cover image Simple Gifts: The Hymns of Our Life

Simple Gifts: The Hymns of Our Life

Bill Henderson, . . Free Press, $22 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-8473-8

It's almost more truth than I can bear to express," writes Henderson about a line from "Amazing Grace" in his brief meditation on the importance of hymns in American Christian life. Henderson, the founder and editor of the Pushcart Prize series, considers several hymns, but pays most attention to the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," the classic "Amazing Grace" and the lesser-known "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace." Hymns' appeal, Henderson says, owes to their pleasing musicality and to the way they support a spiritual purging: "we sing to each other of our pain, loneliness, and fear, topics we would hesitate to admit flat out in gatherings after services." In writing about the trials of his own life, especially those dealing with his intensely religious and pathologically shy father, Henderson weaves together his story with those of the hymns' creators. This is most powerful in his brief histories of the Shakers and of John Newton, the lyricist of "Amazing Grace." The narrative pauses on several occasions to allow Henderson to rail against lifestyles that "[rely] on stuff and self as the center of the world," but these clumsy moments are far outweighed by Henderson's thoughtful consideration of his life and the role hymns have played in it. (Apr.)