I wish I could have witnessed the
meeting in about 1801 which led to the development of two brand-new
American Mennonite hymnals. Two Franconia brethren met with several
Lancaster leaders in Martin Mellinger's home east of Lancaster
city. Martin Mellinger favored one universal hymnal, but since
the Franconia people had already collected more than enough for
one hymnal, it was decided that each group would publish its
I share Mellinger's concern that there should have been only
one hymnal. I would have tried to convince the group to go for
a larger, common hymnal using thinner paper. A common hymnal
would have helped build community between the Franconia and Lancaster
groups. Hymn singing was very common when visitors came from
the various settlements as is still done today by the Old Order
Even so, the Lancaster hymnal entitled Unparteyisches Gesangbuch
has enjoyed a longer useful life span than any other American
Mennonite hymnal-- nearly two centuries. It has gone through
40 editions, but is presently out of print.
There is more information extant of the early developments of
these hymnals than one would suppose. The Mennonite Encyclopedia,
(Vol 2, p. 879) gave me the first clue of the developments of
these first hymnals.
I also had the opportunity to study the original sources, including
the Martin Mellinger letters still extant in the Peter Weber
Collection in Weierhof, Germany. The correspondence of printer
Billmeyer of Germantown also sheds light on the early formation.
These letters show that the Franconia hymnal, Die Kleine Geistliche
Harfe, an edition of 4000 copies, came on the market in September
of 1803. One month later, on October 7, 1803, Martin Mellinger
pleaded with his own Lancaster Conference that they should be
satisfied with the Franconia hymnal, so that when distant communities
come together to sing the people can all sing the same songs.
But a letter from western Pennsylvania was read that day before
the conference, saying, "We are all young people with little
experience in music and we need at least one tune with music
given that can be sung on every hymn in the book. Therefore we
can not accept the Franconia hymnal (which has music for Psalms
only)." This reading swayed the conference, so the Lancaster
churches proceeded in publishing their own hymnal in 1804.
-- Amos Hoover farms and owns the Muddy Creek Farm Library.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, January, 1996