by John M. Mulder and F. Morgan Roberts
Cascade Books, Eugene, Ore. 182 pages
REVIEWED BY THOMAS G. LONG
In 2014, the accomplished historian and theologian John M. Mulder and the well-known preacher and pastor F. Morgan Roberts teamed up to create a gem of a book titled “28 Hymns to Sing Before You Die.” Despite the way some interpreted the title, this was not a book of hymns to sing on one’s deathbed, but a “bucket list” of some of the finest hymns in the Christian repertoire, hymns not to miss singing in this life.
Mulder and Morgan have followed up with a second excellent volume of cherished hymns, this time a selection of beautiful and moving Christmas carols. Following the pattern established in the first book, each carol appears set to music, much as it would be in a hymnal, and is followed by two brief essays: one on the history of the carol and the other a devotional meditation on the carol. As they go about the two-fold task of teaching and inspiring, the two authors do not maintain a strict division of labor. As
Richard Mouw says in his foreword to the book, “Thank the Lord. Roberts inspires as he informs, and Mulder informs as he inspires.”
The book includes many of the best-loved carols, such as “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” but also finds a place for some lovely, perhaps less familiar, carols, such as “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child” and “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.” The authors have chosen English folk carols, African-American spirituals and an Appalachian ballad. The prolific Charles Wesley, whom the authors call “the greatest hymn-writer in the English language” is represented by two carols: “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Martin Luther’s “Ah, Dearest Jesus, Holy Child,” which the authors deem “haunting and beautiful,” is here. One of Luther’s opponents, jealous that his hymns were being sung heartily not only in churches but in homes and in fields as people worked, is said to have sniped, “Luther’s songs have damned more souls than all his books and speeches!” One could hardly get that malice from this lullaby-like carol.
The authors share fascinating facts about these carols. We learn that the treasured standard “Joy to the World!” was not originally a Christmas song at all. Isaac Watts composed it to celebrate Christ’s second coming in glory at the end of all time, not the first coming in humility in the middle of time. We are also told that the folklorist John Jacob Niles, from whom we get the ethereal folk carol “I Wonder as I Wander,” first heard it being sung in a beautiful and untutored voice by a raggedly clad girl with stringy, uncombed blond hair, standing on a makeshift stage in the Appalachian village of Murphy, North Carolina.
One can imagine so many uses for this fine book. Its compelling stories will appear in sermons, and its profound meditations will find a place in study groups and in bedtime devotions. But most of all, it will enrich the Christmas season for all readers.
About the carol “Joy to the World!” one of the authors writes, “After singing this carol all of my life, I suddenly noticed something I’d missed: throughout this carol all of heaven and earth are singing! Do you hear the song?” This book will go a long way to helping us all “hear the song” at Christmas.
THOMAS G. LONG is Bandy Professor of Preaching Emeritus at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.