The Hymnal

Whether it is the wonderful memories that are attached to the precious hymns contained inside or it is the shaped notes that comprise each song, this timeless classic continues to be sung across our nation year after year. The Church Hymnal (which is commonly called the “red-back” hymnal because of its red cloth hard cover) is often featured in gospel music conventions and local church “red back hymnal singings” on a regular basis.

Pathway Press is the exclusive publisher of this beloved book. This 410 page shaped note hymnal includes a topical index that lists hymns appropriate to 14 different occasions including baptism, consecration, funerals, missionary, and testimony. It also features a general index that alphabetically lists more than 400 classic hymns. Literally, millions of Church Hymnals have been sold to lovers of gospel music the world over. These hymnals fit the needs of the congregation, choir, and soloist.

The Church Hymnal is also available in a large-print edition which opens flat for use at the piano, organ, and on the music director’s stand. Several songs were selected from the Church Hymnal to fill a red back hymnal listening CD. A split track of these songs is also available so that they can be sung in a local church setting.


With the growth of the Church of God and the success of Tennessee Music Printing Company during the 1940s, some ministers and laity requested the publication of a hymnal for the denomination. After some time and discussion, a hymnal committee was eventually formed which included Otis McCoy as editor and V.B. (Vep) Ellis and Zeno C. Tharp as assistant compilers. Ellis was a prominent minister, musician and songwriter within the Church of God, and Tharp was a well-know minister and elected official within the denomination.

The Church Hymnal was finally made available to the public in November of 1951. With a price of $1.50 per book, the initial printing consisted of 25,000 copies. The Hymnal was printed in shape notes only and bound with a maroon or green board cover. The maroon cover was the most popular choice and was the inspiration for the name “Red Back.”

As a result of the committee’s choice of songs as well as the need and desire for a hymnal of this type, the Church Hymnal was well received from its initial publication. In the first three months of publication, over 14,000 copies were sold. A second printing of 27,500 was available as early as May of 1952. Interestingly, the sale of 25,000 hymnals within the first five months occurred in a denomination with a United States membership of only 122,000 and a worldwide membership of less than 221,000 in 1951. Since its initial publication, over 6 million copies have been sold.

The Church Hymnal is probably the best single repository of gospel hymnody. It is comprised of 410 selections and is printed in the seven-shape-note format. Today, it remains one of the few hymnals using this unique style of notation.

Museum Exhibit

On November 5, 2015 the Museum Center at 5ive Points unveiled a new permanent exhibition entitled “The Red Back:” America’s Best-Loved Hymnal.

The exhibit explores the local history of the Red Back from its development and first printing right here in Cleveland to its widespread adoption and continuing influence on Christian music. Visitors to the exhibition will learn about influential figures in the history of the Red Back, the unique and easy-to-learn shape note system it uses, and the gritty, industrial mechanics of its publication and production.

The exhibit is packed with content for learners of all ages. An interactive touchscreen offers commentary by local Gospel musicians on the history of the Red Back. Visitors can hear from singing school veteran Charles Towler, former Homeland Harmony Quartet member Jack Clark, and others. An integrated listening station allows those unfamiliar with the Red Back’s music to listen to some of its most famous songs. A hands-on shape note activity introduces visitors to the basics of shape note music, and a fully functioning linotype machine and proofing press help visitors learn just how much time and effort went in to publishing a book like the Red Back in 1951.

The Museum Center at 5ive Points anchors the exciting attractions and developments along Inman Street in the downtown 5-Points District. The Museum’s address is 200 Inman Street East, Cleveland, TN. 37311.

Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Saturday, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Closed Sundays, Mondays, and most major holidays

Visit for more info.

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