I love Halley’s Bible Handbook. Not the new, updated one. The one you want is the old blue version of Halley’s Bible Handbook. Some of the archeological information in it is a little out of date, but the rest of it is great. The new version in the white cover has more up-to-date archeological articles, but it has edited out nearly all of the charm of Henry Hampton Halley’s original. Halley started self-publishing his Handbook in 1924 as a 17-page pamphlet, and he kept adding to it up until he died in 1965. Zondervan Publishing House acquired the rights in 1960. By then it had sold over five million copies.
I’d seen the little blue Bible handbook on bookstore shelves for years before I ever bought one. It just seemed so humble and unassuming, sitting there next to weightier tomes of Biblical knowledge.
But one day I was listening to a sermon on cassette tape (back in the nineties), and the preacher mentioned how much he loved what he called “Halley’s Bible Pocket Handbook.” He called it that, I suppose, because it’s only about five inches wide by seven inches tall, and about an inch and a half thick. The preacher on the tape said that he had given away many copies of Halley’s. Based on his recommendation, I finally bought one for myself, and I discovered that it packs a lot of information into a small space.
Besides the wonderful, concise summaries of each book of the Bible, part of the attraction for me is the articles written by Halley on a variety of subjects. He writes in a very colorful manner, with unique turns of phrase, capitalizing words in the middle of a sentence, and emphasizing certain things by printing them ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS. This is part of what the publisher edited out in the updated version, published after Halley’s death. The posthumous edition is more dignified, I suppose…but it’s less interesting, too. In the versions edited by Halley himself, you can almost hear the old preacher talk.
The articles in the back cover “How We Got Our Bible,” “Church History” (and he makes it interesting!), “The Habit of Bible Reading,” “Going to Church,” and “The Sunday Morning Church Service.” And it’s from that last article that I wanted to share some quotes from H. H. Halley on singing in church. Here they are, just the way he wrote them, with all the same emphases, capitalized letters and incomplete sentences:
“Congregational Singing, next to Bible teaching, is the BEST FEATURE of a religious service, the most effective way to preach the Gospel. A Singing church is always well attended. People love it. A SINGING church and a TEACHING pulpit. …
“Power of Popular Singing. It was the Public Singing of Luther’s hymns that bore his preaching over central Europe, and shook the world into the Reformation. It was Singing that made the great Welsh revival. Was there ever a revival without it? The very best way now to rejuvenate dead churches would be to SING them into life.
“More Congregational Singing. Its dearth of singing is the greatest lack in the average Sunday Morning Church Service. There ought to be TEN times as much as there is. …CONGREGATIONAL SINGING has a rightful place in the Regular Sunday Morning Church Service, and should not be shoved aside…It is entitled to ONE-THIRD or ONE-HALF of the whole service.
“A Continuous Song Service is better than one that is continuously Interrupted with remarks by the leader, or the reading of a stanza, or by other parts of the service. That ruins the effect. Do nothing but Sing, for twenty or thirty minutes, so as to give it a chance to make its impression. People like the singing so much better than they like the wise-cracks of the leader. It is the SINGING that counts, not the everlasting interrupting talk by the song leader.
“Sing the Same Hymns Often. Only as they are sung Often can the people become familiar with them. It is the hymns that we know that are the ones that we love. And we never tire of the hymns that we love. Never. Sing the Old Hymns. Sing them over and over. A church that would do this would not have to beg people to come to church. It could not keep them away.”
Now let me say that I do think we ought to sing the old hymns (some of ‘em); but I think we need to sing new songs, too (some of ‘em).
There are wonderful old hymns that I love to sing, over and over. And there are old hymns that, if I never sang them again, my life would still be complete. There are also wonderful new hymns being written, too, by people like Stuart Townend, and Keith and Kristen Getty. There are wonderful new praise and worship songs that churches ought to learn. And there are new praise and worship songs that I find excruciatingly boring, both lyrically and musically.
I don’t think we ought to have 150 or 200 minutes of singing per church service, instead of 15 or 20 minutes. But I do believe what Halley said about the power of a congregation singing God’s truth together. Let me give you one more quote from Halley’s Handbook:
“Choirs. What a good choir can mean to a service is beyond computation. But It Depends On What They Sing. …But even at its best, it is better that The People SING than that they Listen to Singing.
WHY NOT TURN THE WHOLE CONGREGATION INTO A CHOIR? Under the proper leadership, the hymns of a vast congregation could be made to rise like the swell of an ocean’s roar, and cause the angels in heaven to lean over and listen.”
You say, “But we don’t have a vast congregation!” Agreed…but that’s no excuse. In Israel in 2014, we visited a vast salt cave formed by the mining efforts of centuries gone by. There were crosses and Christian symbols etched onto the walls. In the early centuries of the church, Christian martyrs were brought to this cave to die in peace, away from their tormentors. About 20 of us stood in that vast space and lifted up our voices to sing a hymn of praise to God. And it sounded wonderful! Our voices reverberated in that cavern, and it sounded like a cathedral. We can do the same thing by lifting up our voices together in our wonderful sanctuary.
I’ve lately been trying to apply these ideas in our evening service. That’s why I started calling it “Acoustic Vespers.” I like the word “vespers”. It simply means an evening or sunset prayer service. The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and Anglican denominations all have Vespers services on Sunday evenings. The Anglicans call it “Evensong.” I like that even better. I think instead of calling our evening service “Acoustic Vespers” we should call it “Evensong.” It says what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it.
I don’t understand how anybody can say “We’re going to wipe out racism!” when racism is a product of sinful human hearts, and we’re going to have to fight against it until Jesus returns. I don’t understand how anyone can exalt one race over another when God said He has made of one blood all the nations of the world (Acts 17:26 KJV), when He so obviously delights in variety that He is ransoming people of all races to be His own (Revelation 5:9-10), and when one day He will have the nations of the world bring all their varied glory into His own Kingdom (Revelation 21:24).
I haven’t had the guts yet to make people sing for twenty minutes straight. But I’m working up to it. And so is our evening congregation. And in time I’d like us to do this in the morning service, too: not listen to other people sing, like we were at a concert, but all of us singing to God together for at least twenty minutes straight before the message. Open the service, pray, make some brief announcements, and then get to the business of worshiping God together with our hearts and voices. That can prepare us to receive God’s Word like nothing else.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”Colossians 3:16
Soli Deo Gloria!