Frederic Mayer Bird, Hymnologist

In my last post, I wrote about how I came to the Burke Library. For this post, I’d like to talk about how one of the collections I processed came here–and how coincidental it was that it was assigned to me.

My first task on being given the Frederic Mayer Bird papers was to research their creator. I soon discovered that Bird, a nineteenth-century expert in hymnology and hymnody, in other words, the study and performance of hymns, was a productive writer. In addition to editing and publishing books and articles on his own area of research, he wrote fiction. Both the amount and the kind of writing were in the family line: Bird’s father, Robert Montgomery Bird, was one of the most successful dramatists and novelists of the antebellum period. I knew the father’s work before I encountered the son’s: I had previously read The Gladiator (1831), a historical drama about Spartacus’s slave uprising in ancient Rome and Sheppard Lee (1836), a fantastical novel about a man who dies only to have his soul cycle through other people’s bodies until they/he die. There was nothing quite so fantastic in Bird’s papers, though hymns, of course, do relate to the soul.

A small photograph of Bird, UTS class of 1860. The Burke Library Archives, Union Theological Seminary Records, Series 18, Class Photographs.

Bird’s papers were not the first material of his to come to Union Theological Seminary. In 1888, Bird sold his personal library of over 3,000 volumes to Henry Day, a member of Union’s Board of Directors, who donated them to Union. Bird reasoned, as he would later write to Union’s President, Thomas S. Hastings, that “since I have given over hymnology except in the way of business–(writing on it when occasion comes, as I do on other topics)–it seemed fit to hand over most of my accumulations of former years.” Union’s hymnological department could now be considered “the largest collection of English hymnology to be found in any institution in the land.” [1]

It was noted at the time that many of the volumes had “many manuscript annotations.” In fact, 338 records in Clio carry a note that reads: “Ms. annotations by Prof. Bird.” Doubtless there are more. Some of those books were even found to have clippings, notes, and letters in them. Two letters from Henry S. Burrage, longtime editor of a Baptist newspaper, are an example. On November 2, 1886, Burrage wrote Bird about a new book project: “I am preparing for publication a work on ‘Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns.’” Burrage was hoping that Bird would be able to answer a question about a particular hymn Burrage was planning to include. Two years later, November 12, 1888, Burrage wrote again to offer thanks: “I send you a copy of my ‘Baptist Hymn Writers,’ as a small token of your kindness to me during its preparation.” Both letters, a librarian’s note accompanying them in the Bird papers remark, were within Bird’s copy of that book when they came to Union.

Bird’s papers were not long in following his library. While it’s not clear who initiated the transfer, there is in the collection a February 12, 1891 letter from President Hastings to Bird about acquiring his papers less than three years after acquiring his library: “We shall be very glad to pay freight on anything you will send. The correspondence shall be put in scrapbooks & indexed.” Three days later, Bird replied: “I sent the parcel off yest.[erday] P.M., & had not time to write (or neglected to do so) before starting for my Sunday duty. The books will all be duplicates … I did not examine them all by any means.” Of the letters, which make up the bulk of the papers, he noted, “There are many of them, & I doubt if they are worth indexing &c. Some are practically trash.”

On the contrary, the letters are valuable for the way they document Bird’s consultations with a network of pastors, scholars, and collectors that traded the texts and histories of hymns. Bird was uncertain of the value of other parts of his papers, as well: “The hymn-cuttings are of no account,” he wrote, and “my clips from newspapers … may be little better. I by no means require the Library to preserve or even examine all in the parcel.” The library has preserved his papers–letters, hymn-cuttings, newspaper clips and all. A finding aid for the collection, including an index of correspondents, is available on our website.

[1] George Lewis Prentiss, The Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, (New York: M., W., & C. Pennypacker, 1899), 358.

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