Having This Ministry
A Digital Newsletter from Living Stream Ministry

A History of the Hymnal in the Lord’s Recovery

We in the Lord’s recovery treasure our hymnal. We use it throughout the week in various meetings and in personal times of fellowship with the Lord, but some among us may not be familiar with the fascinating and important history of how we got the hymnal that we hold so dear today. To know that history greatly uplifts our appreciation of the hymnal, the coordinated labor in the Body to produce it, and the preciousness of the hymns themselves.

Hymnal with Hymns #501

As the Lord was raising up His recovery through the ministry of Watchman Nee in China in the 1920s, the saints used hymns from the denominations in their meetings. Some of those hymns were not adequate, and Brother Nee saw the need for a collection of appropriate hymns for the church life. In 1927 he began to compile and edit a new hymnal to meet this need. He collected over ten thousand hymns from the denominations and selected approximately one hundred seventy of these as being suitable for the saints’ use. He produced fresh Chinese translations of most of these hymns and added new compositions that he and one or two others had written. This new hymnal consisted of one hundred eighty-three hymns, many from the golden age of the British Brethren.

Brother Nee based the organization of this new compilation on the Brethren hymnbook Hymns for the Little Flock and added two additional categories concerning spiritual warfare and the subjective experience of the cross. He also adopted the title of the Brethren hymnal, which led to Western missionaries referring to the saints in the church life as “The Little Flock.” Despite the saints’ personal protests that “Little Flock” was merely a title on their hymnal and not a name to denominate themselves, people still referred to them by that name. Brother Witness Lee recounts, “In 1934 Brother Nee decided to remove the words Little Flock from the cover of our hymnal. From that time on, our hymnals bear only the word Hymns” (CWWL, 1981, vol. 2, p. 382). The new hymnal proved to be a great help to the meetings in the Lord’s recovery and was greatly appreciated by the saints.

As the Lord’s move in His recovery continued to advance, new needs arose. In the 1940s, Brother Lee began to collect additional hymns for the gospel work in northern China and for the young people gained through the campus labor in Shanghai. For the gospel work, he wrote new songs and collected others that had not been included in the hymnal compiled by Brother Nee. These included “Jesus, lover of my soul” (Hymns, #1057), “Rock of Ages” (Hymns, #1058), and “In tenderness He sought me” (Hymns, #1068). This collection culminated in a small supplement for the gospel work that Brother Lee later expanded to a total of two hundred three hymns. For the work among the young people, he produced another supplement of one hundred forty-seven songs, a number of which he wrote. He recalls:

In 1947 and 1948 many young people in Shanghai were brought into the church life through our work on the campus. At that time our hymnal was not adequate to meet the need of these young people, so I prepared a hymnal with short songs that were good for the young people. Thus, when we moved to Taiwan for the Lord’s work, we had three hymnals. The first collection of one hundred eighty-three hymns was compiled by Brother Nee, and the other two hymnals were compiled by me. (CWWL, 1988, vol. 1, p. 208)

When Brother Nee and Brother Lee met in Hong Kong in February 1950, Brother Lee submitted his supplements to Brother Nee for review. Brother Nee incorporated selections from those supplements into a new hymnal consisting of one thousand fifty-two hymns. This second volume of the Chinese hymnal was published in 1952 and became known as the “Shanghai edition.” The following year Brother Lee compiled selections from Hymns for the Little Flock, the gospel and young people’s supplements, and one hundred hymns from the “Shanghai Edition” into a “Four-in-one” volume that remained in use among the Chinese-speaking saints until the end of the 1960s.

The history of hymns in the Lord’s recovery saw a crucial development in Taiwan in 1961. At that time Brother Lee spent two months to write eighty-five hymns on Christ, the Spirit, life, and the church. These new hymns were compiled as the Supplement of 85 Hymns. Many of those hymns were translated into English and are in the present English hymnal, including “Oh, what a life! Oh, what a peace!” (Hymns, #499), “O glorious Christ, Savior mine” (Hymns, #501), and “What mystery, the Father, Son, and Spirit” (Hymns, #608). The hymns written by Brother Lee at that time have greatly enriched the saints’ apprehension and enjoyment of the all-inclusive Christ realized as the life-giving Spirit and of the church as the expression of Christ.

In 1962 Brother Lee received the Lord’s leading to remain in the United States for the ministry. Work on an English hymnal began the following year. Brother Lee was intimately involved in that work and entered into another period of prolific hymn writing. He recounts:

When I came to the United States and the Lord’s recovery began in this country in 1962, we had the deep sensation that we needed an adequate hymnal that could greatly help our meetings. When I traveled throughout the United States from 1962 to 1964, I looked at various hymnals to see if there were any hymns that would be useful for our collection. When we compiled the hymns in our hymnal, we also looked into the British Keswick Convention hymnal. Most of those hymns were useful to us, so a number of them were included in our present hymnal. From 1963 to 1964 I wrote about two hundred new hymns, which were also included in our hymnal. (CWWL, 1988, vol. 1, pp. 208-209)

When work on the English hymnal began, the serving ones expected that it would be completed in two months. Instead, it took three-and-a-half years and included much more labor than anyone could have anticipated. Brother Lee and the saints laboring with him carefully reviewed thousands of hymns and sought appropriate poems and other writings that could be set to music. Out of these compositions, eight hundred and forty were chosen for inclusion in the new hymnal. While the serving ones wrote letters all over the world to obtain permission to use these compositions, Brother Lee continued to translate into English some of the best hymns written in Chinese. The new hymns written by Brother Lee and the newly translated hymns were added to the eight hundred forty selected hymns to bring the total to one thousand eighty. After much labor and several delays, the English hymnal was published in 1966. The saints received this new provision for their experience and enjoyment of Christ with profound gratitude and abounding joy.

Following the publication of the English hymnal, Brother Lee returned to Taiwan and worked further with the hymns in Chinese to produce the hymnal that is used today among the Chinese-speaking saints. He says,

From 1966 to 1967 I returned to Taiwan and, together with the brothers, rearranged the hymns in Chinese. We compiled a new hymnal with select hymns from past hymnals, new hymns, and various hymns in English that were translated into Chinese. This compiling and editing work was finished in 1968. This hymnal, with seven hundred eighty hymns, is what the churches are using. This hymnal includes all the best hymns in Christianity. When we sing these hymns, we should sing ourselves into them. Then we will realize the value of the hymns. (CWWL, 1985, vol. 2, pp. 341-342)

As Brother Lee’s ministry advanced and light from the Word continued to pour forth, many saints wrote new songs out of their increasing enjoyment of the Lord. From those compositions a new Chinese supplement was published in 1978 and continues to be expanded.

Some saints may wonder why the English hymnal as it exists today has one section of one thousand eighty hymns and another section of additional hymns, each section having its own index, bringing the total number of hymns to one thousand three hundred forty-eight. The answer is simply that English-speaking saints were also writing new hymns in response to Brother Lee’s advancing ministry in the 1970s, and the saints in the churches appreciated many of these. An English supplement containing two hundred sixty-eight new songs was published in 1980 and was eventually combined with the original English hymnal to give us Hymns as we know it today.

We thank the Lord for all He has done to provide us with a hymnal that includes the very best hymns from Christian writers through the centuries and many hymns that bring us into the riches of the revelation in His recovery concerning Christ and the church. Praise Him!