by Glenn A. Gentry

This guide is intended for pastors and other persons who may be involved in selecting hymns for use in worship. The information it contains is pertinent only to musical aspects (except when the music may recall an unanticipated text for the listener); hymns are generally chosen first of all because of the text and pastors are usually better able to make judgments in that area than musicians, while the latter can provide helpful musical information to the pastors. The scoring is derived from my own background and must be used with common sense, especially the familiarity score, which, more than any other, will vary from congregation to congregation in its applicability, because each congregation will have its own individual repertoire of hymns with which it is familiar. When selecting hymns, therefore, one should always give such local information greater weight than the scores found here. Because of the subjective nature of this guide, I feel it important to describe the pertinent aspects of my background, so that the user can judge how well the scores may fit the individual situation. What follows, I offer for that purpose.

I grew up more or less in the Southern Baptist Church in Alabama and Tennessee, mostly in small towns. My earliest recollection of a specific hymn was from the 5th or 6th grade, when I was attending Sunday School at a rural Cumberland Presbyterian Church; the hymn was "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder I'll Be There." (I have since realized that there is some profound theology in the first line: "When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more"). My earliest recollection of an organ was the theater organ in the Paramount Theater in Nashville, TN (about 1939; I was eight years old). I became interested in the organ during high school days in Paris, TN, at the First Baptist Church. I went on to attend Maryville College (TN), a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) institution, where I majored in music theory and studied organ. During that time we attended chapel 4 days a week, and, on Sunday, worship either at a church of our own choosing or at Vespers at the College (all required). That, of course, meant a lot of singing. I also sang for two years in the College Choir. During the summers (after the first two years) I was proficient enough to take on occasional substitute organist jobs in the Nashville area, where my parents had moved. For reasons that remain obscure, these were at Episcopal Churches (Church of the Advent, St. George's, and St. Anne's). From that experience I still prefer the Episcopal style of worship to any other I have encountered (I do grant the Lutherans primacy in music, however). Upon graduation from Maryville, I attended graduate school (in the nonmusical field of microbiology) in Nashville, and at the same time took on my first church job as organist and choir director at the Donelson Presbyterian Church (then P.C.U.S.); we met in a fellowship hall and I had a Hammond spinet (12 "broomsticks" for pedals) on which to play. Every organist should have a tour of duty on one of these; it is good discipline, and prevents surprises later in life. For musical satisfaction I put most of my attention on the choir. We used the old blue Presbyterian U.S. hymnbook. My career in microbiology dictated my subsequent geographic locations, which were, in turn, Jackson, MS (1957-60); Madison, WI (1960-63); and back to Jackson. I also spent a year in Glasgow, Scotland (1970-71). In Jackson I sang in the choir at Central Presbyterian Church (I had become Presbyterian at Donelson), substituted (as organist) from time to time in various churches, and later was organist at Christ Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod). In Madison my wife and I joined the University Presbyterian Church and later, for a year, I was organist and choir director at Hope Lutheran Church, a small rural ALC congregation near Madison. On our return to Jackson we joined Covenant Presbyterian Church where I at first sang in the choir, then became organist and choir director, and then organist, until we moved to Scotland. There we attended a Church of Scotland but on an irregular basis. When we returned to Jackson we joined Fondren Presbyterian Church where I sang in the choir from 1971 until the present (2007), serving briefly as interim choir director. I have continued to substitute as organist to the present, not only at Fondren but in a variety of other churches of different denominations. The familiarity scores, and to a lesser degree, the "freedom" scores, are based on this experience, and should be used accordingly. They are meant to apply only to Presbyterian Churches; the other scores, in contrast, derive not only from my "Presbyterian" experience but from my training in music theory and composition as well as my experience in churches of other denominations.


The scores range from 1 (worst) to 5 (best). There is little difference between adjacent scores. Some categories (familiarity, for example) probably should be taken more seriously than others. The hymns are arranged in numerical order; when there are more than one tune for the same hymn in the 1955 Hymnbook, these are listed as 104.1 (first tune), 104.2 (second tune), 104.3 (third tune), for example. Alternative accompaniments are not scored separately, but are mentioned in the comments.


As implied above, this category is intended for Presbyterian use, especially in situations where the person choosing the hymns may not have a good grasp of the congregation's repertoire. In the South, there is probably not a single Presbyterian congregation that does not include a substantial fraction of former Baptists and, to a lesser extent, Methodists. These members bring a different repertoire, and this is taken into account in these scores. A score of 1 means that I do not recall ever having sung this hymn in any Presbyterian situation; a score of 5 means that most people should be able to sing the first verse from memory. A low score in this category does not mean that the hymn should not be used; only that some effort should be taken to introduce it properly, or even to teach it deliberately beforehand (especially if it is not easy to sing), or that it should not be used in the absence of a choir. There is little doubt in my mind that this category will have its maximum validity in the Mid-South.


This score is based on several decades of my experience singing in the choir at Fondren Presbyterian Church, and is meant for use at that institution.


By "freedom" I mean freedom from undesirable or unexpected connections. Where this results in a very low score (1 or 2) I have tried to explain in the comments the basis for the score. The best example I have for this category involves the tune "Ar Hyd Y Nos", the Welsh tune to which we sing "God Who Madest Earth and Heaven" (No. 58). One of the requirements at Maryville was that each student complete a research project. In my case, for my theory major, I was to compose 24 hymn preludes for organ. I planned to include this tune for use at weddings, until my theory professor (Dr. Dorothy Horn) wisely pointed out that the tune was also well-known as the tune for the text "Sleep, my love, and peace attend thee, all through the night". Originally I used the term "nostalgia" rather than "freedom", but the scoring was reversed. Some tunes are very much captive (not free) to particular seasons and events; Christmas carols are good examples. Because the connection is understood and desirable, these were given a high score. When a tune is used for more than one hymn (St. George's Windsor, for example), the primary connection (Thanksgiving, in this case) is given a higher score ("Come, Ye Thankful Peoples, Come") than is the other use ("Watchman, Tell Us of the Night"). Finally it should be obvious that a tune with a low familiarity score cannot have a low freedom score.


This category is without doubt the most subjective as it deals with taste and esthetics. I do, however, feel that it must be addressed. Every thoughtful person realizes that within categories some things are better (more desirable) than others. Sometimes this is easy to measure (as in durability of a particular device), sometimes it is difficult (as in which the musical setting of a particular text is better). Several principles may apply in the present situation. The first is survivability. Two popular tunes come to mind, Old Hundredth (Doxology) and Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress). Both are from the 16th century, and both are well-known and loved. The second is relatedness. A modern tune (that has not passed the test of survivability) may resemble in style one that has (an example: "Columbia", No. 98, is not different in style from "Darwall's 148th, Nos. 14 & 140). The third is complexity, but this single adverb is not sufficient as a descriptor. There are some very effective yet very simple hymns ("When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", tune Hamburg, for example). There are also some simple but boring hymns. The simplest tune that could be imagined is a single note that does not change in duration or in pitch; such a tune would get tiresome very quickly. On the other hand some tunes contain complexities that render them more or less unusable. Scoring in this category - even with these criteria- therefore remains a matter of personal judgment. Such a judgment, however, when based on experience and training, can be useful.


This score is intended to help set the conditions for use of the hymns. A low score does not mean that the hymn should not be used, only that there should be a choir present and that the choir director should be alerted ahead of time. In those cases where a difficult hymn is also very familiar, then a choir might not be needed at all. Excessively high notes and awkward intervals were the most common factors leading to a low score.


When there is a competent organist or pianist, a low score need not dictate that a hymn should not be used, only that the organist (or pianist) should be notified in advance. Awkward rhythms and pedal (bass) parts tended to cause low scores.


If there is just one thing that the reader of this guide remembers, it should be this: the longer in advance the hymns are chosen, the happier the result. To wait until the last minute, especially after the choir has already rehearsed, sends the wrong message to the musicians. It says "your contributions to the worship service are not important." When the hymns are planned in advance, the choir can rehearse those that are difficult or unfamiliar, and the organist can find and have time to prepare pieces that are based on the tune. If the pastor uses the lectionary, the process of selecting hymns is made easier; each Sunday has a specified "theme" complete with scripture and a choice of hymns. In most churches it is customary for the pastor to choose the hymns, but that is not the only workable model. I have seen (in the Presbyterian setting) models where the organist chose the opening hymn, the choir director chose all the hymns, and in one case (an interim situation) the Chairman of the Worship Committee chose them. I do believe, however, that it is best for the pastor to make the selections if the pastor will take an active interest in the process. Finally, the pastor should make some effort to see that individual hymns are not repeated so often that they lose their impact. This can be done by recording in a hymnbook the dates a hymn is used; an alternative would be a looseleaf notebook with a separate page for each hymn.

A second point to remember is that the musical ability of the typical Presbyterian congregation is usually underestimated. There may not be many who can sight read a hymn without error, but there will be some, and most members will probably find having the music available to be helpful to some degree. Therefore, when bulletin inserts are used for hymns, if possible include the music as well as the text.

A third point is to try to maintain a good balance between more familiar hymns and less familiar ones. There should not be Sundays when all the hymns score only 1's or 2's in familiarity. If this happens with any regularity the pastor will hear about it in the form of complaints. Make sure that when an unfamiliar hymn is sung a familiar one is sung also.



This contains all the hymns (except for some responses) found in the 1955 Hymnbook (HB55), the 1972 Worshipbook (WB72), and the 1990 Hymnal (HM90). There are more than 1,000 entries; there were many hymns in HB55 that were omitted from WB72 and HM90, while HM90 has many hymns not found in HB55 or WB72. In each entry lines 3-5 show in which of these three hymnals the particular hymn occurs. Some will be in all three, some in only one.


The software I used had some limitations so that alphabetization restarts after a space; hence "A Charge To Keep Have I" comes before "Abide With Me".


This is no longer the mainstay for Presbyterian worship. It represented a great leap forward from the "Old Blue" PCUS Hymnal, and brought in many hymns from other denominations. In a word, it was an ecumenical hymbook.


This had a short life, although it was used for a time at Fondren. It had the very annoying feature of lots of page turns (hard for the organist). Its defining character was the replacement of "I" with "We" in many hymns; "I Greet You, Who My Sure Redeemer Art" became "We Greet You, Sure Redeemer from All Strife".


This hymnal has successfully replaced the 1955 Hymnbook in many congregations. One of its prominent features is the reduction of gender-specific language; in "O Worship the King" the line "O gratefully sing his power and his love" becomes "O gratefully sing God's power and God's love". "Rise Up, O Men of God" is omitted altogether.

Glenn A. Gentry
216 Ashcot Circle
Jackson, MS 39211
(601) 362-3235

G.A.Gentry©2007, 2013

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