Just before we start

FEBRUARY IS A BYWAYS MONTH. Straying momentarily from the glory of the hymns, what about the pages before you actually reach Number 1 in the book? How seldom noticed, how beautifully planned! These poetic Prefaces provide some famous quotations; those musical Methodists with ‘Methodism was born in song’, those assured Anglicans with ‘The English Hymnal is a collection of the best hymns in the English Language’.

The fact that neither claim is true detracts little from its sense of style. Prefaces by Watts and Wesley are much quoted; less celebrated but hardly less striking: ‘Dear Reader, You that feel desirous to ask me, What induced me to send another Edition of my unadorned pieces into the world?’

Sabine Baring Gould deserves some kind of prize for his arresting opening (for Christmas Carols): ‘in the 1lth and 12th centuries, the South of Europe was deeply infected with Manicheism’. And in a book invitingly gold-stamped ‘Soho Chapel, Platform 6’, hints on getting to the church (or train?) on time:

Bear with me when I say the crime is great
Of those who practise coming very late,
As if God’s service were by far too long,
So they omit the opening prayer or song.
A little less indulgence in the bed,
A little more contrivance in the head.

This from a Camberwell author and a New Cross editor, clearly preparing for the coming Diocese of Southwark where some habits die hard:

‘If you complain you have so far to come,
Set out a little sooner from your home.. .’

– in 1878!

But look, too, at those title pages. Bernard Manning positively celebrates this feature in the 1780 collection ‘for the people called Methodists’ (the equivalent of the Prayer Book’s Golden Numbers, for the child of limited endurance but enquiring mind). Back then, titles were titles:

‘Original Hymns, Doctrinal, Practical, and Experimental; with Prose Reflections designed for the use of Babes, Young Men, and Fathers in Christ. By Henry Fowler, Minister of the Gospel.’ ‘Denham’s Selection, or The Saints’ Melody: containing Eleven Hundred and Forty Hymns, Founded upon the doctrine of Distinguishing Grace, With some originals by the late David Denham, of Margate, Kent, and Unicorn Yard Chapel, Tooley Street, London, 1873′. ‘The Baptists’ Hymn Book, harmonising with the Scriptures of Truth, and corresponding With the Manifold Experience of the Broken-hearted, Conscience wounded, Soul humbled, Heaven born, Spirit taught, Truth seeking, Blood redeemed, Hell opposed, Earth despised, and Grace defended sinner; sold in the Vestry of Carmel Chapel after the service on Monday and Wednesday evenings’. I abbreviate cruelly; there is much, much more. Some vital information comes earlier still. Not simply the boring NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY, or ‘This Book is the Property of the School Governors’; nor even the handwritten appeal: ‘This book should be returned to Ebenezer Chapel when finished with’.

I mean, rather, ‘To be had by post only from Miss Kent, Shefford, Beds, for Eight Penny Stamps’. (Toplady’s Hymns, including his original line from Rock of ages, ‘when my eye-strings break in death’.) Or, ‘to Sarah, a present from Papa and Mama to commemorate her arrival in England, June 30 1860’. Or ‘Pew No 5, Gallery’ – this at New Surrey Tabernacle, Walworth, 1839. Another whose title proclaims Free Grace was a Sunday School prize ‘for Eliza Woodstock, as a Reward of Merit’. Or this, ‘rebound after damage sustained in the flood which overflowed the Chapel, Chelmsford 1947’. Anyone remember?

If a hymnal is yours, dear Reader, do write something memorable inside the cover. If not, please return it.

Christopher Idle has a book belonging to Christ Church Old Kent Road in the Diocese of Southwark.