In 1985, the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) announced plans for a brand-new denominational hymnal.
The process that was set in place demonstrated an unprecedented effort at representation and reflection of the Convention. Wesley Forbis, director of the Sunday School Board music department and editor of the new hymnal, promised that the songbook would illustrate "a unity in evangelistic message and [a] diversity of worship practices that characterize music in Southern Baptist churches." (1) Plans were drawn up, various committees formed, and surveys sent out to churches across the United States to track hymn usage, musical preferences, and thematic concerns. It was promised that this new hymnal would be a beacon of unification among Southern Baptists.
At the same time that the hymnal was announced, the Convention was walking through the most tumultuous controversy of its existence, a rupture so great that as early as 1987 Southern Baptist historian E. Glenn Hinson said (somewhat prophetically) that the only resolution for the denomination was for the two warring factions to "divorce." (2) Dubbed variously "The Controversy," "The Conservative Resurgence," or "The Fundamentalist Takeover," a strategic push by a small group of like-minded leaders touting biblical inerrancy and patriarchal gender roles had grown into a full-fledged campaign to remake the SBC.
As lines were drawn, the issue of women's ordination and the broader question of gender roles in the church and home became one of the primary fields on which the battle was waged. Historian Elizabeth Flowers suggests that, in fact, the debate over women's ordination was the defining factor in the controversy, since--in the minds of the new conservatives--how one answered the question of women's ordination settled one's position in the inerrancy and doctrine debate. (3) Seth Dowland concurs, arguing that gender and scripture became entangled or, perhaps, strategically employed by new conservatives such that "defenders of the new patriarchy placed adherence to biblical gender norms at the heart of theological orthodoxy."
The creation of the hymnal at such a pivotal moment invites questions. If Flowers and Dowland are correct that gender roles played an essential role in the rupture of the SBC, with a "new patriarchy" being the governing principle of the conservative turn, how might that have affected the compilation of the 1991 Baptist hymnal? If there was indeed a concern about feminization or the weakening of gender boundaries and traditional ideals of masculinity and femininity, was this concern reflected in the corpus offered to singing Southern Baptists? Given the emphasis on theological precision, what can the new materials introduced into the hymnal tell us about the rigidity (or permeability) of theological boundaries of gender in the minds of the committee members?
Hymns have long been seen as a way into broader questions of denominational identity and theological controversy. Hymnals, for their part, are useful instruments that church leaders have used both to reflect and to shape theological emphases, for hymnals are both revered as sacred and seen as temporal and functional rather than timeless....