Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Great Hymns Remain Forever

One of the benefits of growing up in a Baptist church is that you learn hymns, lots of hymns. When I was nine, I even won a Baptist Hymnal with my name engraved on it in gold letters, because I sang all three to five verses of fifty hymns. The memorization process was effortless because I already knew all the songs. No work required.

Modern church music is nothing like the old hymns. The new songs are catchy and simplistic, fun to sing and often melodious. But those old hymns combined both doctrine and melody, and once you’ve sung them for a few years, they are cemented in your heart and mind forever, along with the great thoughts they contain.

When I was shanghaied into taking piano lessons as a child, hymns were the only thing I would play, because I could understand them. As an extremely non-musical person, I had to know how it was supposed to sound before I could try and get there. I knew how the hymns were supposed to sound, and that was half the battle.

In fact, the old hymns are so much a part of so many lives, researchers are discovering that people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may remember and sing the hymns when almost all else is gone, perhaps because music activates a different area of the brain.

In 1996, a local pastor named Shelton Simmons, who wrote a weekly column for his local newspaper, addressed this very subject and reported on the results of his personal research. In an article from The Hometown Press, “The Church’s Great Hymns Will Never Leave You . . .” he wrote:

“There is bliss in knowing that no matter what the future brings, there are vast, stored up resources within to remind us of God’s immeasurable love and grace.

“Even if the Bible itself should be forever taken from you, perhaps due to loss of sight, or partial loss of mind, what you already know about God’s love can never be lost.

“I sat alone in the sick room of my mother who died the death of ‘The Long Goodbye,’ Alzheimer’s disease. There in a Baton Rouge nursing home near the end, I asked her if it would be OK to read a few verses from the Bible. She responded slightly.

“To my amazement as I started reading the familiar Beatitudes from Matthew 5, that old faithful Sunday School teacher of yesteryear started quoting them from memory!

“Then I asked if I could sing. She responded by sitting up a little, and joining me in, ‘On a hill far away, Stood an old rugged cross . . .’ Then I believe we sang together ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus.’

“Blessed Bible. Blessed hymnbook. Blessed Lord. Blessed Mother. We shall meet again.”

We have heard more than one report of similar events in cases of Alzheimer’s disease. The sick person may not know how to dress or recognize family members, but he or she can sing those old hymns.

Now, I intend to recall all the verses of all those fifty hymns I knew when I was nine years old and re-cement them in my heart and mind, just in case, because "what you already know of God's love can never be lost," especially if the knowledge is preserved in music.


Molly Noble Bull said...

Wonderful article, Katy. I remember that my dad sang a song not long before he died in a nursing home.

Andrea said...

I love the old hymns!
Great post!

Cecelia Dowdy said...

Touching article, Katy. One of my favorite hymns is Amazing Grace. Just singing it brings tears to my eyes.

Jan Cline said...

The words and music of some of those wonderful songs are a great legacy. The story behind a lot of them is also very interesting.

Kim said...

This is a beatiful post. It touched my heart. In fact, it brought an elderly saint to mind. A dear,sweet servant, Sister Tyler had a massive stroke that affected her expressive language. All she could say when she tried to speak was,"okay."But the truly amazing thing about her story is the fact that she could still sing old hymns. Although she never recovered her "functional language," she never stopped praising the LORD all the while I knew her.

To answer your question, I would have to say my favorite hymn is Precious Lord, Take My Hand.

Susan M. Baganz said...

I have sung, from memory, so many contemporary songs - yet in the middle of the night with a new baby 10 years ago - all that would come to my mind was "Great is Thy Faithfulness." I also love "Be Thou My Vision" and "All the Way my Savior Leads me" although the last song I only first heard done by RIch Mullins. Such deep theology and truth in those songs - I'm gratful that in my church there is room for both!

Lillie Ammann said...


My sister and I have been talking about music and Alzheimer's. I just finished editing her guide for Alzheimer's caregivers, and one of the tips she gave is to encourage patients to sing, especially hymns. She also includes examples of various situations based on real people, and one of the stories is about a priest who couldn't recognize family and couldn't communicate at all. However, he still knew the entire Communion service word for word. Hymns, Scripture, and worship often remain long after memory and cognition are completely gone in other areas.

Lillie Ammann
A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye

Tea said...

I knew an older lady. She had Alzheimers. She sang hymns constantly during her day. She seemed to know all the words. She was a great inspiration.

Anonymous said...

I come from a Lutheran background and we, too, sang every verse of the old hymns. I love them and use them often in personal worship. It's encouraging to know that when my mind starts to slip, I'll still be able to praise my Lord!
Good post!

robert said...

Greetings from Wordwise Hymns. I appreciate your able defense of our traditional hymnody. I've seen little to approach it in the contemporary songs, when it comes to clarity of doctrine and depth of devotion. If we are to "teach and admonish one another," we need our hymns.

And your absolutely right about those with dementia remembering the hymns of their youth. I've conducted many services in nursing homes over the years, and heard those seniors no longer able to carry on a conversation singing along!

Ronald said...

You might find the article I published a few years ago about how my father continued to be able to sing favorite hymns for about five years after Alzheimer's took away his ability to communicate. See