Dwight L. Armstrong - Publication of Hymns

Publication of Hymns

The origins of Dwight Armstrong's creative work can be traced to the evangelistic campaign conducted by his brother Herbert in the summer of 1933 in Eugene, Oregon. An elderly attendee at the campaign declined to participate in hymn singing, citing his belief that many of the hymns being used were not doctrinally and scripturally sound. The attendee was quoted by Armstrong as saying, "It is just as sinful to sing a lie as to tell one.". This led Armstrong to explore the possibility of using hymns based on scriptures. Incidentally, in recent years, particularly with the 2008 edition of the Baptist Hymnal, other faith communities have adopted stringent standards of ensuring the hymns included in new hymnals are scripturally and doctrinally sound in accordance with their own beliefs.

Herbert has described the moment that led him to commission his brother to compose hymns for the church: "One day I heard my youngest brother, Dwight, play on the piano a piece he had composed. It was not four-part harmony, but was in the style of a four-part harmony hymn. I was intrigued. It had quality and character. I had known from the time my brother was a small child that he had a special musical talent. I immediately asked him to compose two or three hymns, setting words from the Psalms to music. It took some little time, but they were good ".

When Ambassador College was opened in 1947, Herbert asked Dwight to "devote full time to setting the words of Psalms—and/or any other Scripture—to music in the four-part harmony style of hymns.". The first known use of Armstrong's hymns was at the 1948 Feast of Tabernacles, an annual celebration of the Church, in Belknap Springs, Oregon. In a 31 October 1948 letter to the membership, Herbert described the singing of the hymns as follows, "The songs, of course, were all new and had to be learned. But we found them BEAUTIFUL---some of the tunes so 'catchy' they simply would not leave the mind---yet of such quality, coupled with the exquisite words of divine inspiration, that they were described as 'classics,' carrying a dignity and character of divine royalty---songs befitting the regal splendor of a King---yes, songs inspired by and sung to, THE King! Somehow, after singing the gracious expressive words of Holy Scripture, the hymns written by mortal man seemed hollow and empty and cheap and common---employing flowery words to say so little" (emphasis his).

The lyrics of many of Armstrong's hymns are believed to have been developed based on rhymed psalters. Some of these psalters include the Book of Psalms for Singing (published by the Board of Education and Publication, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America), the Psalter Hymnal (published by the Christian Reformed Church), and the Psalms of David in Metre (commonly referred to as the “Scottish Psalter”). Armstrong is also thought to have utilized psalm settings by John Milton and William Kethe. As of the mid-1990s, Ambassador University Music Department chair Ross F. Jutsum had a large volume of psalm paraphrases, which is said to have been a primary source for Dwight Armstrong's selection of psalm lyric settings.

The first hymns composed by Armstrong carried a copyright of 1948. Some of these were revised and several more were published in 1952, with more being published in 1958. The final group of hymns were published c. 1972-1974. Dwight's wife, Karen, was heavily involved with all of the compositions, helping her husband set lyrics to the music. The editions of the hymnal produced by the Worldwide Church of God between 1972 and 1974 were produced under the editorial direction of Ambassador College Music Department Chair Lucy H. Martin and Ambassador College student John Zahody.

The most recent hymnal produced by the Worldwide Church of God was printed in 1993, and included eighty-four of Armstrong's previously published hymns as well as many internationally well-known hymns such as Battle Hymn of the Republic. Following Dwight's death in 1984, Herbert announced that a new hymnal was in the works and was to include dozens of new hymns written by Dwight during the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, the editorial team that worked on the revised hymnal chose to include only previously-published hymns by Dwight, along with numerous other well-known hymns and hymns composed by several other members of the Worldwide Church of God, including Ambassador College Music Department Chairman Ross F. Jutsum. Dwight's daughter, Deborah L. Armstrong, retains the original, unpublished hymns in her father's own handwriting.

The recollections of John D. Schroeder, who was the conductor of the Ambassador Chorale in the 1980s, reflect Dwight Armstrong's modesty. Schroeder wrote, "He once told me, personally, in his home, 'My brother says God called me to write these hymns; I think the truth is that my brother wanted me to write these hymns.'...Dwight Armstrong was a kind soul and painfully aware of his limitations as a composer. After listening to a performance of one of his hymns by the Ambassador Chorale, he told me, 'I’m sure no Beethoven.' Truth is, he agonized over his inability to write at the level of great composers, even though a comfortable majority of those who sang his songs loved them."

In addition to his hymns Dwight also wrote a school song for Ambassador College titled "Our Ambassador." However, this song does not appear to have ever been officially adopted, with the only known copy being held in the Worldwide Church of God archives in Glendora, California. The Church archives also contain several seldom-performed solo vocal settings of the psalms by Dwight Armstrong.

Some of Armstrong's hymns have also been published in the hymnals of churches which have their origins in the Worldwide Church of God, including the Church of God the Eternal, the Church of God International, the Intercontinental Church of God, United Church of God and the Living Church of God.

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