book.

Anabaptists, then, are a much more diverse group than their roots might suggest. Their unified commitment to congregational singing, however, was able to lead them through conflict to success in the creation of Hymnal: A Worship Book.


1. Rebecca Slough, ed., Hymnal: A Worship Book (Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press; Newton, Kan.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1992), iv.

2. Mary K. Oyer, "Sound in the Land," in Sound in the Land: Essays on Mennonites and Music, ed. Maureen Epp and Carol Ann Weaver (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2005), 23.

3. Ibid. 22.

4. Ibid. 23.

5. Ibid. 24-25.

6. Mary K. Oyer, e-mail message to the author, April 6, 2011.

7. Mary K. Oyer, Sound, 25.

8. "Hymnal Project," from the folder "Hymnal Project Miscellaneous" in "Hymnal Project Files" (Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kan., 1984), 1.

9. Ibid. 1.

10. Mary K. Oyer, e-mail message.

11. Ibid. Oyer says she was co-opted, not elected to the committee for The Mennonite Hymnal as the men were.

12. "Hymnal Project," 2.

13. Rebecca Slough, "Following the Way, Seeking the Truth, Loving the Life," in Nurturing Spirit Through Song: The Life of Mary K. Oyer, Rebecca Slough and Shirley Sprunger King, eds. (Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing, 2007), 62-63.

14. Nadine S. Pence, e-mail message to the author, April 5, 2011.

15. Marlene Kropf, e-mail message to the author, April 1, 2011.

16. John Rempel, e-mail message to the author, April 4, 2011.

17. "A STATEMENT OF POLICY ON LANGUAGE FOR THE HYMNAL PROJECT," from the folder "Hymnal Council (a)," in "Dick Rempel Papers" (Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kan., October 3, 1987).

18. Carla Reimer, "Hymnal Council passes first major language statement," The Mennonite, Dec. 8, 1987, 546.

19. Rebecca Slough, "Following the Way," 64.

20. Ibid. 64.

21. Ibid. 64-65.

22. Nadine S. Pence, e-mail message. "Another difficulty was that the Brethren, who were the initiators of the joint project, felt outnumbered because of having two groups of Mennonites (General Conference and The Mennonite Church) represented. Whereas the Mennonites could rightly point out that the two were separate denominations, they functioned as a unit and often out-voted the Brethren 2-1"; "Hymnal Council Minutes," from "COE-Hymnal Project Minutes" (Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kan., February 22-24, 1990), HC-115.

23. Nadine S. Pence, e-mail message.

24. Stephen Jacoby, "What are U. S. Mennonites Singing in Sunday Worship?" in Sound in the Land: Essays on Mennonites and Music, ed. Maureen Epp and Carol Ann Weaver (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2005), 183; Laurie Oswald Robinson, "Amid worship changes, Mennonites still love their hymnals," Mennonite Weekly Review, June 23, 2008, accessed May 10, 2011,

25. Laurie Oswald Robinson, "Amid worship changes..."

26. Ibid., Robinson; Everett J. Thomas, "Do we need a new hymnal?" The Mennonite, September 1, 2010, accessed May 10, 2011,

27. Ibid., Thomas.

26. Rebecca Slough, ed., Hymnal, iii.


"Hymnal Council Minutes," from "COE- Hymnal Project Minutes," Feb. 22-24, 1990. Located in the Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kan.

"Hymnal Project," from the folder "Hymnal Project Miscellaneous" in "Hymnal Project Files," 1984. Located in the Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kan.

Jacoby, Stephen. "What are U. S. Mennonites Singing in Sunday Worship?" in Sound in the Land: Essays on Mennonites and Music, edited by Maureen Epp and Carol Ann Weaver, 181-188. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2005.

Oyer, Mary K. E-mail message to the author, April 6, 2011.

________. "Sound in the Land," in Sound in the Land: Essays on Mennonites and Music, edited by Maureen Epp and Carol Ann Weaver, 21-33. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2005.

Pence, Nadine S. E-mail message to the author, April 5, 2011.

Reimer, Carla. "Hymnal Council passes first major language statement." The Mennonite, Dec. 8, 1987.

Rempel, John. E-mail message to the author, April 4, 2011.

Robinson, Laurie Oswald. "Amid worship changes, Mennonites still love their hymnals." Mennonite Weekly Review, June 23, 2008. Accessed May 10, 2011.

Slough, Rebecca. "Following the Way, Seeking the Truth, Loving the Life," in Nurturing Spirit Through Song: the Life of Mary K. Oyer, edited by Rebecca Slough and Shirley Sprunger King, 24-91. Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing, 2007.

________, ed. Hymnal: A Worship Book Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press; Newton, Kan.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1992.

"A STATEMENT OF POLICY ON LANGUAGE FOR THE HYMNAL PROJECT," from the folder "Hymnal Council (a)" in "Dick Rempel Papers," October 3, 1987. Located in the Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kan.

Thomas, Everett J. "Do we need a new hymnal?" The Mennonite, September 1, 2010. Accessed May 10, 2011.