In 2005, Plymouth Church celebrated the 150th anniversary of The Plymouth Collection, considered by many to be the book that set the standard for modern hymnals.
Issued in 1855 as The Plymouth Collection of Hymns and Tunes; for the Use of Congregational Churches, the hymnal was compiled by Plymouth Church's first minister, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Combining words and music on the same page, in an easy-to-hold format, The Plymouth Collection brought congregational singing into the church, and quickly revolutionized the sound and spirit of worship across America. Today, Christian churches throughout the world can trace the practice of full participation congregational singing back to Beecher and his hymnal.
When The Plymouth Collection first appeared, Plymouth Church was widely known for the preaching of Henry Ward Beecher. Although he is best remembered today for his political and social activism, in his own time he was, foremost, a minister of the Christian gospel. His search for a more meaningful and immediate style of worship, through music, has had a lasting impact. Before The Plymouth Collection, music during worship was the domain of organists, choirmasters and choirs. When Congregations did join together in song, the choirmaster would "feed" the hymn to worshippers in a technique known as "lining out." A line would be sung, then echoed in response, line by line, through each verse of every hymn. Hymnals existed, but they contained no music and only a few texts, mostly psalms and hymns introduced a century earlier by Isaac Watts.
Beecher wanted what he called "a singing church." He concluded that the way to accomplish this was to put the hymns--both the words and the music--into the hands of the congregation. What many experts also consider revolutionary was Beecher's concept of "usefulness," bringing together popular and singable music from many denominations. Joining Beecher in creating The Plymouth Collection were his brother, Charles Beecher, and John Zundel, the widely admired organist at the Church.
In the fall of 1855, The Plymouth Collection entered the pews of Plymouth, and full congregational singing became the church's hallmark. News spread quickly to churches of other faiths, and it was not long before Beecher's hymnal carried congregational singing far beyond its Brooklyn roots.