In Chapter One of Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story, Circuit Rider Pastor Jonathan Conroy holds a prayer meeting at Caroline’s family’s home. Family and neighbors gathered on log benches in the home’s largest room in front of the fireplace, perhaps with Bibles in hand but no hymn books.
When all was ready, we stood up and Preacher spoke the first two lines of “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”:
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
My father hummed the first note and we sang the words together.
This method of worship singing was quite common in the pioneer days of western Virginia. It was called “lining a hymn,” which meant that a worship leader or member of the congregation would “line” or speak the first lines of a popular hymn. Then the song leader would hum the opening pitch for the song so that all gathered could begin on key together. In his book Bethel Church: Oldest Church in Nicholas County, William Griffee Brown describes the process this way:
The preacher would take his Bible and hymn book from his saddle bags, read a scripture selection and then “line” a hymn for the congregation to sing.
Few of the members had hymn books. The hymn book had only the words, no written music. Above each hymn were the letters ‘L.M,’, ‘C.M’, or ‘S.M.’, as the indication of the meter or measure of the verse. L.M. meaning long meter, C.M. common meter, and S.M. short meter.
Let us suppose the hymn was “Rock of Ages.” The preacher would read: “Rock of ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in thee.” and then he or some chosen member would lead the singing–and in this way the hymns were “lined” and sung and soon fixed in the memory, so that “lining the hymns” were [sic] often unnecessary.
If the preacher did not lead in singing, he would announce: “Brother” (naming the member), you will please pitch and carry the tune.”
Hymn lining was a tradition that began in England and made its way to America during its founding. British pastors used it to compensate for the scarcity of hymnals and also to accommodate many who attended services who could not read. For these reasons, hymn lining was also popular among American slaves’ worship services. So hymn lining is not just a White Christian tradition, by any means.
During slavery, lining a hymn accompanied blacks’ conversion to Christianity and flourished because of their forced illiteracy. Whites in the hills of Appalachia sing it a little differently than blacks along the river banks of Mississippi. No matter the melodic dialect, lining a hymn is intrinsically American–Theodore R. Johnson, writing for Urban Cusp
Nor is hymn lining a dead practice in today’s world. In the special National Public Radio series ecstatic voices, John Burnett writes about a Kentucky Baptist church where hymn lining continues in today’s worship services. The method is different than the one described above, in that the first lines of the hymns are sung instead of spoken:
On a Saturday morning in September, several hundred men and women — many solidly built, with square faces — have gathered in a Depression-era building to worship and sing. They settle into green-cushioned pews in a large, well-lit sanctuary. One of the men sitting behind the pulpit, under the picture of a kneeling Jesus, feels moved to start a song.
“Let milk and honey flow…”
He sings a line of a hymn. Once the congregation recognizes it, it repeats the line in unison, its voices swelling in a minor mode. This is what’s called lined-out hymnody.–ecstatic voices, NPR
Here are two videos of the first-line-sung type of hymn lining, from two different types of Christian gatherings.