| Historical Committee
I Wish I Had Been There: The
1803 Hymnal Meeting
by Glenn Lehman
the fictitious Henner Martin (1769-1843)
I wish I had gone to the Skippack and Lancaster hymnal meeting in 1803.
Being one of the foresingers at Weaverland, I might have had something
to say. I could easily have spared a day before spring planting. I
could have traveled the Old (Philadelphia) Road much of the way. It is
well graded, laid out in 1733 and improved several times since. Or I
could have walked west a few miles and met Oberholtzer and Gehman en
route to Deacon Martin Mellinger’s house. Why didn’t those smart
preachers choose a central place like the new 1794 Bowmansville
meetinghouse? I know—we need a roaring fireplace in March and beds
communities around Cumberland
and even Fort Pitt. Those more
distant people emphatically wanted notes in the book. In a last-ditch
effort to avoid publishing a second hymnal, Martin Mellinger brought
several copies of Zion’s Harp to the spring conference. But it was not
at all what Lancaster people had in mind. So they took their songs to
Johann Albrecht in Lancaster and printed their own book in 1804,
calling it Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch. In four years it sold out its
first printing of 4,000.
|This meeting of the two men from Skippack and two leading
Lancaster along with Deacon Mellinger was the first time I heard of
Mennonites publishing a hymnal—since the Ausbund. We two groups enjoy
close fellowship. At Weaverland we often welcome them. When they preach
we hear some good German and a fresh look at our faith.
If I had gone to the meeting I would have asked the Skippack men why
they included so few hymns from the Ausbund. I would have supported our
Gesgangbuch’s inclusion of thirty-plus hymns from our old Ausbund. I
might have asked why they used such a small typeface and no music
except for the Psalter at the beginning. I would have asked them which
hymnals their people bring to church. Here I have seen a wide variety
of Lutheran and Reformed books used before we printed our own.
On the second day of the meeting the visitors told Mellinger they had
no authority to change hymns already agreed upon. I don’t know if I
really care much that the two groups decided to go their separate
publishing ways. After all, the easterners already had 3,000 orders for
their book and had already agreed on 400 hymns. Either way a book will
cost about two day’s labor. I was told that the meeting ended amicably.
The Skippack men went to a Germantown printer and called it Zion’s Harp.
bishops had more diverse voices to consider. They had
I’ve enjoyed the Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch many years now and still
regret I didn’t go to the meeting in 1803.
Martin is a fictitious
character in the Foresingers musical presentation to celebrate the
bicentennial of hymnal publishing in America.
Lehman, has authored three
books, including An Instrument of God’s Grace, a history of Sharing
Programs. He is employed by Harmonies Workshop, a music ministry
located in Leola, Pa. He thanks John Ruth and other researchers whose
work makes this account possible.
"God calls us to preserve our faith heritage, to interpret our stories,
and to proclaim God's work among us."