The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition

by Gaylon L. Powell

Title page for The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition

4-Syllable Little and Smith Shape-Note System

Little and Smith shape-note system
Image (scale) courtesy of P. Dan Brittain, 2017.

The Sacred Harp, a Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, Odes, and Anthems, Selected from the Most Eminent Authors: Together with Nearly One Hundred Pieces Never Before Published; Suited to Most Metres, and Well Adapted to Churches of Every Denomination, Singing Schools, and Private Societies with Plain Rules for Learners was first published in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White (1800-1879) and Elisha James King (1821-1844) of Hamilton, Georgia. The Sacred Harp has been the most enduring tune book of all the shape-note books.

The Sacred Harp had other tune books to compete within its early days: William Walker's The Southern Harmony (1835), Walker's The Southern & Western Pocket Harmonist (1845), William Hauser's The Hesperian Harp (1848), John Gordon McCurry's The Social Harp (1855), and perhaps a few remaining copies of the old and frequently reprinted The Missouri Harmony (1820) by Allen D. Carden. Not long after the publication of The Sacred Harp, new seven-shaped tune books appeared: Jesse Bowman Aiken's Christian Minstrel (1846), W. Harvey Swan and Markus Lafayette Swan's Harp of Columbia (1849), Walker's The Christian Harmony (1866), and M. L. Swan's New Harp of Columbia (1867). Of all the books listed here, only The Christian Harmony managed to maintain a large area of use, ranging from North Carolina to Mississippi; the other books either dwindled to use within a single community or completely faded away. The Sacred Harp was able to overcome this competition against other similar books, and its usage spread westward as far as Texas and Oklahoma with the help of migration.

B. F. White, with the assistance of a committee, revised the book three times: 1850, 1859, and 1869. The first two revisions only added pages: the 1850 revision added 104 pages to the original 262 pages; the 1859 revision added an additional 66 pages. The 1869 revision removed tunes that were perceived to be not in use but added more tunes and a few more pages to total 477 pages.

In the early 1900s, different individuals led committees to revise The Sacred Harp. Wilson Marion Cooper, of Dothan, Alabama, worked with a committee to publish The Sacred Harp: Revised and Improved in 1902, known among singers as the "Cooper Book." Cooper added alto parts to all songs that did not have an alto, added some new compositions, added a few modern gospel songs, and removed tunes that he perceived that were not in use. The regions that used this book were Texas, Florida, and the southern regions of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

In 1905, a new convention was organized in Atlanta by Joseph Stephen James (1849-1931) and James Landrum White, son of B. F. White. The proper name of this convention is the United Sacred Harp Musical Association, commonly known as the United Convention. In 1906 this convention passed a resolution to revise The Sacred Harp and compile "other smaller music books."

In 1909, James and his committee published the Union Harp and History of Songs. This book included a variety of music styles, including the types of new songs found in Cooper's edition. the Union Harp seems to answer the call for "other small music books," and possibly be used as a supplement to the pending revision of The Sacred Harp (as per the Convention's resolution). This book also included a historical sketch of each song, passing along a bit of information about the composer, poet, or even the song itself.

Also, in 1909, J. L. White and his committee published the fifth edition of The Sacred Harp. This revision was a mixture of songs with dispersed harmony, which Sacred Harp singers find so appealing, and his "improved" harmonization. This book was rejected by the singers.

In 1911, James and his committee published the Original Sacred Harp. This revision, known to singers as the "James Book," is considered to be the official continuation of B. F. White and E. J. King's The Sacred Harp. Alto parts were added to most of the tunes, and some of these added alto parts were taken from Cooper's revision with little modification. New tunes were added, bringing the total number of tunes to 609. James also added historical sketches to each song in the book, much like he did with the Union Harp.

The James Book went through another revision in 1936. The book still went by the title Original Sacred Harp. The revision committee was headed by the Denson brothers: Seaborn McDaniel Denson (1854-1936) and Thomas Jackson Denson (1863-1935). The Denson brothers died before the book was released, and Tom's son, Paine Denson (1882-1955), took over the leadership role to complete the revision. At this point, and still to this day, the singers refer to this book as the "Denson Book." The committee removed 176 rarely or never used tunes and added 41 new tunes. The book would be revised again in 1960, 1966, and 1971.

The last revision was in 1991. The title of the book was then changed to The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition. This latest revision is still known to many of the singers as the "Denson Book." As part of this revision all pages were reformatted, and the historical write up of the songs were removed--many of which were not that accurate.

At the current date (2023), a new revision is under consideration. A committee has been combing through 700-800 song submissions to be considered for the new revision, most of which cannot be used.

Before the 1970s, the James Book, later known as the Denson Book, was used in Tennessee, Texas, and the northern regions of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. During the 1970s, about the time of the American Bicentennial, the usage of the Denson Book began to spread outside of the South to places like California, Washington, Midwest, and New England. Twenty years later, singings began in Canada and Great Britain, and they are now spreading across the globe to places like Ireland, Germany, Poland, and Australia.

There were three ideas concerning book revisions. The Missouri Harmony was eventually controlled by the printing company and not the original compiler of the book. Their "corrective measures" caused the book to fall into obscurity. The singers that were singing from The Southern Harmony believed we should leave the book the way it was before the compiler, William Walker, passed away. Other than about three exceptions, this book would also fall into obscurity. The Sacred Harp has been revised several times since the passing of B. F. White. Each revision was overseen by committees of active singers that actively sing from these books. We even reached the point to where we now have three separate revisions: Denson, Cooper, and J. L. White. All three are still in active use.


Cobb, Buell E. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press 1987).

Jackson, George P. The Story of the Sacred Harp: 1844-1944, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1944).

James, Joseph S. Union Harp and History of Songs: Brief Sketch of the Authors of Tunes and Hymns; Newly Arranged Tune and Song Book Consisting of Sacred Tunes, Songs and Anthems: Prepared for Churches, Sunday-Schools, Singing Schools, Conventions and All Public Gatherings as Well as Private Classes and the Home, (Douglasville, GA: publisher not identified, 1909).

Steel, David W. and Richard H. Hulan. The Makers of the Sacred Harp, (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010).

White, B. F. and E. J. King. Original Sacred Harp, Centennial Edition, (Breman, GA: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 2011).

White, B. F. and E. J. King. The Sacred Harp, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1968).

White, B. F. and E. J. King. Original Sacred Harp, (Breman, GA: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1971).

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Last Revised 7/26/2023