CommonCall: Treasuring a faith that sings

In addition to church hymnals representing multiple denominations and a variety of Christian traditions, Rob Veal’s collection also includes what he believes is a relatively complete inventory of songbooks used in the Southern Gospel singing conventions sponsored by Stamps-Baxter and other publishers. (Photo / Ken Camp)

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LEWISVILLE—Remember the hymnal Mom and Dad shared as they joined in the congregational singing on Sunday morning? Recall the yellowed shape-note gospel songbook in Grandma’s piano bench?

Rob Veal probably has one just like it.

Veal, a veteran minister of music and now executive pastor at Northview Baptist Church in Lewisville, has more than 1,500 unique volumes in his collection—not counting occasional duplicate copies.

“And no, I don’t know every song in every hymnbook I own,” he quickly added.

However, he does maintain an up-to-date list of the hymnbooks lining shelves in his Denton County home. It’s the largest file on his computer.

Veal began leading music in church at age 16, but he acknowledged he had little appreciation then for all that hymnals mean to worshippers.

Passion for collecting

He traces his passion for collecting hymnals to his time on staff at a church in Sweetwater, where he served with a pastor who collected books of sermons and other writings by Charles Spurgeon.

At a used bookstore in Fort Worth, Rob Veal found an old Stamps-Baxter gospel songbook autographed by Virgil Stamps. He bought it for $4. That launched his collection of songbooks and hymnals. (Photo / Ken Camp)

The two of them were visiting a used bookstore in Fort Worth when he found an old Stamps-Baxter gospel songbook autographed by Virgil Stamps. Veal bought it for $4.

“That’s when I started looking for old hymnbooks and gospel songbooks,” he said.

In 1997, when Veal moved back to Texas after serving at a church in Florida, he owned about 350 hymnals. When a national Methodist newspaper picked up a feature story about his growing collection—along with his contact information and the offer of a loving home for hymnals others no longer wanted—his collection expanded exponentially.

“I started getting contacts from people all over the country,” he said.

Within about 10 years, his library of hymnals topped 1,000 unique volumes.

Not just American

His collection took on an international character when he and his wife visited a bookstore in England.

“We were on a tour bus that stopped near a bookstore, and that’s where I hit the motherlode,” he recalled. “I found 40 or 50 books at a great price.”

The oldest hymnal in Rob Veal’s collection is a German Psalter from 1779. (Photo / Ken Camp)

The oldest hymnal in Veal’s collection is a German Psalter from 1779. Some of the most unusual are tiny hymnbooks with miniscule type—smaller in width and height than a pocket-sized New Testament but at least an inch thick—designed for women to carry in their purses.

In addition to church hymnals representing multiple denominations and a variety of Christian traditions, Veal’s collection also includes what he believes is a relatively complete inventory of songbooks used in the Southern Gospel singing conventions sponsored by Stamps-Baxter and other publishers.

“If you ever went to a singing convention in the 1900s, I probably have that gospel songbook,” he said.

‘Retelling the story of our faith heritage’

Rob Veal, a veteran minister of music and now executive pastor at Northview Baptist Church in Lewisville, has more than 1,500 unique volumes in his collection of hymnals and gospel songbooks—not counting occasional duplicate copies. (Photo / Ken Camp)

Veal values each hymnal or songbook as “a capsule of time retelling the story of our faith heritage” from a specific period.

However, that doesn’t mean he objects to contemporary music in worship or to projected lyrics on screens in a worship center.

“We haven’t used hymnals in years” at Northview Baptist, he noted. “When we moved to our new sanctuary in 2007, we shelved the hymnals. … But we still sing hymns. The hymns that have staying power are being arranged in new ways by writers today.

“People who close themselves off to today’s writers are closing themselves to a fresh working of the Spirit. Anyone who rejects everything contemporary is missing the mark. … It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.”

He also treasures the letters and notes that accompanied many of the volumes he added to his collection—particularly those he received from people who donated beloved hymnals that belonged to their relatives.

Eventually, when it’s time for him to pass his collection along, Veal hopes to donate it to a library—perhaps at a Baptist university or seminary—that would appreciate it as much as he does.

In the meantime, he continues hunting for hymnals and searching for songbooks he hasn’t yet discovered.

Veal can be contacted at brobertveal@gmail.com.

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