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2008-03-18 issue:

606: When, why and how do Mennonites use the anthem?

When, why and how do Mennonites use the anthem?

by Anna Groff

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From T-shirts printed with "606" to fans singing it at Mennonite college soccer games when the clock hits 6:06 to the Mennonite youth singing it at Sea World at Orlando ’97—many Mennonites use "606" as an identity piece, often in creative ways.

Some Mennonites associate "606" with Mary Oyer, professor emeritus of music at Goshen (Ind.) College, who introduced "606" during worship at the Mennonite Church convention in Turner, Ore., in 1969.

"606" is "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow"—hymn number 118 in the Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992)—the doxology commonly known as "606" for its hymn number in The Mennonite Hymnal (1969).

Ken Nafziger, professor of music at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., describes the experience in Turner as “singing in the middle of a thunder cloud.”

Mary Oyer. Goshen College photo.

One of composer Jim Clemens’ favorite memories of singing “606” is when Mary led it at the grand opening of the Goshen College Music Center in 2002. In fact, Jim says he couldn’t sing and had tears in his eyes from the beauty of hearing that piece in that space.

Mary was first acquainted with “606” from Walter Yoder’s Songs for the Church in 1952. The earliest version she has since found is in Harmonia Sacra, 1876. When she was first exposed to the piece, it “didn’t strike her as anything special.” In fact, she was more impressed with the hymn “The Lord has Risen Indeed.”

Jim Clemens

But when Mary introduced “606” at the convention at Turner, she experienced the crowd’s energy and thought it worked well with many voices—as well as not being that difficult to sing. In fact, she says, it sounds more impressive than it actually is. But at that point, Mennonites were not used to sing different words and different times.

Because the piece is not melody-dominated, Ken says, “606” communicates the sound of the community, as each part is important.

At Turner, “606” became part of Mennonites’ identity and soundpool almost immediately, Mary says. She defines “soundpool” as music that is familiar, often repeated, nourishing, invigorating.

An identity piece for some
While “606” is an identity piece for many Mennonites, those closely involved with “606,” have revisited the piece and wonder about its use and future.

“606” is a great thing for people in the Euro-American world but perhaps not for the Southern Hemisphere, Mary says.

“It’s not that other cultures can’t sing it. It’s easy for them to sing, and they find some pleasure in it, … but it isn’t in their soundpool,” she says. For example, she has sung it with students in Kenya and Taiwan. While Mary says she would never want to get rid of “606” or stop singing it, she thinks the church should add to it and continue diversifying our music with new sounds, rhythms and languages.

Last year, Rebecca Slough, academic dean at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., wrote a paper for a music symposium after conducting a study of the use of “606” in churches in Elkhart County.

Rebecca found that “606” is the Mennonite anthem for white, Anglo, educated Mennonites with Western European roots. For other congregations—those with members who are Spanish-speaking, new Mennonites or non-Mennonite educated—“606” is often outside their congregation’s ethos, singing styles and soundpools, so they rarely sing it in church.

Rebecca Slough

“It includes people and it excludes people,” she says. “I would not want ‘606’ to go by the wayside anytime soon, … but it is not the Mennonite hymn for all.”

She suggests that Mennonites have several hymns that are important to and represent a variety of Mennonite identities: Spanish-speaking, African-American, Chinese, Indonesian, Cheyenne and more. She says the first step would be to ask these churches what their music ethos is and what pieces are important to them.

“African-American, Asian and Spanish music leaders would need to teach the rest of us,” she says.

Hymnal project issues
When Rebecca served as the managing editor for the hymnal project in the mid-1980s for Hymnal: A Worship Book, she faced the controversy of whether or not to use inclusive language in “606” in the new hymnal.

“Many Mennonites were not in favor of the inclusive language version that the Church of the Brethren used, which upset people in the Church of the Brethren,” she says.

The intensity surrounding the decision grew, and there was a one-year period where the committee did not discuss the piece.

Her role as managing editor required her to find a process to decide which version to include. In the end, the committee decided to provide asterisks at the bottom of the piece with alternate inclusive-language lyrics.

In a sense, everyone won—whether it was the way they wanted to win or not, Rebecca says.
Ken, who also worked on the hymnal project, says people wondered if “606” would still be hymn number “606” in the new hymnal. People asked him, but he did not yet know the final decision. He believes the question was a “facetious, lighthearted way of asking, ‘What’s going to happen with our tradition of singing?’ ”

Ken Nafziger. Photo by Matt Styer.

When he kept facing the question he responded with, “If ‘606’ really needs to be ‘606,’ then there is the chance that it’s become an idol.”

Are we singing it less?

Perhaps “606” used to be an idol for some, but Rebecca discovered in her study that overall, Mennonites in Elkhart County—and perhaps in the broader Mennonite Church USA—are actually singing “606” less and are not teaching it to new members or children.

She found that 17 of 20 congregations sang “606” at least three or four times a year, usually as a climax for celebration or a holiday, but no music leader had a consistent plan for teaching the song.

If “606” is only sung at special occasions, it becomes one more song people “get lost in,” she says.

Bradley Kauffman, chair of the music department at Hesston (Kan.) College, also believes the lack of teaching “606” to new members and children contributes to this decline.

Bradley Kauffman

Bradley says “606” has less of an affect on younger Mennonites than it used to for a variety of reasons: Teaching singing is less a priority, stewardship of time has shifted from the community to the personal, and there are changes in sanctuary acoustics across Mennonite worship.

“This may be lamented for the loss of a unifying cultural trait but may also mark an appropriate lessening of cultural barriers to church growth,” he wrote in an email. “I have known people from outside the church who were drawn in by a transporting ‘606’ experience. I know there are others who have found it alienating.”

Then he asks: “If the vitality of ‘606’ is fading, broadly or narrowly—intentionally or otherwise—what are we replacing it with?”

Anna Groff is assistant editor of The Mennonite.

Audio of "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow" from Singing: Treasures From Mennonite Worship CD. Performed by the Eastern Mennonite University Chamber Singers conducted by Kenneth Nafziger. Copyright © 2001 by Herald Press, Scottdale PA 15683. Used by permission.

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