A Lifetime with the Hymnal

by LeRoy W. Nelson

On a sunny spring morning, the rural mail carrier stopped by the mailbox on our farm in western Wisconsin and unloaded three or four bundles wrapped in brown paper and tied up in strong twine. The return label on the packages read, Covenant Book Concern, 1005 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago 13, Illinois.

Inside the bundles were copies of The Covenant Hymnal, which had been ordered for the Lund Mission Covenant Church, where they were to be dedicated for use by the congregation on May 25, 1939. Not yet six years old, I learned very quickly how important this event was, because my mother expressed her happiness and delight that our church would finally have the official Covenant hymnal.

First published in 1931, it replaced a non-descript book called The Greatest Hymns, published by the Tabernacle Publishing Company, which our church had purchased and used since 1927. However, this English hymnal was not the only one in the pew racks. The first official hymnal of the Covenant Church, Sions Basun (Zion’s Trumpet) published in 1908, was still in use in a words-only edition. At that time, our Sunday morning services were still conducted in Swedish three times a month.

The new brown hymnal

The new Covenant hymnal contained 476 hymns, thirty-six of which were translations from Swedish. Eleven new texts were contributed by younger American Covenanters, but the greater part of the collection was made up of standard hymns and gospel songs secured from the Hope Publishing Company. The book in later years was referred to as the “brown hymnal.”

Childhood memories of the hymnal include confusion about the translation of “Silent Night,” where the first verse read, “Silent Night! Holy Night! All is dark, save the light, Yonder, where they sweet vigils keep, O’er the Babe who in silent sleep, Rests in heavenly peace, Rests in heavenly peace.” This was definitely not the more familiar version we learned to sing at our public school Christmas program.

The Lina Sandell hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father,” was titled simply “Security,” and the translation was listed as “composite.” The first verse is probably closer to the original Swedish version, however. “More secure is no one ever, Than the loved ones of the Savior; Not yon star, on high abiding, Nor the bird in home nest hiding.”

My parents purchased a copy of the brown hymnal as a gift to my younger sister, which she still has. I think they did this since she had a birthday in May. That also meant that we had a copy of the hymnal on our living room piano.

Green hymnal dedicated

In June, 1950, the Covenant Annual Meeting was held at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a newly graduated high-school student, it was a privilege for me to attend some sessions. A highlight was the introduction and dedication of The Hymnal. The pew racks held copies of the new green books. My first impression was of how much larger it was than the previous hymnal. No wonder, for it contained nearly 600 hymns, including twenty-two recently translated from Swedish by E. Gustav Johnson, North Park literature professor, along with eighty-two readings from the Scriptures, a rudimentary lectionary for each Sunday of the year, and, most importantly, excellent indexes that were appreciated by church musicians.

My life with the green hymnal took another turn when I began work in the fall of 1950 in the shipping room at Covenant Press as a first-year North Park student. Since storage space at Covenant headquarters, where the bookstore was located,

was limited, it was necessary for the inventory of hymnals to be warehoused at the printer on the South Side of Chicago. Every few months a shipment of 1,000 books would be delivered to the bookstore by truck on a skid. Since there was no way to unload a skid without a forklift, it was necessary to take the books off the truck, load them onto a flat-bed cart and bring them inside and stack them in the storage area. They were packed four books to a bundle, which meant that at each delivery there were 250 packages to handle. Having unloaded many shipments during those years, I am certain that I handled more green hymnals than any other employee.

In By One Spirit, Karl Olsson wrote that The Hymnal “in every respect is a vast improvement over its predecessor. Not only does it have a wider selection of the great hymns of the church; it also provides a rich flora of the hymns of the denominational fathers in excellent English translations.” By the way, the traditional version of “Silent Night,” and the well-known translation of “Children of the Heavenly Father” by Ernest W. Olson appear in the green hymnal.

In 1966, Covenant Press published, Sing With Understanding, by James P. Davies, minister of music for many years at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis. The book is not a collection of hymn stories but a study of hymns and Christian hymnody, based on the major categories of The Hymnal. Besides presenting an excellent introduction to The Hymnal, there are commentaries on more than fifty hymns in the book.

In 1955, I was a second-year student at North Park Seminary, and my parents decided it was time for their church to move from the brown to the green hymnal. So they purchased 100 copies and donated them to the church. I was still employed at Covenant Press, so during one of the school vacations, I loaded the hymnals into my car and delivered them direct to the Lund Mission Covenant Church.

The red hymnal is launched

During the 20th century it was common for denominational publishing houses to issue a new hymnal every twenty to thirty years. In 1967, the Evangelical Covenant Church appointed a hymnal commission resulting in the publication of The Covenant Hymnal in 1973. J. Irving Erickson, in his book, Twice-Born Hymns, a study of Swedish hymn translations published in 1976, wrote the following: “About two-thirds of the titles in the former (1950) hymnal were retained with some minor revisions of certain texts and musical settings. The new material consists of some recent great hymns representing diverse traditions. Six new translations from the Swedish were done by Karl A. Olsson.” In addition there was an extensive selection of Scripture readings, and for the first time several pages of other worship resources.

By this time, I had graduated from North Park Seminary and had been on the management team at Covenant Press for more than ten years. Thus I was responsible for the marketing and sale of the new red hymnal. Being aware that there had been no major pre-publication effort for the 1950 hymnal, I set out to develop a comprehensive sales effort. In the early 1970s interest rates were very high, and there were monthly expenses for typesetting.

Therefore, I set up a pre-publication offer of a one-dollar discount off each hymnal purchased. As another inducement for placing early orders, we offered free shipments on all prepaid orders. As a result, enough money was received in advance to pay typesetting costs without having to borrow funds. In addition, we were able to set aside money in a savings account which earned considerable interest to pay for printing. All this made it possible to order a print quantity large enough for our needs resulting in a lower per copy cost. I consider the promotion of the 1973 Covenant Hymnal one of my major achievements in twenty-three years of Covenant Press ministry. The dedication service for the new red hymnal was held at the Covenant Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut in June, 1973.

Speaking of free shipping on hymnal orders, one of the churches in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, phoned to place an order for a quantity. One of their members who owned a trucking company, was bringing a load of Christmas trees to Chicago, and he was willing to pick up the hymnal order. The problem was that it would be during the evening. I told him that was fine. However, due to several delays it was after midnight when the truck arrived, so I got out of bed and met him at the Covenant Press loading dock and helped him get the order on its way.

J. Irving Erickson devoted many years to the study and preservation of our Swedish musical heritage. In 1985, twelve years after the publication of The Covenant Hymnal, a handbook for it was published entitled Sing It Again. Every text and tune was annotated and described, and an extensive biography of each writer, composer, and arranger was included. The preface stated, “It is hoped that this will be a valuable tool until a new hymnal is needed.”

The new blue hymnal

Indeed, a new hymnal became needed and was produced, known as The Covenant Hymnal, A Worshipbook, with a blue cover, published in 1996. When this hymnal came out, I was able to obtain thirty copies of the now old red hymnal which I packed up and sent to a man I had corresponded with for more than twenty years in the Tamil region of Southeast India. He was a headmaster at a Christian school, and I had mailed him many books and other devotional literature over the years. He wrote and asked for a songbook that he could use with other Christian teachers at retreats. On his letters he always wrote: “How Great Thou Art” at the top. I was happy for him to have the red hymnal with the original title and words, “O Mighty God, When I Behold the Wonder,” by Carl Boberg, and translated by E. Gustav Johnson. After all the years of letter writing, I finally spoke with him by phone in February, 2018, when he was visiting his son in California.

My life with Covenant hymnals—How Great Thou Art!

LeRoy Nelson graduated from North Park Junior College, the University of Minnesota and North Park Theological Seminary. He spent 23 years as manager of Covenant Press and 23 years as a sales representative for Augsburg Fortress and Eerdmans publishers. He now resides at Covenant Village of Northbrook with his wife, Eloise.