10/12/2011 - Judson College Students Enjoy Traditional Hymn Singing
By Michael J. Brooks
It began as a last-minute substitute, but it has grown into one of the most popular events on the Judson College campus. Judson’s director of library services, Dr. George T. Washburn, remembers when a member of the college’s chapel committee called to say that several of the students responsible for the upcoming student-led chapel had a field trip to make, and asked if Washburn and his wife Leah could provide a musical program instead.
“We agreed and decided to do the traditional Sunday night hymn sing common in many of our churches,” Washburn said. “It was so well-received that the one we did on Oct. 11 was the eighth annual event.”
Chapel committee members said that the hymn sing is among the two or three most popular events when they survey students about who they’d like to have in chapel.
Among the hymns students requested were “The Old Rugged Cross,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer," "How Great Thou Art" and "In the Garden."
Sarah Smith, a junior from Ashland, said the hymn sing is a time to bond with her Judson sisters. “We all participate and we sing together,” she said. “It’s like a family. In fact, it reminds me of family because I sang the old hymns with my grandmothers.”
Sophomore Rebecca O'Neal of Chatom echoed the "grandparent" connection. "My grandfather loved the old hymns," she said. "I was raised on them and miss them. I think churches ought to use them more."
Washburn said he’s surprised that, in an age when many churches have moved to contemporary music and choruses, students love to sing the old hymns. “Many of the modern praise choruses simply repeat a phrase over and over and may not teach us much about God or ourselves," he said. "There’s so much good music the church has in her history, and we shouldn’t neglect it.”
Washburn, who earned a degree in church history at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said that one value of the old hymns is that they shaped the theology of Christians over the years. “The old hymns sometimes are wrong on theology, but most often, they’re quite good,” he said.
Washburn serves the Hopewell Baptist Church in Marion as a bi-vocational music minister, but doesn’t claim to be a musician by training. "I grew up learning and loving hymns," he said. “My wife is the musician in our family. I just follow her lead on the piano.”
Leah Washburn, who serves as Hopewell’s pianist, grew up in Selma and began piano lessons at age 8 with the late piano teacher Ruth Hicks Boutwell. “Ruth’s students always came to Judson in February for piano festivals and judging,” Leah Washburn said, “so my first experience playing at the college was as a child. I majored in music one semester at [the University of] Montevallo, but really didn’t want to learn to play the organ as they required, so I changed my major to home economics.”
Leah Washburn now works as office manager in Judson’s admissions department. She also accompanies the college’s “Faith” ensemble and frequently plays and sings in weekly chapel.
George Washburn is a proponent of using all types of music in worship, suggesting that the popular Christmas hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is actually a Gregorian chant.
Washburn said he also enjoys sharing the background stories of how some hymns came to be written, like “Amazing Grace.” "Sometimes it's the tune, sometimes it's the text, and sometimes it's the story that is most gripping," he said. “The story of John Newton, the slave trader, who came to Christ, makes his hymn, ‘Amazing Grace,’ so loved.”
“Music done well honors God and touches people’s lives,” Washburn said.