Youth Hymns represents the early years of my Christian experience. During my high school days in Hong Kong in the early 2000s, the tunes from this hymnalwere part of nearly all morning assemblies at my Protestant school. For most of the teachers who led the assembly, they symbolized the standard for Christian hymns. Perhaps not many of them knew that those tunes were considered “too modern” in the 1970s.1
William Newbern (Chinese name: Liu Fuqun, 1900–1972), the main editor of Youth Hymns, was one of the first American missionaries sent by the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) to South China in the 1920s. At the beginning of his ministry, he and his wife, Eva Aber, were stationed in Wuzhou, where the Alliance Bible School (ABS; now known as the Alliance Bible Seminary) was situated.
Although most ABS alumni know Newbern as the father of the ABS, one who had been instrumental in setting up the seminary in Hong Kong, most overlook his musical talent. During his younger years in New Jersey, he was trained to conduct and compose hymns for the Methodist campground in Pitman, New Jersey. Before editing Youth Hymns, he produced the first Chinese C&MA hymnal and self-funded the publication in 1946, which he named the Evangel Hymnal (Xuandao Shi). He chose to use numerical notation printed in four parts because most of his Chinese students did not have training in Western music and thus could not read staff notation. Despite the lack of a proper index for hymn texts or hymn tune writers, as well as the absence of tune names, the Evangel Hymnal lay the foundation for his next project with Ho Tung-hung (d. 2015), son of Newbern’s colleague at the ABS.
The editorial work of Youth Hymns did not start until the 1950s, after the ABS was officially moved to Cheung Chau, Hong Kong in 1949. Ho was employed by the China Alliance Press through sacred music funding from the C&MA to assist Newbern in translating English hymns to Chinese. Once one set of fifty hymns had been completed, Ho would edit the hymnal and design the cover. This series of bilingual hymnals was first published in twelve volumes between 1951 and 1981. In 1960, these smaller volumes combined in groups of four, forming three large volumes (see picture). Because of its humble start, Newbern and Ho did not imagine Youth Hymns would become so popular that the profit of its first volume could cover the whole year’s salary of all the staff at the China Alliance Press.
“Wherever one goes in the world where Chinese Christians meet, you will find Youth Hymns.”2 Newbern’s assertion is no exaggeration. According to his figures, the total sales of Youth Hymns and the Evangel Hymnal reached half a million by 1973, which is a tremendous volume for Christian hymnals. Moreover, Youth Hymns was used as the official hymnal during the two Billy Graham crusades in Hong Kong, which allowed three thousand choir members to proclaim th gospel through singing.
Despite its simple melodies and the narratives of the I-Thou relationship that caught the hearts of many Chinese youth in the mid-twentieth century, it was not without criticism. Some may consider its narratives too personal and the music too closely resembling pop songs, which may not be appropriate in Christian worship. This also shows the evolution of Chinese worship music when Western hymnals were first translated into Chinese—the Chinese Christian communities were still navigating theology of worship.
As Newbern comments, “God’s work must be done in God’s time.”3 The unexpected popularity of this hymnal illustrates the human desire to seek for divine presence through Christian hymnody. Its collections of hymns have been compiled into different hymnals, such as Selected Hymns for the Nurture of Soul (1961; Pei ling shi xuan), the official hymnal of the Hong Kong Bible Conference, and The Hymns of Life (1986), which are still widely used among Chinese churches. In this way, Youth Hymns played a significant role in Chinese Christian hymnody and continues its legacy in the twenty-first century.
- Enoch, “Shengshi Hong, Lan, Lu” [Red, Blue, Green Hymnal], Christian Times, March 29, 2015, https://bit.ly/39w9CMO.
- William C. Newbern, The Cross and the Crown: My View of the Alliance Bible Seminary (Hong Kong: The Alliance Press, 1973), 102.
- Newbern, The Cross and the Crown, 102.
Header image courtesy of the author.
Calida Chu, born and raised in Hong Kong, recently obtained her PhD in world Christianity at School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. She has a bachelor of music from the University of Birmingham, UK, and was involved in hymnal editing for an evangelical church in California before she completed a …View Full Bio
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