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Among the distinguishing characteristics of the trend of modern thought are a growing faith in the capacities for good hidden within human nature, a conviction of the value of every hour of human life, and a poignant desire to make this life something happier and better than “a vale of tears.”… The gradual fading of old ideas of heaven and hell has left untouched every motive for striving towards goodness of heart and life; and no allusion to these ideas will be found among the selected poems.

Emily Josephine Troup, Preface to Hymns of Modern Thought (1900)

Hymns of Modern Thought was a collection of secular (or secularised) songs edited by composer and devoted member of the Ethical movement Emily Josephine Troup. Originally compiled for use by the Leicester Secular Society, and later republished for the ethical societies, Hymns was an enduringly popular work, the songs it contained acting as a vehicle for the societies’ humanist values, embodying a spirit of community. This edition was published for the Hampstead Ethical Institute (later the Hampstead Humanist Society), of which Troup was a member.

Though the singing of ‘hymns’ – albeit non-theological ones – was rarely without controversy within the early humanist movement, many ethical societies made strong use of them. Not only were they viewed as a means of conveying the movement’s ideals, they helped to challenge the image of dry rationalism too often associated with it – emphasising emotion and celebration. Hymns of Modern Thought contained pieces from Shakespeare, P.B. Shelley, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, William Morris, Sara A. Underwood, and many other well-known writers, alongside translations ‘from old Sanscrit metrical writings’, and contributions from Ethical movement figures such as Felix Adler and Gustav Spiller. The subjects they were arranged under included ‘truth’, ‘freedom’, ‘fellowship’, ‘work and action’, ‘hope and progress’, and ‘the power of goodness’.

During the 19th century and into the 20th, secular and ethical societies alike published works of secular song and ‘ethical hymns’, seeking to remove references to the supernatural and focus on ideals such as virtue, knowledge, and beauty, and themes such as the brotherhood of mankind. A notable example from the Ethical movement was Social Worship (in two volumes), the collaborative work of Stanton Coit and Charles Kennedy Scott. Individual societies sometimes adapted collections to meet their own needs, like the Emerson Ethical Brotherhood, whose Nature Hymns and Anthems could be taken with them on forest rambles and used during outdoor meetings.

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Hymns of Modern Thought | Leicester Secular Society

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