Brethren hymnwriters 1950 onwards

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by Alan Spinks, Wellington

Early childhood in Liverpool


The end of rationing
The 1950s were a time of very prolific hymn writing amongst brethren, as if spurred on by the release from the austere war time conditions in the UK right up to 1952, when Winston Churchill was re-elected Prime Minister on the promise to end food rationing within 6 months.  He kept his word, and suddenly the shops were full of food, clothes and household goods of all kinds, in great abundance.

Wartime austerity
I mention this because during the war, the brethren could not travel about freely.  All travel was restricted, and only essential journeys were to be undertaken.  So there was no freedom to travel to other towns for fellowship meetings etc.  People who did have to travel, say for business reasons, had to take their ration books with them in order to obtain food.  When the war ended, the brethren were free to travel, but I remember invitations to fellowship meetings which stated, “A cup of tea will be served, but would the brethren please bring their own food.”  This lasted until the end of rationing in 1952.

The wartine conditions restricted the brethren considerably.  I was born in Liverpool, and that was my home town.  Being a major sea port it received more than its fair share of bombing raids, and we often had to sleep in our air raid shelter, and my father often had to go on fire duty overnight at the docks  The small meetings, to my eyes were very dull.  Young men, eligable for the army were called up, but most young brothers joined the NCCs, Non Combatant Corps.  Even young sisters joined up for hospital duties etc.  So there were no young people in the meetings, 18 or older.  My first memories of meetings were from the age of 6.  By that time I had been at school for a year, and I had begun to learn the hymns sung at morning assemblies.  We sang from a school hymnbook, “Songs of Praise,” still in print from Oxford University Press.  The school picked hymns relevant to young people, and I learned a good many off by heart.  The tunes were pleasant and memorable, and I found the hymns uplifting, showing that God did care for us, and we had an incentive to be good children.

In comparison, the singing in the meetings was terrible- slow, out of tune, timing all wrong, and the words were unintelligable, but I do recollect a lot about woe and agony.  In comparison I remember a hymn from school, “There is a green hill far away, Without a city wall, Where our dear Lord was crucified, Who died to save us all.”  I found that deeply affecting, far more than anything in the Spiritual Songs hymnbook.  By the age of 7 I had a good understanding of how the tunes should be sung, but there was nothing I could do about the singing in the meetings.  The same four or five brothers gave out the same four or five hymns every week, and I could not relate to any of them.  But at that point in time, 1943, I was only taken to the, “Morning Meeting.”  Our family was however very musical, and we always had hymn singing in our home an a Sunday evening, mostly from “Golden Bells” hymnbook.  We also had “Redemption Songs,” and we sang our favourite hymns from either book.  Neither of those books were used in the meetings.  As I got older, I was taken to the Gospel, but the brethren used the Spiritual Songs for the gospel, and there were few hymns there that appealed to me.

New hymn tunes
There were some highlights.  A young brother, that is, younger than my father, a government servant, transferred to Liverpool in about 1943. He was from the London area.  He brought a breath of fresh air to our meeting, and introduced a number of new hymns.  These were in the 1933 edition of the Spiritual Songs hymnbook, which had been in use since that time, but I am not aware if these fresh hymns had been sung before.  I remember many to this day, including, “Blessed Lord our hallelujahs,” now our No. 20, sung to a new tune written for it,  “Hallelujah,” by T.Collins, one of the editors of the 1933 music edition.  Also, “Father, Spring and Source of blessing,” our No. 415, which he sung to the tune we now know as Austria.  I remember some brethren objected because Hitler had adopted it as the German national anthem.  To my innocent mind it seemed a very good tune.  Then about this time new tunes, handwritten on manuscript paper, were being sent around the meetings.  I had an aunt in London who was very good at collecting new hymn tunes, and she sent them to my father whenever she could.  Other brethren copied them, and passed them around the meetings in the area around Liverpool.  The brethren learned them at home, and gradually a lot of new tunes began to be sung in the meetings.  They were all composed for particular hymns, and I do not recollect them being sung interchangeably with other hymns of the same metre.  Very often the new tune brought the hymn to life, and they became firmly attached.  Hallelujah sung to No 20 was the first of many.  The next most outstanding tune, we know in New Zealand as “Brackley,” which we sing to our hymn No 504, “Jesus our Lord, Thy worthiness we sing.” became a firm favourite, and the hymn was given out almost more often than any other hymn.  The tune was composed by a sister, Miss M. Grugeon in 1940, later to become Mrs. J.A. Lambert.  That tune was circulated to virtually every assembly in UK by handwritten copies.  Before this the hymn was sung to the tune, “Sandon.”

Another tune, “Concordia,” was composed by a brother, Eric Burgess, in 1936, too late to get into the 1933 music edition.  This was written for our hymn No.2, with the new first line, “Father, ’twas Thy love that knew us.”  It became very popular until a new edition of Spiritual Songs appeared in 1951.  With a lot more new hymns appearing at that time, hymn No 2 became a lot less popular.  Incidentally, our brother, Albert West liked it, and he asked for it to be set to his hymn, “Far above the highest heaven,” which we have in our supplement as No. 575.  He also liked the tune,”Highest Heaven,” and was unable to say which he liked best, so we have both tunes set to 575.  I would propose the hymn No.2 should be included in our supplement, including the new verse 2 which appeared in the 1933 Spiritual Songs, including the better last two lines to verse 1, “And hath made us, Sons before Thee evermore.”  And verse 2, “Now that changeless love enfolds us, All its wealth on us bestows; While its power unchanging holds us, In a holy calm repose.  God and Father, Unto Thee our worship flows.”  The original verse 2 becomes verse 3.  Sung to the tune, “Concordia,” the hymn, to me, still at primary school, made an impression which I have never forgotten.  For the first time I began to realise that we were gathering together to worship the Lord, and God, and the Father.  The woe and agony was not so prominent.  I still valued the hymn, “There is a green hill,” which spoke to me of the sufferings of our Lord, far more effectively than any of the hymns in Spiritual Songs.

Liverpool College
This brings me up to the age of 9 in 1945.  In that year I passed the entrance exam to Liverpool College, and started there in September that year.  This was an Anglican school, and hymn singing in the morning assemblies took on a new dimension.  We also sang psalms from the Anglican prayer book, and church anthems by many of of the most popular composers.  And for the first time in my life I experienced services in Liverpool Cathedral.  Scriptual teaching was very prominent, and I began to realise the scriptual expressions to be found in many of the hymns in Spiritual Songs.  How I related the scriptual teaching at school to the brethren’s teaching, and how it increased my understanding of the hymns, will have to wait until next time.