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Fireside Chat: The Hymnal: A Reading History (Chris Phillips)

Christopher N. Phillips’s The Hymnal is the first study to reconstruct the practices of reading and using hymnals, which were virtually everywhere in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Isaac Watts invented a small, words-only hymnal at the dawn of the eighteenth century. For the next two hundred years, such hymnals were their owners’ constant companions at home, school, church, and in between. They were children’s first books, slaves’ treasured heirlooms, and sources of devotional reading for much of the English-speaking world. Hymnals helped many people learn to memorize poetry and to read; they provided space to record family memories, pass notes in church, and carry everything from railroad tickets to holy cards to business letters. In communities as diverse as African Methodists, Reform Jews, Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and Unitarians, hymnals were integral to religious and literate life. An extended historical treatment of the hymn as a read text and media form, rather than a source used solely for singing, this book traces the lives people lived with hymnals, from obscure schoolchildren to Emily Dickinson. Readers will discover a wealth of connections between reading, education, poetry, and religion in Phillips’s lively accounts of hymnals and their readers.

Chris Phillips is Professor of English at Lafayette College and a scholar of historical poetics and the history of reading. He is the author of The Hymnal: A Reading History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018) and Epic in American Literature, Settlement to Reconstruction (2012), and the editor of The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American Renaissance (2018). He is also the PI for the Easton Library Company Database Project, which reconstructs the usage of the first subscription library in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Dr. Phillips was a research fellow at the Library Company of Philadelphia in 2016.

This chat originally aired at 7:00 p.m. Thursday, October 1, 2020.

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