Just a Hint of Hymnody

Just as we only see the kingdom of God’s heaven through a glass darkly, so we only see a small portion of the vast creativity in hymn writing, both of women and men.  If you attend a particular denomination regularly, and if you go to the trouble of looking through the authors of hymns in the hymnal index (if you do the latter, you are quite unusual, maybe certifiably odd), you will find writers not found anywhere else.  This was brought into bright focus to me when a friend gave me an old Mennonite hymnbook.  Yes, people have occasionally given me their old hymnbooks, I pick them up at garage sales, and pore through them in libraries.  Anyway, this hymnbook, Church Hymnal published in 1953 by the Mennonite Publishing House, had the unique quality of giving information about the various lyricists’ and composers’ nationalities and denominational affiliations.  What a boon!  There I found several Mennonite hymnists whom I never encountered before.  One hymn in particular, “God Is Good”, lyrics by Elsie Byler and tune by Sylvia Bontrager of Goshen Indiana, was written in 1911.  It is a lovely hymn published in shape notes, a common occurrence for that era.  Both hymnists have good Mennonite names, and there are several people in that tradition with those names.  Precious little can be found about them, though.  I found nothing on Bontrager, but for Byler, I learned she wrote other hymns, including “Children’s Prayer” published in Life Songs in 1916 by the Mennonite Publishing House. The tune was by Walter Yoder, her cousin.    She married Samuel Burkhard in 1913 and in 1920, they were living in Putnam County Ohio.  She taught school for an unknown length of time.  Apparently she died in 1958 in Tempe Arizona.  That’s about it.  They pass into obscurity except perhaps, in the memory of family members.

I found the same pattern with other denominational hymnals.  I first became most familiar with the hymnals currently used by the Disciples of Christ, simply because that’s where I attend church and have easy access to their hymnals.  Sure enough, there are wonderful hymns contained therein that are not found elsewhere.  The same thing was true when I perused the indices of the Presbyterian, the Baptist and Methodist hymnals.  What other gems are out there that we don’t know?  And I was only looking for the women.  If the men were added to the mix, the trove becomes even greater.  Several women featured in my blog have been among those found only in one place.  I will no doubt feature more in the future.  Maybe someday one or more of these women-written hymns will become a favorite of many others.

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