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By Richard Szucs. Photos by Win Grant.

A new hymnal is coming to Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Celebrating Grace Hymnal is the result of a collaborative initiative by more than 50 Baptist leaders – pastors, church musicians, composers, scholars, and laity – from the United States and Canada.

The Creative Worship Team (see Editor’s note) works with Phil Mitchell, Minister of Worship, to examine FBC’s worship services and identify changes to make them more meaningful and effective. That process led the Team to search for a new hymnal that would include traditional hymns and gospel songs, as well as some of the hymns, gospel songs and praise songs written since our present hymnal was published.

Allen Brown expressed it well: “Some of you who have had about as many birthdays as I have will remember the hymnal we were using in the 1950s. It was The New Baptist Hymnal, published in 1926. Then a Baptist hymnal with many new songs was published in 1956, and we purchased that one. Nineteen years later, in 1975, the next one was purchased. Then, sixteen years later, in 1991 we secured the Baptist Hymnal we are now using, and it has served us well. Now it is 20 years later. Worship styles and patterns have changed and many new hymns and songs have been written since 1991. A new hymnal will make these available for us to use.”

The Team studied a number of hymnals and unanimously selected Celebrating Grace: A Hymnal for Baptist Worship, released in 2010. They were impressed with its editors’ high standards for music, texts and support materials. Each hymn and song was selected both for its musical contributions and its theological soundness. Interspersed throughout the hymnal are scriptures, responsive readings and litanies that draw from God’s Word and offer opportunities for response from God’s people.

Phil Mitchell summarized the feelings of the Worship Team when he said, “The hymnal is a good fit for our congregation because its core contents are at home in a church that worships in traditional worship expressions. It contains some new, more contemporary hymns/songs as well as new, traditional tunes and texts. It is steeped in doctrine that is thoroughly Baptist and uses fresh and imaginative ways to say what we believe. It provides a number of new ways to express our praise and thanks to God in worship.”

All hymnals will be bought strictly through individual donations; no funds will come from the church budget. Donations in any amount are welcome. An individual or group may purchase one or more hymnals in honor or memory of someone for a donation of $15. A hymnal plate will be placed in the front of the hymnal recognizing the donor and the individual who is being honored or memorialized. Donor cards and envelopes are on the kiosks. For information contact Phil Mitchell or any member of the Creative Worship Team, or visit www.celebrating-grace.com.

Editor’s note: Members of the Creative Worship Team are Richard Szucs, chairperson, Barbara Booth, Allen Brown, David Carter, Janet Hauser, Lindsey McClintock, Jim Norvelle, Becky Payne, Martha Pugh, and Ruth Szucs.


Richard SzucsRichard Szucs is a radiologist with Commonwealth Radiology and Chairman of Radiology at St. Mary’s Hospital. He and his wife, Ruth, met at First Baptist Church. Their daughter, Alexandra, will attend Bridgewater College in the fall and their son, Matthew, will enter the tenth grade at Midlothian High School. Richard is a deacon, teaches 11th grade Sunday school, and sings in the church choir and One Accord. He serves as leader of the Creative Worship Team.

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Music and Controversy

By Virginia Darnell. Photo by Win Grant.

FEATURE-Celebrating-Grace-1

Music plays an important role in our worship services today, but it has not always been that way.

John Courtney, First Baptist’s second pastor (1786-1824), loved the great hymns and was editor of at least two hymn books. But during services at FBC, he found that some were paying more attention to the hymnals than to his sermons. His solution was to line out the hymns without using books. (Lining out is a form of a cappella hymn-singing with a leader calling out each line of a hymn as it is to be sung.)

In the archives there are a number of sheets, 3 ¼” x 11”, used during this time with the hymns for the day printed without music. In addition, at the bottom were listings of events for the next week and the following words: “Strangers are cordially invited to remain after the services and meet the pastor.” This also apparently served as the bulletin for the day.

Printed hymnals finally became part of FBC’s worship. The first one was likely Rippon’s Selection, based on Dr. Isaac Watts’ hymnal. It was first published in 1787. That was later replaced by the Virginia Selection of Hymns compiled by Andrew Broaddus. The third hymnal, Winchell’s and Watts’ Selections, was chosen in the mid-1800s.

Musical instruments also made a slow entrance into worship services. To settle this controversial discussion James Thomas loaned the church an organ from his home in 1861. It remained in service until 1867 when a new organ was purchased for the church.

Choirs were not part of FBC’s early services either. The push to organize one produced controversy, but in 1840 a chorister was finally appointed. The controversy was resolved at least partially by his salary being raised by those “favorable to the choir.” A hundred years later the music life of the church was much enriched and strengthened with the addition of primary, junior, intermediate, and young people’s choirs. The chancel choir was organized in 1952, and the first hand bell choir in 1962, with their first performance at Thanksgiving that year.

Hymnals, organs, choirs – all are assumed parts of today’s worship services. But their places have been earned through differing opinions, patience, experiments, and gifts.


Virginia DarnellVirginia came to FBC in 1946 and helped organize the church’s first young couples class and one of the first in the Southern Baptist Convention. She taught singles for 38 years, served on most church committees, was ordained a deacon in 1978, and served as the first woman deacon chair in 1995-96. She is currently Church Historian. Virginia enjoys gardening, painting, cooking, and reading.

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