Volume 5 Number 2
by Chris Hays
A PTS graduate is writing new songs for congregations all over the world, and they are singing her praises in addition to her hymns.
Many a minister composes occasional lyrics, but Carolyn Winfrey Gillette’s hymns have been heard in churches from Honduras to Cairo and on a PBS special. The hymn-writer herself was recently profiled by the The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her success has been confirmed and furthered with this year’s publication of her collection Gifts of Love: New Hymns for Today’s Worship (Geneva Press, 2000).
A 1985 M.Div. graduate who is copastor with her husband, Bruce, of the First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, New Jersey, Gillette is modest to the point of shyness. She will tell you that she submits to the indignity of all this publicity mostly in order to help draw attention to the issues she addresses in her hymns.
At times, however, her enthusiasm overcomes her reserve—as when Psalm 96 comes up and she exclaims, “There are new songs that we can learn and write and sing and enjoy.” More often, she seems almost distressed by the attention that has come her way.
But it comes for a reason.
Gillette discovered her gift suddenly, thirteen years after she graduated from seminary. Sitting in a class on Psalms, she heard the professor say that someone had once set the Ten Commandments to music. No one in the class knew how it went, however, so she decided to write it herself to teach her three children.
The Ten Commandments hymn and the forty-four others in her published collection attest to a broad range of emotion and experience—from a wedding hymn (“God, in Joy We Gather”) to a mourning hymn in the wake of the Columbine shootings (“A Prayer for Our Children”). The hymns, all set to existing tunes, fill gaps many pastors may find in the hymnal, and some they probably never thought of—she has, for example, written a hymn for Super Bowl Sunday and another inspired by key points of “Faith in the Reformed Tradition,” a section in the second chapter of the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Order.
One of her major themes is the call to social consciousness.
One such hymn—“The Storm Came to Honduras”—led to one of Gillette’s most rewarding moments as a writer. The same powerful hurricane devastated several countries in Central America, and Gillette remembers an email message she received from Nicaragua: “A woman, a mission worker, wrote to thank us for the hymn as her husband was out ministering in the area after a village had been destroyed by a mudslide. Seventy families had been killed, and she was at home trying to keep things normal for her kids and singing to herself…. She wrote and said it was very comforting.”
Such exchanges—and the more mundane daily thanks from pastors all over America and abroad—are made possible by new technology, and Gillette’s relationship with that new technology is made possible largely by Bruce, who in his role as press agent has set up a web page at www.firstpresby.org/hymnlist.htm with lyrics to ten hymns.
“One of our kids had a map of the world,” Carolyn remembers, “and we had fun coloring in all the states and countries we’d heard from.”
Within the Presbyterian community, Gillette has been honored to have her hymns published in The Presbyterian Outlook, sung at a Presbyterian Women’s National Gathering, and chosen by the denomination’s Office of Spiritual Formation to distribute with study materials.
Gillette has also made it easy for pastors of small churches to use the hymns: Buying one copy of the book confers the right to photocopy hymns for one-time use by a whole congregation, an unusually lenient position in the business.
About the best place to go to avoid hearing a Carolyn Winfrey Gillette hymn is Carolyn Winfrey Gillette’s church, where modesty prevails. Bruce says, “I’m lucky if I can get her to [have the congregation] sing one a month.”
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary