Review: Book explores nation's favorite hymns

Monday, May 12, 2003

From Amazing Grace" to "What a Friend We Have In Jesus," author Ace Collins examines the history, and impact, of 25 hymns, on American culture.

A follow-up to his book, "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas," many of the songs in this latest collection are familiar. A few are less well-known, such as the official hymn of the U.S. Navy, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save." The latter is also one of a handful written and composed outside the United States.

Here, fans of country music will find the story of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," which only made the number 7 spot on the Billboard charts when it was released in 1984, but went on to become the campaign theme songs for both Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush. In 2001 it became the most widely-embraced song by Americans since "God Bless America" in the World War II era.

The odd history of "Taps," adopted by both Confederate and Union troops during the Civil War, is also explored.

In more recent years, the story of "The Statue of Liberty" was inspired by a Midwesterner seeing the statue for the first time, and crafted a song celebrating his citizenship in both the United States and the kingdom of God.

Christianity often goes hand-in-hand with patriotism, at least in the United States, but other songs explored are ecumenical and without politics. Take "Just As I Am," the Billy Graham revival icon that was written by an English woman struck down at age 30 by an unknown disease. Thirteen years later she became a Christian, and her negative attitude reversed. Twelve years later she wrote the song, based on the suggestion of a visiting Swiss evangelist 25 years before.

Children's music is also represented by "Jesus Loves Me," and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." Interestingly, "Onward Christian Soldiers" was written with children in mind, but became a hymn for all generations.

The Black Christian experience is represented with "Roll, Jordan, Roll," which developed from picturing freedom across the Ohio River during the days of American slavery. The song was almost lost, had it not been for the preservation efforts of the Work family of Nashville, Tenn.

Collins deserves praise for a well-rounded collection in "Stories Behind the Hymns," Would that he would extend his research to many more.

Stories Behind the Hymns That Inspire America; Ace Collins; hard-bound; 208 pages with index; Zondervan Publishing; $14.99.

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