A large number of hymnbooks were in use by disparate groups within the Church of England by the mid-Victorian period, and a chance meeting in a railway carriage by two clergymen led to the formation of a group of like-minded supporters to consider the viability of producing a single hymnal.
From these inauspicious beginnings, the first Hymns Ancient & Modern was published in 1860. I have a first edition, and each of the subsequent editions published over the next hundred years, except for the 1904 ‘New Edition’.
By the early 1900’s, mutterings were arising from the pews about new-fangled hymns, and so the editors (always rather more concerned with the ‘Ancient’ part of the title) decided to adopt a fresh policy for their next edition – they would publish hymns as the authors had written them, rather than accept subsequent up-datings.
So, for instance, the Charles Wesley hymn which we nowadays sing as Hark! The herald-angels sing was printed as Wesley wrote it: Hark, how all the welkin rings.*
Strangely, this return to tradition didn’t achieve the object of satisfying congregations. Perhaps they’d never sung enthusiastically enough to set the welkin ringing (we are, after all, speaking of the Church of England).
Sales plummeted. The book was withdrawn, and a mere two years later, in 1906, a ‘Complete Edition’ (returning to wordings that had by now become familiar) was published.
It’s the 1904 edition I don’t have – not surprising, perhaps, if it wasn’t a best-seller, that there are few copies to be found these days.
*Welkin means the surface of the imaginary sphere on which celestial bodies appear to be projected – in other words ‘the heavens’ (thus Wordsworth [in his Inscriptions supposed to be found near a hermit's cell, 1818] writes: The umbrageous Oak, in pomp outspread/ Full oft, when storms the welkin rend,/ Draws lightning down upon the head/ It promised to defend.). George Whitfield substituted the familiar opening line in the hymn, despite the protests of the author.