Sounding Childhood

SOUNDING CHILDHOOD: Part 1 Children’s Hymns

British Nineteenth-Century Children's Hymns

In today’s society, hymns, when they are still sung at all, are primarily sung in church, or church-related activities (camps, etc.), and they are usually sung as the entire congregation, of all ages.  Popular music dominates what children sing on their own, even what might be sung in schools and at home.  In the nineteenth century, in both England and America, folk songs and popular music existed but what children—of all classes—would sing on a daily basis were hymns: they sang them at home, they sang them at the church-sponsored schools, they sang them at the public (boarding) schools, later they sang them at the national schools.      Yet this culture of children’s hymn-singing has not been studied thoroughly.  My study stems both from my personal love of hymn-singing, as a youth and now as an adult, and from my two areas of scholarship—Victorian aesthetics and children’s literature—as they converged into a study of Victorian children’s hymnody.  It focuses primarily on the situation in England and spans the entire nineteenth century.  It is based on three research trips to England, as I delved into archives and libraries for extant hymn books for children of the era, and amassed an incredibly large bibliography of over 200 hymn books.  Placing their indices into an Excel database, I began to determine the most commonly appearing hymns in these hymn books.

From this research of nine years, I consider children’s hymns from many different disciplinary angles, from children’s literature to 19th century hymnody.  The results are a book published by Ashgate Publishers (now Routledge) 2016: British Hymn Books for Children, 1800-1900: Re-Tuning the History of Childhood, with the following chapters:

  1. Creating Communities of Song: Class and Gender in Children’s Hymn-Singing Experiences;
  2. Re-Writing the History of Children’s Literature: Three Periods of Children’s Hymnody;
  3. Erasing Child-Adult Distinctions: “Crossover” Children’s Hymn-Texts and Tunes;
  4. Staging the Child: Agency and Stasis for Children in Art and Hymn-Book Illustrations;
  5. Reforming Society:  Missionary, Bands of Hope, and Bands of Mercy Hymns; and
  6. Resurrecting the Child: The Cult of the Deathbed, Hymns of Faith, and Children of Life.

In my analysis of these various hymn venues I make the following claims:

  1. Hymns challenge and empower children, placing deep theology and rich poetry within the grasp of children.
  2. The music is just as powerful, and perhaps even more inspirational at times, as the text, making hymns for adults with engaging tunes very popular in children’s hymn books.
  3. Victorians offered hymns to children as a way that those children could impact the world around them, in missionary work, temperance work, and even animal welfare (temperance leagues for children were called Bands of Hope and animal-welfare organizations were called Bands of Mercy).

I invite you to purchase the book at http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409454304.

My daughter, Annetta Itnyre, grew up during the writing of this book, accompanying my husband and me to England all three times and learning quite a few of these hymns.  Then, in June 2015, with immense help from my colleague Dr. Jessica Raposo, director of music at Indiana University East, I auditioned for and created a “Hymn Camp” of 18 children grades 4th through 8th, boys and girls, to learn some of these hymns.  For a week, we taught them about 17 hymns which we then recorded.  It was inspiring to see children of today become as excited about hymns as I imagine many nineteenth-century children becoming!  

Please use the drop-down INDEX in the top left corner to find the following: a CHART of the “top 30” children’s hymns of the era, with date of composition and most commonly used tune name which link you to my analyses of each of these hymns, though much more is said in a larger context in the book whose relevant chapter(s) is given.  Then, thanks to these children from the Hymn Camp, my daughter, and two of her friends, you can click links to audio versions of these hymns as sung by children.  You can also view the score of the hymn as taken from nineteenth-century children’s hymn books that I own.  Separate pages also give all the SCORES and all the RECORDINGS, then all are given on a chronological TIMELINE.  Finally, you will note a credits page which lists all these many talented children as well as the adults who helped. Immense credit must be given to Dr. Gregory D. Weber who, as computer instructor at IU East, spent his summer 2015 creating the initial website.  Then internationally-recognized music-literature scholar, Dr. Phyllis Weliver, asked me to join the Sounding Victorian project, and Mr. Donal Hegarty, of the Digital Project at St. Louis University, came on board to bring it to life on the project website.  It is thanks to them and the children that I may share the joy of children’s hymn-singing with the world.  Enjoy!

     Dr. Alisa Clapp-Itnyre
     Professor of English,
     Indiana University East

This page references: