The American Antiquarian Society has a vast and diverse collection of early North American hymnals, including a large number of volumes from the preeminent collections formed by Bishop Robert W. Peach and Frank J. Metcalf. Beginning with the first book printed on American soil, The Whole Booke of Psalmes, commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book, the collection includes compilations of sacred verses and music printed in North America through 1876 and numbers well over 5,000 volumes. Although the term "hymnal" may convey a nearly static and uninteresting concept to modern ears, the Society's collection of early hymnals proves otherwise.
The earliest hymnals in the collection consist of metrical psalms, the various revisions of which remained popular throughout the eighteenth century. Verses and tunes were often printed separately, but early hymnals are also found with manuscript, printed, or engraved tunes at the end of the work. The separately published tunebooks often include one verse of text, but it is the tune, obviously the more important element, that is labeled. Another noteworthy characteristic of the tune books is the introductory matter, usually a small primer on music, presenting the "art of singing" or the "rules of psalmody." The mid-eighteenth-century hymnals display the new acceptance of original lyrics, incorporating the prolific verses of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. The period tunebooks reflect new styles and a wider variety of tunes. It is the nineteenth-century works, however, that include the greatest number and the greatest diversity of hymns; folk hymns, revival hymns, gospel songs, and spirituals are added to the repertoire of North American sacred music, introducing such intriguing hymnal titles as Seaman's Hymns, Millennial Praises, Hymns for the Ohio Lunatic Asylum, and Revival and Camp Meeting Minstrel. Denominational hymnals in the collection are numerous, but the standard modern-day hymnal of tunes, coupled with many verses of text was not commonly published until the second half of the nineteenth century. The breadth of the collection continues to grow as unique or unusual hymnals are added. Not to be underestimated in importance, the hymnals collection at the Society reveals both obvious and subtle religious, moral, social, and musical trends of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
The pre-1831 hymnals are fully cataloged, and are easily accessible via the Imprints Catalog and online. Two works helpful in identifying and locating pre-1821 tunebooks are Frank J. Metcalf's American Psalmody (New York, 1917) and a checklist of sacred tunebooks located at the Society, both available at the readers' services desk. Nearly all of the post-1820 hymnals are shelved as a separate collection, although a few find their way into the Miniature Books collection by virtue of their size. A detailed checklist of hymnals is available at the readers' services desk. This catalog was begun as an author-title union list of hymnals, and it continues to be annotated and updated with AAS holdings. Included are all of the English-language hymnals found at the Society, followed by a supplement of post-1820 North American-printed foreign language hymnals, principally in German and French. Another bibliographical tool, published by AAS, in 1990, is American Sacred Music Imprints, 1698-1810: A Bibliography, by Allen P. Britton, Irving Lowens, and Richard Crawford. The collection is strongly supported by secondary sources, including John Julian's definitive The Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1907), annotated by Bishop Peach; numerous biographies of hymn writers and composers; The Bibliography of American Hymnals, published in microform and compiled by the Hymn Society of America; early and contemporary periodicals; sound recordings; and many denominational and topical bibliographies.
- Pamela Meizler, former Cataloger, North American Imprints Program