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  • Community in Children’s Hymn-Singing
  • Alisa Clapp-Itnyre (bio)

If there was ever a Victorian institution that inculcated community and a bringing together of disparate groups, it was congregational hymn-singing. Indeed, hymns are, by their very nature, communal. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines hymns as “sacred poetry set to music and sung in the course of the services of the Church … to express doctrine or the devotion of individuals” (681). Hymns are sung by societies of singers, in contrast to solos sung by individuals; further, they are sung by amateurs, in contrast to choral music performed by professional choirs. In a sense, they are an aesthetic uniting all singers, children included, who come together to express and affirm common Christian doctrine. Victorian literature is filled with scenes of communities gathered together to sing: the Hayslope community gathers to sing the hymns introduced by Dinah Morris in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, friends gather to hear Alice Wilson sing fragments of hymns on her deathbed in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and Bathsheba overhears a children’s church choir learning a hymn in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Clearly Victorian society saw much unifying agency in hymn singing.

Though congregations had sung in church settings since the Reformation, usually this practice was limited and, instead of singing hymns, congregations repeated back metrical psalms “lined out” by a precentor. Or they would listen to a “west-gallery” choir and instrumentalists (later, a barrel organ) sing the psalms (in parish churches) or listen to a trained cathedral choir and organ (in cities, college towns) (see Bradley, ch. 1, and Temperley, Music, chs. 8–9). Congregational singing was launched in an extremely powerful way with the eighteenth-century Methodist movement. As is well noted,1 the Methodist [End Page 26] movement achieved success and influence because of its passionate, engaging hymns and hymn-singing in which ordinary congregants could join in the music instead of mechanically singing back the words of the parish clerk or passively listening to a parish choir. Though favouring simple tunes, John Wesley nevertheless encouraged heartfelt, emotional singing and therefore turned to popular, if controversial, sources—from operas to tavern tunes—for the music for his brother’s and other Methodist hymns. Using engaging tunes and unrestricted singing, often in the open air, Methodists enticed many followers through music. Following their example, Dissenters of the turn of the century also composed “rousing and thrilling tunes” that greatly popularized hymn writers of the previous century: Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, William Cowper, and John Newton (Bradley 18). Erik Routley points in particular to the evangelicals who “explosively increase[d] the vocabulary of their congregations. These people did not have to get along on six metrical psalm tunes. The massive choirs … led the singing and everybody joined in enthusiastically, carried along by the attractiveness of the music” (50–51). Once the Anglicans joined forces,2 hymnody became a major congregational force throughout nineteenth-century British churches. Hymn-singing created large communities of Victorians gathered to sing praises to their Maker, across denominational, social, national, and class lines.

Hymn-singing permeated Victorian children’s lives, too, not just in churches and chapels on Sundays, as might be the experience for contemporary children, but throughout the week in schools and in the home. Children were furnished with their own liturgical hymn-singing spaces: in working-class Sunday schools, in middle-class children’s services, and as part of upper-class boarding schools. By the late 1870s, one hymn-book editor was able to write,

Hymn-singing has found its way into nearly every family circle; the Sunday School has been largely developed within the Church of England; Children’s Services have multiplied; Guilds, Bands of Hope, and kindred societies have been formed in hundreds of parishes; and the demand for hymns suited to the young, on all subjects within the range of their interests, is becoming daily more and more urgent.

(Brock v)

Children wrote about hymn-singing in their diaries, writers incorporated hymns into children’s scenes in their novels, and adults of the twentieth century reflected upon hymn-singing’s influence on their Victorian...


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