How the Canadian hymnal evolved

The hymnal of the Anglican Church of Canada, created 1905 to 1908, "became the first concrete expression of the new national spirit of the church," says historical musicologist Kenneth Hull. Photo: Diana Swift
The hymnal of the Anglican Church of Canada, created 1905 to 1908, "became the first concrete expression of the new national spirit of the church," says historical musicologist Kenneth Hull. Photo: Diana Swift
Published November 3, 2014

The stormy history of the Canadian Anglican hymnal might surprise many who each week sing contentedly from the Book of Common Praise. At a recent conference commemorating the 175th anniversary of the Anglican diocese of Toronto’s founding, Kenneth Hull recounted how this small book became an ecclesiastical football in the latter half of the 19th century and a touchstone for burgeoning Canadian nationalism.

“The first authorized hymnal of the Canadian church, created 1905 to 1908, became the first concrete expression of the new national spirit of the church and was a pivotal moment in the life of Canada’s new General Synod,” said Hull, a historical musicologist and associate professor of music at Ontario’s University of Waterloo.

Hull spoke Nov. 1 at the University of Trinity College, University of Toronto, in the conference session “The Beauty of Holiness.” He noted that 19th-century hymn practices were very diverse across Canadian dioceses, many of which had their own customized collections. England’s Hymns Ancient and Modern (A&M), originally published in 1861, predominated but shared the stage with the more evangelical collections Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer and Church Hymns, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Preferences split sharply along low church versus high church and Anglo-Catholic versus evangelical lines. “In reaction to the perceived high church theology of A&M, in 1874 the diocese of Huron approved two evangelical collections for parish worship, thereby cutting out A&M,” said Hull, adding that this was an expression of the diocese’s “militantly low church convictions.” In contrast, A&M, with its high church complement of old plainsong hymns, was widely used in the neighbouring diocese of Toronto. New Brunswick’s diocese of Fredericton boasted no fewer than six different hymnals.

The sacred songbook battles, fiercely fought in the Canadian Churchman (predecessor to the Anglican Journal), reflected not only the diocesan autonomy of the day but also the theological polarization of a fractious period in Canadian Anglicanism. “The two major parties had their own organizations, leaders, controversialists, networks, mission societies and Sunday school curriculums,” said Hull. “At synods and in the church press, the two sides attacked each other with an energy, and frequently with a scurrility, that is now surprising and even shocking.”

By the end of the 19th century, opinion had diversified and the polarization in churchmanship had softened. As the centrality of church life declined, the focus shifted away from politics and theology to better service. With the creation of the Canadian General Synod in 1893, a new avenue opened up for proposing a national hymn book. Far from being only a component of worship, a Canadian hymnal raised the issue of the Dominion church’s relationship to its English parent: was it just an ex-colonial dependent or a mature partner?

The cause was taken up by Toronto magistrate James E. Jones, who convened hymnal committees and used the pages of the Churchman to ensure passage of the hymn book proposal, which came in 1905. Key was the committees’ operating principle of “unity by inclusion, not by exclusion,” so that worshippers of every Anglican stripe could find hymns to express their style. “For the church to accept such an inclusive book required a tolerance that had not existed concretely before,” said Hull.

Before the authorized hymnal emerged in 1908, there were more polemics and much suggestion gathering. Some looked to the model of the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s 1880 hymn book, which Jones praised for having “driven out a lot of American and other trash.” Others favoured adopting the highly successful hymns of the U.S. Episcopal Church. Another faction preferred importing a collection from the English mother church, which raised the objection that English hymns were “pitched too high for Canadian voices.”

Overall, the polemics and the passionate letters in the Churchman were testimony to the growing importance of music in the church, and to the potentially unifying role of a Canadian hymnal, which finally appeared in 1908.

In other papers, Jonathan Lofft, a junior fellow in divinity at Trinity College, outlined how Edward Marion Chadwick helped create pontificalia for the bishop of Toronto, designing four mitres and, most notably, a magnificent jewel-set crosier. The Toronto lawyer and heraldist also designed a droll coat of arms for Bishop Arthur Sweatman and the coat of arms for General Synod. Lofft also read a paper on behalf of the University of Toronto’s Bruce Russell on the Anglican patronage of Gerald Larkin, scion of the wealthy Salada Tea Company family, which resulted in the ethereally beautiful Trinity College Chapel.












  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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