Austin McCabe Juhnke
In 2015, Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” recorded a show on the campus of Goshen College in Indiana. As he often does, Keillor began the show with an introduction to the local area, describing the Mennonites who live there as “one of the most persecuted people in history.” According to Keillor, these Mennonites developed a tradition of hymn singing “to keep up their spirits in the midst of all of this horrible cruelty and violence.” As if to prove his point, following this introduction, Keillor had the Goshen College choir lead the audience in singing “606,” a unique setting of Thomas Ken’s doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow”) which many Mennonites know colloquially by its number in the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal. After recording the show, Keillor marveled at how his “Mennonite” audience “sang like angels. You just hummed a note and gave them the downbeat, and they sang in perfect four-part harmony.” Even though Keillor framed this performance of 606 as an expression of Mennonite-Anabaptist historical persecution, Mennonites have only been singing this hymn widely since its appearance in the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal. Since 1969, however, it has become commonplace for Mennonites to sing 606 not only in worship, but also as a celebration of Mennonite community in public places. The song has even sometimes been called “the Mennonite national anthem.” Though this nickname is used with somewhat jocular tone, it is perhaps more fitting than it appears, and it is worth considering the ways nationalist thinking has shaped Mennonite identity and musical practices.
Nationalists of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought of nations as naturally occurring, discrete groups of people. Within these groups one would expect to find essential similarities and between the groups one would find essential differences. Points of national comparison ranged from cultural practices to physical features to emotional temperaments. Today it is generally agreed that nations are constructed, rather than natural entities. Nevertheless this enticing idea has made for strong political solidarities that have been used both to resist and reinforce systems of oppression over the last centuries. Thus, at best, nationalism is used as a strategic simplification of the complexity of human social relationships. At worst, however, this ideology fuels a drive to maintain the “purity” of a supposedly natural identity.
One important way of legitimating national identities is history. If a group of people saw themselves in the same historical narrative, it helped create the sense of belonging to a national “we” that united people across space and time. “Praise God from whom” (606) was added to The Mennonite Hymnal during a period in which American Mennonites were more consciously looking to history to make sense of themselves in the modern world. Between the First and Second World Wars, Mennonites formalized a belief in nonviolent pacifism, identifying their tradition with the phrase “historic peace church.” In 1943 Harold Bender, founder of the Mennonite Historical Society and professor of history at Goshen College, penned his influential essay “The Anabaptist Vision.” In it he connects present-day Mennonites to an “authentic” Anabaptist lineage.
[W]e know enough today to draw a clear line of demarcation between original evangelical and constructive Anabaptism on the one hand, which was born in the bosom of Zwinglianism in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525, and established in the Low Countries in 1533, and the various mystical, spiritualistic, revolutionary, or even antinomian related and unrelated groups on the other hand. . . The former, Anabaptism proper, maintained an unbroken course in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Holland throughout the sixteenth century, and has continued until the present day in the Mennonite movement[.]
In assuming that there is a definable “Anabaptism proper” and that it has an unbroken lineage to the present, Bender—consciously or not—was taking cues from nationalist models of identity. Later historians disputed the idea that it is possible to determine a single origin point for Anabaptism, but Bender’s “Vision” of a historical Anabaptist-Mennonite essence became an influential articulation of Mennonite identity in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.
In this context, Mennonite hymnals became a powerful way of mediating ideas about Mennonite history, tradition, and identity. During the 1950s the (Old) Mennonite Church’s Music and Worship committee began to consider revising their 1927 Church Hymnal. There was a sense among many on the committee that the quality of Mennonite singing had been slipping. In 1959 committee member Chester K. Lehman gave a talk called “Congregational Singing – Our Losses and Gains” in which he criticized recent Mennonite hymnbooks for their heavy reliance on the “popular and emotional gospel songs,” which he viewed as a “retrogression” in Mennonite tastes. In 1960, another committee member and Goshen College music professor Walter E. Yoder spoke at a Music and Worship conference at Goshen. In his talk, “Raising Our Sights in Our Church Music” he bemoaned the loss of hymns from before Mennonites began speaking English and taking on Protestant- and evangelical-like church activities: “The unfortunate thing was, and we still have this problem with us today, that with the change of language and the taking on of many new activities, the church dropped its good german [sic] hymnody and sub[s]tituted for them the weaker texts and lighter tunes of the Gospel Hymns.” The years-long process of compiling and editing the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal formalized a Mennonite musical aesthetic that sought a return to the “solemn, sober, thoughtful and dignified” hymns of an imagined Mennonite past.
606 in the red Mennonite Hymnal (1969). Photograph by the author.
It was in this process of “recovering” the Mennonite musical past that “Praise God from whom” came into Mennonite institutional hymnbooks. The source for number 606 in The Mennonite Hymnal was a nineteenth-century song collection called Harmonia Sacra by Mennonite publisher Joseph Funk. Funk’s instructional songbooks were part of a broader “singing school” movement in the United States that influenced Mennonite and Protestant singing alike. The song had fallen into relative obscurity, before its inclusion in the 1969 Hymnal. By 1979, however, the song was described as “the favorite of Mennonites everywhere” in the Gospel Herald, and by the 1980s it was referred to as the “Mennonite national anthem.”
In The Mennonite Hymnal, 606 was placed in the “Choral Hymns” section because the committee thought it was too difficult for general congregational use. Indeed, there are several musical features that make singing 606 especially difficult. Unlike most hymns, in which the voice parts move more or less in the same rhythm, in 606 the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices jump in and out unpredictably. One example of this is right at the beginning of the hymn. Here the soprano and tenor voices begin singing “Praise God from whom” in duet. Not until a measure later do the alto and bass voices join in, singing a compressed rhythm to catch up to the other voices by the end of the first musical phrase. Complicating the issue further, there are no verses in 606 and thus no “second chances” for learning one’s part. It is not a coincidence that the “Mennonite national anthem” has these difficult elements. In fact, it is precisely because it is difficult for outsiders to join in that the hymn works as a musical identity marker. For those who are able to sing along, 606 is a powerful auditory and embodied experience of Mennonite community, yet this insider experience is predicated on musical stumbling blocks that produce outsiders in the act of performance.
“Project 606” on the banner of the webpage for MennoMedia’s new hymnal project. Screen capture November 7, 2017. (http://hymnalproject606.com)
In the most recent Mennonite hymnal (Hymnal: A Worship Book, 1992), 606 became number 118. Nevertheless, “606” continues to resonate as a favorite hymn and a Mennonite cultural symbol. At the 2011 Mennonite Church USA convention in Pittsburgh, a tally from the delegates put the “Mennonite national anthem” at the top of a list of “heart songs.” More recently, 606—or the idea of 606—has become a fundraising and publicity tool for Mennonite Church USA and Canada’s work on a new hymnal. According MennoMedia, the forthcoming hymnal’s publisher, the project aims to “take into account the breadth of the Mennonite Church [USA and Canada], the diverse ways Mennonites sing and worship, and new digital technologies.” Still, in an effort to raise money for the hymnal ($606,000), the work on the new hymnal was until recently nicknamed “Project 606.” This nickname highlights the tension between the desire to preserve and propagate a practice understood as “traditionally Mennonite” and the hope of making space for diversity within the Mennonite church.
In singing, do Mennonites, as Keillor, imagine connecting to a history of European-Anabaptist persecution? If so, will the church be able to embrace the new songs and joyful noises of a vibrant church community? I do not wish to propose here that Mennonites need a new “national anthem,” or that new musical styles will be inherently better or more inclusive. Nor do I mean to suggest that Mennonites must stop singing “Praise God from whom.” More important for Mennonites—particularly those who trace their heritage to European Anabaptists—is to confront the exclusive, ethnocentric mythologies that often inform the ways hymn singing is valued. In so doing, it would make possible a practice of singing that works not to undergird narrow formulations of Mennonite identity, but rather to reveal resonant experiences of the divine in community that transcend the logics of the world.
Austin McCabe Juhnke is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Ohio State University studying music in the Mennonite Church during the twentieth century.