The Best Hymn Story Book Ever

Zac HicksWorship Resources2 Comments

Petersen, William J., and Ardyth Petersen. The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories about 600 Hymns and Praise Songs.  Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2006.

Thank God.  I’ve finally come across a hymn story book that I feel good about using as a resource and recommending to others for both background and edification.  I’ve been using this book for several months, often quoting it in our printed order of worship’s “worship notes”—our side column in our liturgy which explains what we’re doing in worship and why it’s significant.

I’m surprised I haven’t heard of this book before. I happened upon it in a Cokesbury Bookstore and was impressed after thumbing through it…Why hadn’t anyone told me about this?  I picked it up for $14.97, which, in my opinion, was a steal (it’s even less expensive on Amazon).

Here are my gripes with “hymn story” books I’ve encountered over the years:

  • Their research and historicity are questionable.
  • Their stories are glamorized and overly sentimental.
  • Their historical scope is too narrow (e.g. only Gospel-era hymns, or only 20th century hymns).
  • They’re coverage is minimal.
  • They’re not indexed well.


Here’s what I find remarkable about The Complete Book of Hymns:

  • The research is thorough (their bibliography highlights all the heavy hitters in hymnology that I’d want to know they’ve read [e.g. Bailey, Benson]).
  • The writing is both brief and clear, simultaneously historical and devotional.
  • Sound theological analysis where pertinent.
  • The historical reach spans everything from 4th century Ambrosian hymns (e.g. “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright”) to 20th century praise songs (e.g. “Shout to the Lord”).
  • Each hymn/hymn-story is accompanied by several Scripture references to which the hymn ties.
  • It is well indexed (indices include: [a] hymn titles; [b] authors/translators/arrangers/sources; [c] themes)
  • It is an inexpensive paperback with 600+ pages.

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