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Professor Mary Oyer’s top 10 hymns

Posted on 10.3. 2016 at The Mennonite. Written By: Mary Oyer. Reposted with permission.

Mary Oyer Photo from Everence

Mary Oyer
Photo from Everence

Mary Oyer, Goshen (Indiana) College Professor Emeritus of Music and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary professor, reflects on her all-time favorite hymns. Oyer served on two hymnal development committees. First, for The Mennonite Hymnal (1969) and for part of the process with Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992). She has been a leader in introducing music and teaching worship leading across the denomination for decades. As our denomination enters the process of compiling a new hymnal, its interesting to reflect on our past.

Note that some of these songs were not available on Spotify or YouTube, so you’ll need to find a Mennonite hymnal near you if you’d like to explore them further. You can listen to most of Mary’s playlist by clicking on the link to The Mennonite at the end of this blog.

I had much trouble narrowing my list down to 10 songs. I would have to say that the best song is what comes each Sunday because it fits the service well. For a song to be a favorite, it has to really fit its function and then it can shine and may bring an epiphany of some kind.

I think the ancient songs and writers are very important. These are the strong people who have kept Christianity going and it’s very important to know what they have to say, even if its translated or evolved to fit our context. For the production of The Mennonite Hymnal (known to some as “the red hymnal”), I looked up every text in its original form. I did this research in Scotland, and then send all the information and text back to the hymnal committee. We often found 30-40 verses and we also searched for new verses that fit our Mennonite thought. And The Mennonite Hymnal was still in King James language. There was only one song that talked to God as “you” and there were many “thees” and “thous.” Inclusive language for God was not yet an issue in the 1960’s.

So here are my 10 hymns. They are not in order of importance. And you must know, I eliminated quite a few of my favorites from this list!

Mary Oyer. Goshen College photo.

Mary Oyer.
Goshen College photo.

1. Holy, Holy, Holy: In 325 CE at the Council of Nicea, the idea of the Trinity was created because they didn’t know what to do with “the three Gods.” Out of that council’s work this 19th century English text and tune were written for Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. The meter of the poetry is unusual- syllables for the phrases each stanza, with a fine tune. In addition to Trinitarian language, this song also takes some imagery from book of Revelation: the glassy sea, etc. And this song has persevered. Reference: #120 in Hymnal: A Worship Book.

2. Holy God we praise thy name: This song was #1 in The Mennonite Hymnal (1969), which was very strange at the time because it’s a Catholic hymn, Te Deum laudamus, translated into many languages. The English translation came from the German version by Ignaz Franz for Maria Theresa’s chapel in Austria and was set to music in a Catholic hymnbook in 1776. The German was included originally because many Mennonites in North America used German in their worship.

3. Lead kindly light: The author of this hymn, John Henry Newman, was a member of the Oxford Movement around 1830 in the Anglican Church. Its leaders longed for a return to a more liturgical form of worship in contrast to the growing influence of the informality of Methodist worship in England. This poem reflects unrest, speeding and slowing somewhat erratically. I loved the tune I knew as a child in the Church Hymnal of 1927 (Lux Benigna), but by the 1960’s, it was considered too emotional, so the music in The Mennonite Hymnal is calmer than the words. Reference: #316 in The Mennonite Hymnal.

4. Christ lay in death’s strong bands: There are two versions of this hymn in our current hymnal. This is Martin Luther’s version of an old German hymn of around 1100, which in turn came from a Catholic Kyrie eleison (HWB #271). The older hymn was in three sections, each ending in Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy). But Luther brought it up to date with the favorite form for a hymn of his day-AAB, which was the form for a song of the singers’ guild. The hymns together give us a view of changing tastes, which come more quickly in our day. Luther’s hymn is harmonized by J.S. Bach in yet another style. Bach’s four voice parts each move as a lovely melody. Reference: HWB, #470. See also TMH, pages 611-612.

5. He is the Way: See The Episcopal Hymnal (1982), pg. 463-464, for two musical settings of the 1945 poem by W.H. Auden, “For the time being.”

He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness:
you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety:
you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh:
and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

I value the way in which the author presents Christ’s incarnation. I see it as an archetype of the journey of life.-a kind of modern “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

6. Jesus A, Nahetotaetanome (Jesus lord, how joyful you have made us): This hymn comes to us from the Cheyenne Mennonites. When we sang a very similar song at the Mennonite World Conference in Wichita, Kansas, in 1978, members of the Cheyenne tribe attended. A wonderful woman named Bertha Little Coyote was there. I told her, “We want to sing your song tomorrow. Would you help us?” And she said, “You won’t be able to sing it.” But she was willing to help. It was hard for us, and the sound must have hurt her ears, but her comment to me afterward was, ” I like it here. A similar Cheyenne hymn is #9 in HWB.

7. Jesus, we want to meet: This was a missionary song that westerners brought to Nigeria in the middle of the 19th century and the Nigerians learned to sing it in the Western missionary way. But in 1950, several Nigerians who were poetic and musical came to the Methodists in the United States, writing and singing their song in their way, and the Methodists used this version in their next printed hymnal. Drums are needed and rhythmic variety takes the place of the usual American interest in harmony. This is #10 in HWB.

8. O God, our help in ages past: I like this psalm text very much, partly because it is by Isaac Watts. In the old church hymnal that I grew up with, we had 57 hymns by Watts. That was not unusual. Hymnals in early America were full of Watts and Wesley came next. Watts was a non-conformist, not a member of the Anglican Church. He went beyond the poetic meters that were acceptable at the time and his Psalm settings included Jesus much of the time. (See also, “Joy to the world,” Psalm 97) His language in hymns was progressive for its time. This hymn is still valued for important occasions, like weddings and funerals, in both Britain and America. It seems timeless.

9. For the beauty of the earth: When I was at the Elkhart seminary, we had a Russian student who was asked to lead a chapel. She came to me and said, “I can’t find anything in this book (Hymnal: A Worship Book) that is about the arts.” And then she found “For the beauty of the earth” and the verse she loved was,

“For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind’s delight, for the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight.”

In our previous hymnals, we had left out this stanza. So this woman used the full text in her service and I now value it highly. I grew up in a period when the arts were rejected by some Mennonites as unnecessary and even wrong. But I learned that this is not just a Mennonite problem; it has been present in ancient Greek thought and in much of Western History for centuries.

10. I sought the Lord: The committee for the 1969 book found this text in our search for new material and in the 1960’s, the date 1904 seemed recent! However, we were not convinced of the hymn tune. The poetic meter was uncommon, so Harold Moyer from Bethel College, the arranger for the number of our songs, composed the tune, FAITH. It has worn very well.

And perhaps some of you are wondering why “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” also known by some as “606” is not on this list. The 1969 committee labeled this a “Choral Hymn,” placing it in that section because we thought at the time that it was too difficult for a congregation and that it belonged with choir numbers. It was only when the new hymnal was introduced in July 1969 [at the Mennonite Church assembly] in Oregon that I heard a large congregation try it. I was leading the hymn sing with fear that we would not get through the hymn’s three pages, but it was an immediate success. And it certainly was a favorite of mine for many years as I saw how it enlivened people as we sang. It brought us joy.

I admire the gift that Joseph Funk gave us with his Genuine Church Music, 1832, (later called Harmonia Sacra). 606 appeared as an anthem (Dedication Anthem) in the fifteenth edition of 1876. This oblong book began with 50 pages of music instruction followed by many pages of hymns and a few anthems for use in music instruction. This is how Mennonites, especially in Virginia, Funk’s home, learned how to read four-part music. I am grateful for the generations of song leaders who went out to Mennonite homes, farming during the day and teaching music with Harmonia Sacra in the evening. It made possible our singing 606 with energy and pleasure for many years.


In recent years, I see much change in Mennonite church music. 606 functions well in congregations in which the poetry is important, where one expects to see and read the music, not the words (though many may know it by memory-“by heart,” we would say). The a capella aspect is important, too. I was more aware of problems when I experienced this song’s use in Mennonite World Conferences, in India and Zimbabwe specifically. It could not be a congregational song. However, I have used it happily as a choir number with adult students in Kenya and Taiwan. I am increasingly aware that as we become a more global church I want to be able to learn the hymns that our members around the world find valuable.

To listen to Mary’s play list at The Mennonite, where this story was first posted, click here.

Posted on: January 4th, 2017 by Voices Together Hymnal