"They're Playing Our Song": Functions of Western Hymns and Indigenous Songs in the History of the Non-Western Church, with a Case Study of the Maninka People in Kankan, Guinea

  • Katherine H. Morehouse Liberty University
Keywords: Hymnology, Indigenous Hymnody, Contextualization, Etic/Emic, Identity, Songwriting Seminars, Hymnody


Ethnic Christian identity (ECI), which Morehouse defines as a Christian community’s cumulative (but not necessarily dominant) cultural attributes, preferences, inclinations, and influences, is negotiated from intercultural and intracultural perspectives. This article is an attempt at functional, qualitative analysis of why communities with existing indigenous hymnodies continue to use Western hymns in the context of navigating intercultural and intracultural ECI. It relies on archival data from early- to mid-20th century missionary reports, along with ethnomusicological resources and personal examples, predominantly from fieldwork with the Maninka people in Guinea, West Africa.

Vast strides have been made in the field of ethnodoxology to promote and advocate for local song production for the worldwide Christian church. In many communities, however, Western hymns remain a staple of the Christian worship order—even when locally produced options exist. In this article, Katherine Morehouse explores this enigma for ethnodoxologists, while reaffirming the important role that ethnodoxology plays in the global and local church. Looking at attempted, failed, and repeated attempts at indigenous hymnody from a historical perspective may shed light on how indigenous hymns and Western hymns function differently in non-Western church communities, particularly as they relate to identity construction and maintenance. Each Christian community is in a constant state of identity negotiation, as local church communities around the world situate themselves in relation to the global church and to local “others,” creating a unique ethnic Christian identity (ECI). 

Author Biography

Katherine H. Morehouse, Liberty University
Professor of Ethnomusicology and Chair of Multi-Ethnic Music Studies Department at Liberty University. Director of the BM in Music in World Cultures and the online MA in Ethnomusicology.