Women Hymn Writers—The Big Three

Music Musing #42
by Dean McIntyre

The greatness of a hymn writer can be measured by taking a number of factors into consideration: quantity of hymns written, number of hymns accepted for publication, number of hymnals and songbooks containing the writer's hymns, frequency the writer's texts are sung in worship, diversity of denominational publications, influence of the writer on the work and style of other writers, and more. Other factors of language, poetry, beauty, expressiveness, and the like are also important, but more subjective. In any one or combination of these factors, there are three women living today who are the most important — the big three — female hymn writers at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and among the most important of all living hymn writers.

Ruth Duck (b. 1947) is professor of worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Prior to her arrival at Garrett in 1989, she had served United Church of Christ pastorates in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. Her bachelor's degree is from Southwestern-at-Memphis University, now called Rhodes College. She has a Master of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary (1973) and a second master's degree from the University of Notre Dame (1987). She holds two doctorates: a ThD from Boston University School of Theology (1989) and a DD from Chicago Theological Seminary (1983).

Duck has been writing hymns since 1974. The first time she heard one of her hymns being sung was in 1983 at a United Church of Christ General Synod. She writes, "2,000 people were singing my hymn. I was crying while two friends on either side held my hands. I feel that writing hymn texts is a central part of my call." That is a call she has followed ever since, a call that has resulted in hymns in most hymnals in use today as well as two published collections of texts: Dancing in the Universe: Hymns and Songs by Ruth Duck and Circles of Care: Hymns and Songs (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1989). She has co-authored another book, Praising God: The Trinity in Christian Worship (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1999), in which the authors incorporate a broader range of liturgical images into an orthodox trinitarianism. Duck's hymn texts are the leading edge of the search for hymn and worship language that is fair and just, reverent and relevant, expressive, uplifting, and universal. Her hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal and The Faith We Sing include:

  • The United Methodist Hymnal no. 605, "Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters" (author)
  • The Faith We Sing no. 2046, "Womb of Life" (author)
  • The Faith We Sing no. 2136, "Out of the Depths" (author)
  • The Faith We Sing no. 2169, "God, How Can We Forgive" (author)
  • The Faith We Sing no. 2180, "Why Stand So Far Away, My God?" (author)
  • The Faith We Sing no. 2182, "When God Restored Our Common Life" (author)
  • The Faith We Sing no. 2228, "Sacred the Body" (author)
  • The Faith We Sing no. 2234, "Lead On, O Cloud of Presence" (author)
  • The Faith We Sing no. 2237, "As a Fire Is Meant for Burning" (author)

More information and a photo of Ruth Duck are available on her webpage.

Mary Nelson Keithahn is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ (UCC) as well as a certified church education specialist. She lives and works out of her home in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, in a variety of specialized ministries and as a freelance writer. She has been a pastor's wife, church school teacher and administrator, director of Christian education, and associate pastor. She has directed children's, adult, and handbell choirs, all giving her a wide experience in local church ministry. She is active in the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and Choristers Guild. In recent years, she has enjoyed an especially fruitful collaboration with musician John D. Horman. Together they have sought to write texts and music that have a strong relationship to the present culture, but that also have qualities of integrity and relevance. Keithahn's contributions to The Faith We Sing include:

  • no. 2097, "One Holy Night in Bethlehem" (author)
  • no. 2111, "We Sang Our Glad Hosannas" (author)
  • no. 2135, "When Cain Killed Abel" (author)
  • no. 2189, "A Mother Lined a Basket" (author)
  • no. 2211, "Faith Is Patience in the Night" (author)
  • no. 2216, "When We Are Called to Sing Your Praise" (author)
  • no. 2265, "Time Now to Gather" (author)

Additional information and a photo of Mary Nelson Keithahn may be found at www.hymnsetc.com.

Shirley Erena Murray (b. 1931) was born in Invercargill, New Zealand. The wide-ranging subject matter of her texts, including the sacraments, inclusiveness, the liturgical year, nonviolence, personal faith, social justice, and ecology, has resulted in her hymns being included in more than fifty collections from all over the world. Prior to her achievements as a hymn writer, Murray was a teacher and produced hymn programs on radio. Her middle name is derived from the Greek word for peace (eirene), and peace and peace-making are prominent themes in her texts. In 2001 Murray was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit on the occasion of the Queen's birthday "for services to the community as a writer of hymns," the first New Zealand hymn writer so honored. Her texts in The Faith We Sing include:

  • no. 2048, "God Weeps" (author)
  • no. 2059, "I Am Your Mother" (author)
  • no. 2095, "Star-Child" (author)
  • no. 2123, "Loving Spirit" (author)
  • no. 2128, "Come and Find the Quiet Center" (author)
  • no. 2177, "Wounded World that Cries for Healing" (author)
  • no. 2185, "For One Great Peace" (author)
  • no. 2225, "Who Is My Mother, Who Is My Brother" (author)
  • no. 2255, "In the Singing" (author)

More information and a photo of Shirley Erena Murray are available at http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sub=27&search=64.

Categories: Music Musings, Worship, Worship Planning, Lectionary Calendar, Civil Observances, Womens History Month

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