The church building is coated in white and stands on a wooded hillside overlooking a gravel road running through the crease of the valley below. A weaved offering plate holding scattered coins still sits upon the table facing the pulpit. Solid, wooden pews covered with red cushioning line the inside of the building. Large poplar beams run across the ceiling for structural support. Squirrels used to run to and fro on these beams during services. My papaw has long since gone to be with the Lord but the memories remain. As a young boy I can recall my papaw plucking at his guitar and leading us in song during our gatherings. We would sing songs written by others combined with some written by him. On occasion my brother and I would be allowed to take microphones and join him singing in the front of the church. He took the time of singing seriously. At our age then, I'm not sure if we did, but he still let us join in on those songs of hope, longing, and praise. Little did my heart comprehend the weightiness of those moments. I was being taught to worship the Lord in song, something the people of God have been doing for centuries.
Methods and techniques of singing to the Lord have taken different shape over the centuries. Some techniques have faded into history while others have remained with us. One such technique is the lining out of hymns. I myself have neither witnessed nor taken part in this particular form of singing, yet I find it intriguing. My fascination with it was further stirred as my church history professor made passing reference to it while discussing Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the great Methodist hymn writer, a few weeks ago. He communicated that contrasted with the hymns of Wesley, the Baptist practice during that period of lining out hymns was much less enlivening. I was immediately astonished, not with the statement but with the longevity of the practice, considering various congregations in the Appalachian region still practice it today.
The roots of hymn lining run deep. Touching upon the origin of hymn lining, Appalachian scholar Loyal Jones explains, “Many of the Old Baptist churches still line out the hymns in a style that musicologist William Tallmadge traces to the Westminster Assemblies (1643-49), in which lining was seen as a convenient way to lead singing when there were few songbooks and not everyone could read.” So, in some sense, this practice began as a result of the practical benefits for the people. Deborah V. McCauley adds in her definitive work on Appalachian religion, “The practice of hymn lining…was predominant among the Welsh American churches of the seventeeth- and eighteenth-century America as well as in Puritan churches and goes back to sixteenth-century Scotland and England.” And according to Bill C. Malone, “No style of music is more traditional or more rooted in mountain culture.”
Hymn Lining: A Closer Look
Below I have inserted two audio clips which will familiarize our ears with the ins and outs of hymn lining.
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such a singing style as “ignorant.” Wrote one home missionary in western North Carolina in 1891, “Some of them are very ignorant, very few can read, and so the hymn is ‘deaconed’ off, two lines at a time, and they sing it in a dragging minor tone; there is a sad undertone in all of their singing, which seems to me like a wail of their past oppressions.”
Quoting Ron Short, who is connected with the Old Regular Baptists of southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky, McCauley articulates Short’s reasons for the continuation of hymn lining today,
Short observes that the practice of hymn lining in Old Regular Baptist churches today has nothing to do with the absence of hymnals; rather, it has to do with melodies following no standard notation, having “depended on the oral tradition for their continuation. The melodies are closely ‘modal’ and are hard to follow using the standard scale of music. Without drastic changes they cannot be translated for musical accompaniment. Although there are now abundant songbooks, they contain only words, no music. The songs maintain the ‘long meter’ tradition with great emphasis on feeling rather than rhythm. To some, the sound is melancholy and mournful; for others, it is a glimpse into the very soul of man.” Although the analogy may seem contrived and superficial to those who have never heard Old Regular Baptist hymn lining, in fact the sound is very much like the droning of bagpipes in a human voice.
That aged and torn leaf inserted within the pages of the hymnal I found does contain one song familiar to me. The song is called “Victory in Jesus.” In the first verse, the writer talks about hearing “an old story.” That old story is about “how a Savior came from Glory/How He gave His life on Calvary to save a wretch like me…about His groaning…His precious love’s atoning.” The old redemption story is a message of victory that my papaw taught me to sing. No, we didn’t line it out but we were taught how to sing with our hearts near to the throne of God. So whether through hymn lining or through instrumental accompaniment, may our worship give onlookers “a glimpse into the very soul of man,” as we sing “with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
 Loyal Jones, Faith and Meaning in the Southern Uplands (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 194.
 Deborah V. McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 106.
 Bill C. Malone, Music in High Mountains Rising: Appalachia in Time and Place, eds. Richard A. Straw and H. Tyler Blethen (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 130.
 McCauley, 106.
 Ibid., 107.