I recently checked out an anthology of Psalm-based poetry from the public library. Despite the use of regular rhyme and meter in nearly all 150 poems, the editor opted to exclude works by great hymn writers from the collection, saying they “belong to church history, not in an anthology of poetry.”[1] An unbiased reader familiar with the works of Watts and Wesley would find that their poetic diction and facility with rhyme and meter equals or surpasses that of the great poets; indeed, the anthology in question is filled with awkward rhymes and bumpy lines. The editor’s bias against hymnody substantially weakens his book.

I would argue that traditional hymn writing is the most rigorous poetic discipline in English. It requires strict use of rhyme; regular and repeated meter; and the ability to communicate clearly in relatively few stanzas. Each line typically uses fewer syllables than a sonnet. Within these technical constraints, good hymn writers are able to construct beautiful, clear, and memorable texts—a few of which stand the test of time and may be sung for centuries.

Why, then, is hymnody so often ignored as a literary genre? Is it because hymns are a vehicle of communal religious devotion rather than personal expression? Whatever the reason, as a hymn writer, I am grateful that the editors of this journal have seen fit to devote an issue to this topic, situating Mennonite hymn writing within a literary context. Among Mennonites, Lester Hostetler laid the groundwork for hymnology as an academic pursuit with the preparation of the Handbook to The Mennonite Hymnary, published in 1949 to accompany the General Conference hymnal published earlier that decade. When General Conference and “Old” Mennonites joined forces to produce the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal, Mary K. Oyer emerged as the preeminent scholar and practitioner of congregational song in the denominations. Her work provides a strong grounding for the types of articles and creative writing presented here.

Although the earliest Anabaptists were shaped by hymns written by leaders and martyrs of the movement (collected in The Ausbund, a portion of which was first published in 1564), subsequent generations within the movement did not create much original hymnody until the twentieth century. Instead, the familiar hymns that have shaped the faith of Mennonites are borrowed from other faith traditions. The articles in this issue provide a few snapshots of Mennonites creating new hymns. These works are finding use not only within Mennonite communities, but ecumenically as well.

The first Mennonite hymn to receive widespread publication outside of Mennonite circles is now virtually unknown among Mennonites: S. F. Coffman’s “We Bless the Name of Christ the Lord.” Coffman and J. D. Brunk worked to put Mennonite theology into the voices of Mennonite worshipers in the early twentieth century. My article on them presents a number of their works, both published and unpublished, as found in the Mennonite archives in Goshen, Indiana.

While early Mennonite missionaries carried with them western hymns, new Mennonites eventually began to create their own works that reflect indigenous faith and musical styles. Jill Schroeder-Dorn traces the evolution of Mennonite song in the Congo as it moved from singing American and European hymns, to infusing those hymns with African rhythm and tonality, to composing original works.

Jean Janzen will likely be the writer most familiar to regular readers of this journal. She is one of a handful of writers (of any faith tradition) who successfully and effectively writes in both hymnic and “art” poetry genres. Janzen began translating the works of medieval mystics as hymns in the 1980s. Those works have been published across a spectrum of denominations since their initial inclusion in Hymnal: A Worship Book in 1992. Janzen and composer Larry Warkentin describe the process of creating a new hymn for that hymnal in “The Birth of a Hymn.” In addition, they present a newly-written piece, “Creator God, Your Word Brought Forth.”

James E. Clemens is a widely-published composer of hymn tunes. In an interview he discusses his composition process, providing insight into the musical side of hymnody. While text writers introduce Mennonite theology to the wider church, composers like Clemens provide a “sound sample” of Anabaptism. Though this contribution is harder to describe, it is a substantial gift. One of his hymns accompanies the interview.

My hymn “The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound” loosely paraphrases Menno Simons, and so it seems fitting for this issue. It is now sung by Baptists, Catholics, and Presbyterians (among others).

The final entry is a bibliography of hymns and tunes by Mennonites included in non-Mennonite hymnals. This list could serve as a catalyst for further research. If any errors or omissions are found I welcome corrections. I excluded soft-bound hymnal supplements in an attempt to keep the list to a reasonable size, but I was still amazed at the scope. Mennonites are no longer merely consumers of hymns, but also producers—and the wider church is reaping the benefits.


[1] Laurance Wieder, ed., The Poets’ Book of Psalms as Rendered by Twenty-Five Poets from the Fifteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, Oxford University Press: New York, 1995, introduction xv.

About the Author

Adam M. L. Tice

Adam M. L. Tice is a widely-published hymn writer. He was associate pastor of Hyattsville (Md.) Mennonite Church from 2007 to 2012. He is a graduate of Goshen College and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He now resides with his family in Goshen where he is a freelance writer and stay-at-home father. For more information visit adammltice.com.