Our family loves to learn hymns together. We are consciously trying to shape our children’s musical world to emphasize the good and the beautiful in music, and learning good hymnody is part of that endeavor.
One tool that we’ve found to be helpful in our children’s hymnological education is a series of books by Douglas Bond. He has authored a set of four volumes chronicling the adventures of a sister (Annie) and brother (Drew), and their elderly friend “Mr. Pipes,” a church organist whom they meet while abroad with their mother in the English village of Olney. This is the village where John Newton and William Cowper once lived and co-authored Olney Hymns, and Mr. Pipes plays the organ at the church in which they once served. The “Christianity” which Drew and Annie have experienced in their American context is that of the garden-variety, watered-down sort, but through their association and growing friendship with Mr. Pipes, they learn more about the true Christian faith, particularly as expressed through the great hymns of the church. In most chapters, as the storyline unfolds, a particular hymnwriter or group of hymnwriters are introduced to the children, along with one of their hymns. Helpfully, the score and text of the highlighted hymn is usually given at the end of the chapter. Not only does Mr. Pipes teach Annie and Drew hymns, but also segues into church history, Christian theology, and conservative music philosophy thereby.
As to theology, Douglas Bond is a Presbyterian, and his Calvinism is clear in Mr. Pipes’ teaching; the children learn of limited atonement, for instance, in the following exchange. Please don’t think the books are all about making Calvinists; that’s not Bond’s point. But we all approach the teaching of theology from a particular perspective, and Bond’s perspective is that of a five-point Calvinist:
Annie said: “What did Mr. [Timothy] Dwight mean [in “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord”] with the phrase ‘The church our blest Redeemer saved with His own precious blood?’ That seems to leave a lot of people out; what about the rest of the world; wasn’t Jesus’ blood for them, too?”
For a moment, Mr. Pipes stared at her over his glasses and through his bushy brows. After running his fingers through his snowy hair, he replied, “My dear, God from from all eternity set His church apart from the world to be the ‘apple of His eye.’ That is to say, He chose us by His matchless grace then redeemed us as His special favorites. I am sure that you and Drew understand what it is to be someone’s special favorite, do you not, my dear?” he concluded, with a smile. . . .
Mr. Pipes continued: “Samuel Davies expressed the same truth when he wrote [in “Great God of Wonders”], ‘Pardon bestowed through Jesus’ blood!’ The unbelieving world does not desire nor is marked out for pardon through Jesus’ blood. But His church is pardoned, and you and I are the objects of this distinguishing love, my dears. This is grace unbought and undeserved, ‘grace so rich and free,’ for a vast multitude who have been called out of the world.”
(Mr. Pipes Comes to America, p. 68)
And here is an example of his teaching about music:
“But lots of people who sing praise choruses,” said Annie, “really do love Jesus—the songs are all about a close relationship with Jesus—most of them.”
“I don’t entirely doubt that, Annie,” said Mr. Pipes. “But, alas, the praise choruses of the postmodern church often feature a vague sort of relationship—a familiarity based on rather elastic sorts of notions about God—ones that can be stretched and pulled to fit in with popular ideas. Hold a great hymn of Ray Palmer, for example, up next to a praise chorus and you will observe several important differences.
“Like what?” asked Annie.
“The timeless hymns of the church are full of the reasons for our sung devotion to God. Praise choruses contain less and less doctrine so the praise springs not from clearly stated truths about God, His person and works, but from an ill-defined feeling of love and adoration. And the one doing the singing is much more the focus of consideration in most praise choruses than God, the stated object of the praise.”
“What do you mean” asked Annie.
“Well, typical first lines of postmodern praise singing illustrate my point best: “I bless You,” “I only want to love You,” and “I just want to praise You.” What we are doing and hoping to get out of this kind of singing seems much more important than the more difficult work of extolling the attributes and works of our Lord in a more Psalm-like manner.”
“But lots of the praise choruses are straight from Scripture,” said Annie, “even from the Psalms. How can there be anything wrong with those?”
“One must look at the bigger picture of what is happening in the church. The Psalms have been sung for thousands of years, but there is an important and disturbing difference between the Psalm singing of historic Christianity and today’s singing of portions of the Psalms.”
“How is it different?” asked Drew.
“Christian musicians today edit out the more complex doctrinal portions of Psalms and merely leave the praising bit in—now with fewer, if any, reasons stated for that praise. The simplest parts of Psalms are sung today—usually sung over and over again creating a warm but often only vague feeling of adoration.”
“So is feeling . . . bad in worship?” asked Annie.
“By no means,” replied Mr. Pipes. “The Psalms and the hymns of the church are full of deep emotion and heart-felt praise. But that spiritual feeling always follows objective doctrinal truth adorned in the poetry. The church today has an insatiable appetite for the religious feelings hoped for in worship but virtually no appetite for the theological content that must come first and inform the experience of God’s presence in our worship.”
“It’s sort of like you can’t get there from here,” said Drew. “You can’t have real feelings without the reasons for the feelings, right?”
“Precisely,” said Mr. Pipes.
(Mr. Pipes Comes to America, p. 183-84)
Now, these brief excerpts might very well make you think that the books consist of nothing but dry Calvinistic conversations about hymns. Such is certainly not the case. Bond does spend a good deal of time on the hymns—such is, after all, the purpose of the books—but there is a plot that will engage your children as the book progresses, and the teaching fits as naturally as possible into the story, a Deuteronomy 6:7 sort of teaching.
The series is endorsed by, among many others, Dr. Paul Jones and David Wells. I quote here a good summary of the series by a reviewer, George Grant:
Just what kind of books are the Mr. Pipes stories? Are they lessons in church history? Are they guides to family devotions? Are they unit studies in hymnody and classic ecclesiastical music? Are they basic theological primers? The answer is yes, they are all these. But what is more, they are also delightful tales with memorable characters and intriguing plot twists. In other words, these are the kind of books every family is going to want to have and read and reread again and again.
I concur. Our family thoroughly reading enjoyed the entire series together, and I have no doubt that when a few years have passed since the first reading, we’ll read them again.
You can pick up the entire set for about $40 new, or get them volume by volume cheaper at Amazon.
The first volume, Mr. Pipes and the British Hymn Makers, introduces the main characters. The story takes place in Britain, where Annie and Drew (and the reader) are introduced not only to Mr. Pipes, but to historic British hymnists: Thomas Ken, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, William Williams, John Newton, William Cowper, Augustus Toplady, and Thomas Kelly, among others. Hymns highlighted include the following:
“All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night” (Ken)
“Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” (Watts)
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (Watts)
“Jesus Shall Reign” (Watts)
“O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (Wesley)
“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” (Wesley)
“And Can It Be that I Should Gain” (Wesley)
“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” (Williams)
“Amazing Grace” (Newton)
“Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” (Newton)
“Sometimes a Light Surprises” (Cowper)
“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (Cowper)
“Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” (Toplady)
“Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” (Kelly)
“Stand Up and Bless the Lord” (James Montgomery)
“I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” (Horatius Bonar)
“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (Henry Lyte)
“Abide with Me: Fast Falls the Eventide” (Henry Lyte)
“Holy! Holy! Holy!” (Reginald Heber)
“The Son of God Goes Forth to War (Reginald Heber)
“The Church’s One Foundation” (Samuel Stone)
“Father, I Know that All My Life” (Anna Waring)
“All Things Bright and Beautiful” (Cecil Alexander)
“Take My Life, and Let It Be Consecrated” (Francis Havergal)
In the second volume, Mr. Pipes and Psalms and Hymns of the Reformation, the trio tour Europe and learn about Reformation hymnists, including Martin Luther, Philipp Nicolai, Johann Michael Altenburg, Johann Heermann, Paul Gerhardt, Johann Franck, Joachim Neander, Martin Rinkart, Johann Schütz, and John Calvin. Highlighted hymns include the following:
“He Who Would Valiant Be” (Bunyan)
“All Praise to Thee, Eternal Lord” (Luther)
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Luther)
“O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” (Gerhardt)
“How Lovely Shines the Morning Star” (Nicolai)
“O God, My Faithful God” (Heermann)
“Jesus, Priceless Treasure” (Franck)
“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (Neander)
“Now Thank We All Our God” (Rinkart)
The third volume, Mr. Pipes Comes to America, finds Mr. Pipes crossing the Pond to visit Annie and Drew. They meet in Boston, and discuss American hymnwriters as they visit historic sites. Highlighted hymns include the following:
“Great God of Wonders” (Samuel Davies)
“I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord” (Timothy Dwight)
“Lord, with Glowing Heart I’d Praise Thee” (Francis Scott Key)
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” (Phillips Brooks)
“What Wondrous Love Is This”
“My Faith Looks Up to Thee” (Ray Palmer)
“The Law of God Is Good and Wise” (Matthias Loy)
“It Is Well with My Soul” (Horatio Spafford)
The fourth volume, The Accidental Voyage: Discovering Hymns of the Early Centuries, begins in Rome and progresses elsewhere as Mr. Pipes teaches Annie and Drew about the ancient hymns of the church. Highlighted hymns include the following:
“Shepherd of Tender Youth” (Clement of Alexandria)
“Hail, Gladdening Light”
“O Light that Knew No Dawn” (Gregory of Nazianzen)
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (Prudentius)
“O Trinity, Most Blessed Light” (Ambrose of Milan)
“Te Deum” (Niceta)
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”
“Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation”
“Christian, Dost Thou See Them?” (St. Andrew of Crete)
“All Glory, Laud, and Honor” (Theodolph of Orleans)
“Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts” (Bernard of Clairvaux)
“Jerusalem the Golden” (Bernard of Cluny)
“All Creatures of Our God and King” (St. Francis of Assisi)
“Fierce Was the Wild Billow” (Anatolius)
“St. Patrick’s Breastplate”
“Be Thou My Vision”
“A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” (Venerable Bede)