Old Melodies, New Memories

Religious Studies Professor Mel Bringle’s academic life took a creative turn.
Portrait by Karin Strickland

Church hymn-singing dates back around 500 years. But the contemporary songcraft of Mary Louise “Mel” Bringle brushes the proverbial dust off the Bible.

Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Brevard College and coordinator of the college’s Integrated Studies Major program, Dr. Bringle pens elegant hymns that explore God’s presence within 21st-century life.  

A teacher at heart and theologian by training (with a Ph.D from Emory University and several publications in pastoral theology), Bringle never dreamed she’d write lyrics for hymns. But when a former student asked her to write words he could put to music for his wedding, her academic life took a creative turn. 

The student wanted a song he could sing to his bride. Although Bringle had never written such a song, she gave it a try. And the student included her with his family at the wedding ceremony. 

“It was such a resplendent experience I knew I wanted to do this some more,” she says. “The music took my words so much deeper than they were just by themselves.”

Next, she joined The Hymn Society and entered three Hymn Society competitions — garnering prizes in all three. Bringle was well on her way to adding “hymn text writer” to her résumé. Composers from around the world began asking her to put words to their music. 

Since 2000, she has written texts for more than 200 hymns for various faiths around the world — Bringle’s words can be found in Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Roman Catholic, United Church of Canada, and Church of Scotland hymnals, among others.

Photo by Karin Strickland

What is your process like?

I love the peace and quiet of early morning. That’s when I play the tune on the piano and hum through it. Play and hum and pray over it. And eventually I find myself singing words rather than simply humming. I might go to the Bible to find a scene or passage that expands my understanding.

Hymn writing is a wonderful, compact art form. A hymn can be created whole in a few concentrated days.  At the end there’s a huge sense of completion. It’s all very gratifying.  

What does hymn writing do for you personally?

For me it’s a spiritual discipline. I call it word-watching. You get very quiet and still and see what words flutter into your horizon, and then watch to see what they will do. [Like] bird watching, but word watching. 

What do you hope to contribute through your hymns?

I hope to say things people might want to say but haven’t yet found the words for. 

When you’re in church and the congregation is singing one of your hymns, does that feel like a star moment? 

I don’t think of a hymn as being exclusively mine, since someone else writes the music. And I don’t consider the words to be by me, but rather through me [via the Holy Spirit]. Therefore, I don’t experience the singing any differently from any other hymn. We’re all at church making music together.

You served as president of the Hymn Society and have received the society’s highest honor, being named a fellow. The notion of a “hymn society” sounds ancient or academic. But it’s a very vibrant group … 

For anyone interested in singing or writing or leading hymns, this is a marvelous organization. Next summer’s conference will be in Montreal. People should check it out: thehymnsociety.org

To reach Dr. Bringle, e-mail mbringle@brevard.edu.

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