‘Favorite Hymns of Our Presidents’ to grace Sacred Song Service

Though Independence Day might get Chautauquans excited for fireworks over the lake, Jared Jacobsen is “psyched” for a patriotically themed Sacred Song Service.

Jacobsen, organist and director of worship and sacred music, will lead a service titled “Favorite Hymns of Our United States Presidents” at 8 p.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater.

This service was first given at Chautauqua Institution in 1998, and has subsequently been updated and repeated in 2005 and 2011. Jacobsen said he likes to revisit the service every few years to see what’s new in presidential scholarship.

“Certain presidents were known to be Sunday school teachers or particular men of faith,” Jacobsen said. “So I just figured that there had to be hymns that were favorites [of theirs].”

Jacobsen said that the service will consist mostly of congregational singing, with fewer choral arrangements for the Chautauqua Choir than usual. The service will also contain a “painless history lesson,” with stories about each of the presidents whose favorite hymns are to be sung.

These historical anecdotes will be read by board of trustees Vice Chair Tim Renjilian and his wife, Leslie. Previous iterations of the service have been narrated by a congressman and an incumbent president.

“It [the service] will have the usual bookends at the front and the back that we always do,” Jacobsen said. “But in the middle, we’ll sort of just climb inside the musical minds of these presidents.”

The service was originally compiled by former Daily editor and Institution historian, Alfreda Irwin and Jack Grigsby, respectively. While historical documentation was tracked down for presidents who had died, sitting former presidents who were still alive were sent letters requesting information about their favorite sacred songs.

Jacobsen said many wrote personal replies.

“All of them that we’ve contacted are thrilled to be asked, and they give very thoughtful replies,” Jacobsen said. “Not just, ‘Here’s the hymn I like,’ but ‘Here’s why.’ And that’s what personalizes this [service] for me.”

Among these replies is a letter from George H. W. Bush, who identified “The Navy Hymn” as his favorite because, “It expresses so wonderfully our dependence on God for peace and strength.”

Jacobsen added “The Gift to Be Simple” in 2011 to represent President Barack Obama. Jacobsen said that, although President Obama has not officially stated that this is his favorite hymn, a version of the song was commissioned for his 2008 inauguration ceremony.

The presidential letters now hang in the entry to Director of the Department of Religion Robert Franklin’s office.

“Not only does Chautauqua ask to sort of catalogue [those replies] in a museum like most institutions,” Franklin said. “No, we actually sing the hymns, and we have a narrative. We have this whole story that goes with them. That’s sort of the Chautauqua way of approaching history, holiday and sacred memory.”

Franklin feels that this Chautauquan approach provides a unique look at the religious lives of the presidents.

“I celebrate Chautauqua for doing [this program] and giving us another angle of vision into the minds and the spirits of the presidents who have lead this revolutionary nation, this revolutionary experiment and what gives them spiritual comfort, courage, council and wisdom,” Franklin said. “I’ll be very interested to listen to the hymns.”