“On That Happy Ground”: Lyrics from the First African Methodist Pocket Hymn Book (1818)

 

The Burke Library staff got a curious inquiry last week from a researcher in Maryland seeking a particular hymn book held in our Special Collections. He believed it would hold the key to a piece of his research, about the first African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church in service in Easton, Maryland, convened by a community of free African Americans — many of whom had bought their freedom, or were granted it by their owners — and their minister, who wanted to build them a church.

The researcher was Tracy Jenkins, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He found, through WorldCat.org, that the Burke Library houses a first-edition copy of the African Methodist Episcopal hymnal of 1818. This hymnal was the first official publication of the A.M.E. Church, the first independent African-American denomination in the U.S., and was compiled by its founding bishop himself, Richard Allen (born into slavery in 1760). Tracy needed to see the lyrics to a particular hymn, “Oh Tell Me No More (of This World’s Vain Store),” and hoped we could send a snapshot of the hymn from our copy of the book. (The Columbia University Libraries offer high-resolution reprographic services for researchers requesting publication-quality images, but sometimes, if time and copyright and staff bandwidth permits, we are occasionally able to assist with verifying a citation of a single known item for research purposes, as in this case.) The Collection Services Librarian at the Burke Library, Jeffrey Wayno, was able to capture a quick snapshot. Tracy was enthusiastic about the findings– the line that was most crucial to his research reads: “A country I’ve found, where true joys abound / To dwell I’m determin’d on that happy ground” as shown:

A page from the first-edition copy of the African Methodist Episcopal hymnal of 1818 at the Burke Library. The page contains the lyrics to the hymn “Oh Tell Me No More (of This World’s Vain Store)." Call Number VQMjx 1818
A page from the first-edition copy of the African Methodist Episcopal hymnal of 1818 at the Burke Library. The page contains the lyrics to the hymn “Oh Tell Me No More (of This World’s Vain Store).” Call Number VQMjx 1818

 

“According to a historical source,” Tracy wrote in an email, “the minister leading the first A.M.E. service in Easton, Maryland, in 1818 (Rev. Shadrack Bassett) pointed in a certain direction when they got to that line in the hymn, and said that there was the place for the assembled people to build a church. And that, they did. Bethel A.M.E. Church stands to this day. That line in that hymn therefore represents the struggle of a whole community to carve out space for themselves after they had escaped slavery. I needed to verify that that line was in the version of the hymn available in 1818 in order to verify the story, because it wasn’t written down until 1881.” That inscription in 1881 was penned by Alexander Walker Wyman, recalling an interaction with Rev. Bassett, in his memoir My Recollections of African M. E. Ministers, or Forty Years’ Experience in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the text of which is available online via Documenting the American South, a project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This was a fascinating piece of interdisciplinary research for us to witness here at the Burke Library. We were keenly interested in this usage of one of our Special Collections items. We’ll look forward to Tracy’s continued research, as he investigates the ways such communities forged spaces for themselves in a key transitional moment in the history of the A.M.E. denomination and the country.

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