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Victorian rebel hymn book becomes CD

A tiny 165-year-old pamphlet identified by a University of Manchester academic as the only surviving copy of a Chartist hymn book has been transformed into an album by a veteran protest singer.

A tiny 165-year-old pamphlet identified by a University of Manchester academic as the only surviving copy of a Chartist hymn book has been transformed into an album by a veteran protest singer.

After reading in The Church Times that Dr Mike Sanders had discovered the National Chartist Hymn Book at Todmorden public library, Garth Hewitt has brought the 16 hymns to life.

Called Liberty is Near!, it is the first time Chartist hymns have been recorded. 

Hewitt, who has been making records since 1973, was inspired by the Victorian radicals who campaigned for democracy and workers' rights to record 12 tracks based on the hymns.

Like the Chartists, Hewitt has used popular tunes of the times for two of the songs, Amazing Grace and Rock of Ages. The other 10 are original compositions.

According to Dr Sanders (pictured right with the pamphlet), an English lecturer, the hymn books were designed in an attempt to produce a standard hymn book for the movement, as a Chartist forerunner of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

While Chartist historians know of two earlier attempts to produce a hymn book for the whole movement – Cooper's Shakespearean Chartist Hymn Book and Hobson's Hymns for Worship, there had been no references to the Todmorden collection.

Heavily influenced by dissenting Christianity, the hymns are about social justice, "striking down evil doers" and blessing Chartist enterprises, rather than the conventional themes of crucifixion, heaven and family.

Garth Hewitt said: “When Mike Sanders sent me the words of the songbook I was struck by how passionate the hymns are and how poetic, and I wanted to put some tunes to them, as we only had the words, so they could be sung again and hopefully brought alive in a new way and for a new generation.

“I think they are interesting politically and I think they are also interesting for the church community to see the way that social justice and a theology come together in these songs with great power.  

“I felt we could learn something from them that might help us include songs of justice in our own hymns today. As I recorded these songs from 1845 they came alive to me and I kept seeing a remarkable relevance to our own society.  

“Mike Sanders has described Chartist theology as a forerunner of liberation theology – I can sense that even as I sing them.”

Dr Sanders said: “This fragile pamphlet is an amazing find and opens up a whole new understanding of Chartism – which as a movement in many ways shaped the Britain we know today.

“It’s very rare – even the British Library doesn't have a copy.  And now it's been transformed into an album.

“I can’t imagine many pieces of research ending up as a CD of contemporary songs, so I was surprised and delighted when Garth approached me.

“What is so fascinating is that hymn-singing was not the best known feature of Chartism. This is why this attempt to produce an equivalent to Hymns Ancient and Modern is significant.

“It’s a great album. And as it seems a concern for social justice is being recovered by many Christian Churches, I would have thought these hymns would resonate with those communities.”

Dr Sanders recalls a 1839 Whitsuntide mass-meeting, when the Chartist Abrams Henson criticised those priests who "preached Christ and a crust, passive obedience and non-resistance. Let the people keep from those churches and chapels. Let them go to those men who preached Christ and a full belly, Christ and a well-clothed back – Christ and a good house to live in – Christ and Universal Suffrage."

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