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‘Sisters in Song’ explores hymns by women: Q-and-A with local author Leslie Clay

What started as research for a women’s retreat at church has become a book – a first book for local author Leslie Clay.

  In 2008, Clay was on the committee for the women’s retreat at Broadway Christian Church. That year’s theme was music, and Clay offered to play the piano as women arrived. She wanted to play songs written by women, so she started doing some research.

Soon, she had more than two hours’ worth of material to play. But she didn’t stop there.

“I got carried away after the retreat,” Clay said. “And as time permitted, I would research additional women and additional hymns, until at some point, it became big enough for a book.”

She’d never written a book before, and she didn’t know anything about the book publication process. During her 35 years of working for Shelter Insurance Company, she’d written a couple magazine articles, but they had nothing to do with music, hymnody or religion.

In the midst of all this research, someone from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute asked her to teach a class on these women who wrote hymns. The description of the class in the course catalog said Clay was writing a book. Not wanting to make the woman who recruited her to teach the class out to be a liar, Clay decided she’d better go ahead with finishing the book.

That book, “Sisters in Song,” was published a few months ago. It gives a brief overview of the lives of 104 women who wrote hymns, including information on how they began writing, and the stories behind some of their most well-loved hymns. I sat down to talk with Clay about the book and what she learned throughout the process.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

You write in the introduction to the book that it’s not meant to be academic, or comprehensive. Instead, it’s written from a perspective of personal interest. Tell me more about that.  

“It started as some research for the women’s retreat. It wasn’t intended to be part of an academic paper, or a dissertation. And I continued with that idea. I just simply wanted to find out what hymns were written that either I knew and liked, or hymns I came across later on during my research that I liked.”

What kind of reader is this book made for?

“I would say it would be people who are interested in hymnology/hymns, people who are interested in women’s history, people who simply like music.”

Many of the women you write about are from the 1800s and 1900s, but you also reach back several centuries to much earlier writers. How did you come across the older writers? 

“I, during my research, had found these names of women going as far back as Hildegard (von Bingen), who was born in 1098. I didn’t know any thing about Hildegard, but as I did my research, I was amazed at what she did and what she wrote. I just came across these others during my research. I would check out books from the local public library, or my church library, and find out a little more about them.”

What was so remarkable about Hildegard?

“Back in an era when women had no voice in church, she had a voice. She is the first person, male or female, to whome we can attribute both the music and lyrics of hymns which are even to this day sung. She wrote in chant, and they have been adapted, some of them by current women. Hildegard could tell important men – popes, bishops, kings – what to do, and they did it. She was a very forceful woman; she had to be. She did this by saying that she had visions from God. And their rational was, well, if God told her, then it’s OK.”

You also include many classic hymn writers, such as Fanny Crosby, along with contemporary artists, such as Amy Grant and Twila Paris. What were some of the common threads among all these women, from Hildegard all the way through today? 

“I would say they were all fairly intelligent women, and they were all very devout in their own way, to their faith. Some of them were Catholic, some Protestant, some marginal, but they were all very spiritual women.”

What surprised you the most? 

“My biggest surprise was how many there were. They far outnumbered what I had expected to find.”

What’s your favorite hymn? 

“The hymn that comes to my mind is “Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” by Doris Akers. She’s a Missouri woman. She was an African American woman who was born in an era when African American women had a very tough time. But she prevailed, and has written some wonderful stuff.”

Have you ever thought about writing any hymns of your own?

“I’m content to simply play what other people have written.”

What do you think is important for people to know as they read this book?  

“I think they should go in with an open mind, because some of these women may not have been the same in terms of their spirituality as the reader, and some are very much the same. We have all stripes of women, and so you have to have an open mind.”

“Sisters in Song” by Leslie Clay is available locally at Lemstone Parable Christian Store in Columbia, as well as online, through AmazonandBarnes and Noble.

This story was published in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values, mid-Missouri's source for religion news. Find more stories like this one at ColumbiaFAVS.com.

Kellie Moore left KBIA in the spring of 2014.