Worship and song have connected United Methodists and their predecessors from the days of Wesley to the present. Well-crafted liturgy and music shared across the denomination bring congregations together, celebrate common heritage and reinforce Wesleyan practices. They are powerful teaching tools that also build community.
United Methodist Book of Worship
When Thomas Coke arrived in America to lead the new Methodist Episcopal Church, he brought with him John Wesley’s “Sunday Service of the Methodists of North America.” Wesley had revised the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to better reflect the practices and unique beliefs of the Methodists. This was first official book of worship for the new movement.
Despite Wesley’s intentions, many American Methodists did not utilize his book. Along the frontier, where worship was often lay-led, many new styles worship emerged, such as the camp meeting. The less formal liturgical and preaching styles of other frontier churches and movements also influenced the Methodists.
“Unlike our Anglican forebears we’ve always made the use of our common liturgical resources optional,” said the Rev. Alfred T. Day III, general secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. “The early American Methodists may have had a unique fear of ritual that Wesley did not anticipate or they may have wished to distinguish themselves more from the Anglican Church.”
“By the late 19th century, the Methodists had become more established with full-time professional clergy and central organization,” Day continued. “It was at this time that the General Conference made fresh attempts at developing a common order of worship. The Methodist Episcopal Church added the ‘Order of Worship’ to the Hymnal in 1896.”
After the union of the Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church in 1968, fresh attempts to create a common book of worship began.
“In the 1980s, approvals for a new hymnal and later a new worship book came from the Publishing House, Discipleship Ministries and General Conference as a result of research of current practices and needs, and consultation with practitioners and persons with special expertise in worship and liturgy,” said the Rev. Brian Milford, Publishing House president and publisher.
The current United Methodist Book of Worship, published in 1992, was a collaborative effort of the United Methodist Publishing House and Discipleship Ministries (formerly the General Board of Discipleship). The team producing it worked intentionally to capture and celebrate the many diverse faces and traditions of the Church that had developed over 200 years.
“The value of diversity was embedded in every step of the process,” Milford said. “The UMC is a wonderfully varied cross-section of ethnicities and cultures. We have congregations worshiping in the inner city, outer suburbs, university enclaves, and town and country settings.”
“The current Book of Worship has come a long way from the ‘Sunday Service of the Methodists of North America,’’ Day said. “There are different liturgies and services for all manner of occasions from holy days to weddings and baptisms. We have services that celebrate adoptions, reaffirmation of marriage vows and the start of new congregations. We also have specific services of healing for persons dealing with terminal illness, divorce, miscarriages and other tragic events. All congregations should own a United Methodist Book of Worship.”
United Methodist Hymnal
For the early Methodists, hymn singing was an act of praise and joy – and a way to express their theology. That continues today.
Many of Charles Wesley’s great hymns such as “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown" and “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” reinforced the beliefs and theology of the Methodist movement. John Wesley considered singing such an important communal act of piety that he left behind detailed instructions on how his followers should sing that can still be found in the front pages of the United Methodist Hymnal today.
While not abandoning the English hymns the Wesleys had once sung, early American Methodists began using some of the evangelical and gospel tunes popular in other Christian churches and movements of their time. It did not take long for the Methodist Episcopal Church to develop its own hymnal or tune book.
“The Methodist Publishing House produced the first Methodist tune book (lyrics only) in 1821 and followed this up with other widely adopted tune books in 1844, 1849, and 1858,” Milford said. “The first modern-era hymnal, combining words with music, was issued for the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1878.”
The Methodist-EUB Union brought repeated calls for a new hymnal that would combine the music traditions of both former denominations and better reflect the diversity of The United Methodist Church. By then the new denomination had congregations in every part of the United States and among all racial-ethnic groups. The United Methodist Publishing House and General Board of Discipleship co-led a study to determine whether there was a need for new music materials within the denomination.
“A detailed a comprehensive report and recommendations for adoption was presented to the General Conference in 1988,” said Milford.
As the new hymnal was developed, Day said, “Great intentionality was made to include material that incorporated different languages, cultures and types of music. The 1989 United Methodist Hymnal would insert evangelical and gospel hymns not found in previous versions. African American spirituals and songs in languages like Spanish, German and Native American languages were included,” said Day.
While General Conference adopts the church’s official Hymnal and Book of Worship, it still does not mandate their use. Even so, their contents – whether printed or projected – continue to connect United Methodists through liturgy and song. UMPH and Discipleship Ministries have collaborated over the years to publish other music and worship resources, such as “The Faith We Sing” and “Worship and Song” for English-speaking congregations, “Mil Voces Para Celebrar” for those speaking Spanish and “The Africana Hymnal” filled with black sacred music.
Currently the Publishing House and Discipleship Ministries are working on United Methodist Worship Resources Collection, an expansion of digital and print worship/music resources to be used by United Methodists everywhere.
“The effort to serve United Methodists with works of worship has always continued and will expand to include thousands of songs and acts of worship to serve diverse congregations,” Milford said. “Our worship work embraces the next era of United Methodist witness, which is best expressed through our praise for God’s faithful love.”
While these new resources will aim to bring United Methodists together in their Wesleyan identity, they will also continue to celebrate the many different faces and voices of the church. The story behind them reminds us that we are connected in our praise and worship of God.
Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.