Hymn History

Scripture is the basic raw material for most good hymns. A hymn cannot be useful unless and until it relates closely to the revealed truth about God and God’s mighty acts as written in the Scriptures. The effectiveness, therefore, of any hymn is measurable in large part by the extent towhich it functions as a vehicle for scriptural truth. From one standpoint the entire history of the hymn could be delineated according to its varying relationship to the Scriptures. Generally speaking, the line of evolution is from the actual singing of parts of the Bible (the psalms, for example) through the strict paraphrasing of extended passages and the dutiful use of biblical allusion, language, and figures of speech, to
the free expression of scriptural thought and teaching in contemporary terms. (except from Sing With Understanding, p. 49)

The Psalms, the most quoted Hebrew Scripture in the New Testament, are the base upon which all subsequent church song has been built. Whether intended for corporate or private worship, they voice universal sentiments which have constituted the themes of musical devotion throughout the centuries. Since they appear and reappear in varied forms and styles throughout the history of congregational song, their supreme importance for worship prior to the formation of the Christian church needs only to be recognized here. (Sing With Understanding, p. 78)

Hymnal Refernces
B = The Baptist Hymnal, 1991
E = The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal, published in 1985)
L = Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978
M = The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989
P = The Presbyterian Hymnal, 1990

Copyrighted Illustrations 
The photos of Hymn writers except those of Samuel Smith and Charles A. Tinley are copyrighted by Charles Massey, Jr. and they are used with permission.

Ambrose of MilanAmbrose Milan

Ambrose (c. 340-397) led the battle against Arianism in Milan where he had been made bishop by popular demand. When besieged in his basilica by the heretical soldiers ofthe Arian Emperor Valentinian and his motherJustina, he composed simple, singable hymns for his followers to relieve their weariness during the long night watches. Ambrose’s hymns were shorter and more disciplined than those of Hilary. Moreover, adopting the meter of the marching rhythm of soldiers, he standardized the form known in modern English hymnody as “Long Meter”-four lines of iambic tetrameter. 12 Ofthe near 100 hymns attributed to Ambrose, only four can be proved as his. But his pioneering work was so significant for metrical hymnody in the West that the term “Ambrosian” is applied to all hymns produced at this time in the meter that he established, even though they may have been composed by some of his numerous imitators and disciples. Many of these hymns (especially those that came into being after the Arian struggle had calmed down and the church was again more serene) represent the earliest “office hymns” for use in the prescribed hours of prayer in the monasteries. These hymns are austere in their simplicity and largely objective in content. Three of Ambrose’s hymns in English translation which continue to be used are:
“0 Splendor of God’s glory bright” (E5, M679, P474) or
“0 Splendor of the Father’s light” (L271)
“0Trinity, 0 blessed Light” (L275) or
“0 Trinity of blessed light” (E30)
“Savior of the nations, come” (E54, L2S, M214, P14)
The first and second titles are translations of Ambrose’s morning hymn, Splendor paternae gloriae. Addressed especially to Christ as the Light of the world, it asks for divine guidance throughout the day. The third and fourth titles are translations of O lux beata, Trinitas, an evening hymn in praise of the triune God. In both these hymns the imagery oflight is prominent. Light is a symbol found in Scripture and in earlier hymnody before Ambrose (for example, the famous “Lamplighting Hymn” previously mentioned). The final hymn, translated from Veni, redemptor gentium, is popularly used at Advent and comes to us principally through the German of Martin Luther in various composite English translations. Intended for congregational singing in the monastic communities, these songs set the standard for a great body of systematic hymnody that was to develop throughout the Middle Ages.


Francis of AssisiFancis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), the most remarkable personality of the early 13th century (who founded the mendicant order bearing his name), is intimately connected with the origins of the laudi which resulted from the combination of Provencal (southern French) song style with the Italian vernacular. Known as “God’s Troubadour,” Francis attracted numerous followers, including two of the above-mentioned authors: Jacopone da Todi and Thomas of Celano, the saint’s biographer. Francis’s famous “Canticle to the Sun,”Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore, is said to be the first genuine religious lyric in the Italian language. It reflects the saint’s child-like identification with all creation in the joyous praise of the Eternal. One translation is by the British clergyman, William H. Draper (1855-1933), “All creatures of our God and King” (B27, E400, L527, M62, P455). A second translation is by Howard Chandler Robbins, American pastor and teacher (18761952), “Most high, omnipotent, good Lord” (E406, 407). The exciting traditional tune, LASST UNS ERFREUEN can be sung antiphonally with good effect.


Martin LutherMartin Luther

Luther may well have composed the melodies to “A mighty fortress” and to some ofhis other texts, but this is uncertain. Most surely he used melodies that reflected the German Meistersinger tradition, including EIN’ FESTE BURG. Several recent American hymnals (E687, 688; L228, 229; P259, 260) give both the original rhythmic and the altered isometric versions of EIN’ FESTE BURG. Luther’s “A mighty fortress” (B8, E687, 688; L228, 229; M20, P259, 260), which became the “Battle hymn of the Refomation,” mirrors his strong personality. This chorale depicts Luther’s struggle with Satan (st. 1), including his belief in the presence and power of devils (st. 3), and the triumph of Christ and God’s kingdom over the forces of evil (st. 4).




Paul Gerhardt

Paul GerhartThe introspective qualities of the 17th-century German hymn are most fully exemplified in the work of the Lutheran minister Paul Gerhardt (1607-76), regarded, next to Luther, as the greatest German hymnist. Gerhardt is the most beloved and the most frequently represented writer in German hymnals today. Four of his hymns are often included in American hymnals:
• Froelich soli mein Herze springen (“All my heart this night (today) rejoices,” P21; “Once again my heart rejoices,” L46)–a Christmas hymn originally containing 15 stanzas;
• 0 Haupt voll Blut und wunden (“0 sacred Head, now (sore) wounded” B13 7; E168 169; Ll16; M286; P98)–Gerhardt’s translation of part of a medieval poem on the suffering of Christ on the cross;
• Befiehl du deine Wege (“Give to the winds thy (your) fears,” M129, P286)–a personal hymn of trust in God; and
• 0 ]esu Christ, mein schoenstes Licht (“Jesus, thy boundless love to me,” B123, L336, M183, P366)-a personal hymn giving the
believer’s response to the love ofJesus. The subjective character of Gerhardt’s hymns is illustrated in “Jesus, thy boundless love to me” (1653) (translated in Georgia by John Wesley and published in 1739), in which the personal pronouns “I,” “me” and “my” abound.

John CalvinJohn Calvin

Just as Luther gave the chorale its impetus, his contemporary–the French-Swiss Reformation theologian John Calvin (1509-64)-was the guiding hand behind the metrical psalm. A more radical reformer than Luther, Calvin rejected the musical heritage of the Roman Catholic Church, including organs, choirs, and humanly composed hymns. He advocated singing only Scripture in worship, primarily the Psalms versified like hymns so that each could be sung to a particular tune. Furtthermore, in Calvin’s view the metrical psalms were to be sung only in unison and without instrumental accompaniment.The result of this philosophy of church song was the production of a series of gradually enlarged psalters in French, beginning with Calvin’s Strassburg Psalter of 1539, continuing with other psalters published in Geneva, and culminating with the Genevan Psalter of 1562, which included all 150 psalms plus the Ten Commandments and the Nunc dimittis. The complete Genevan Psalter contained 125 tunes in 110 different meters.

The Bay of Psalm BookThe Bay Psalm Book

In 1640 at Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Puritans published the Bay Psalm Book, the first book of any kind to be printed in British North America. The Puritan ministers sought to provide in the Bay Psalm Book a rendering of the Psalms that was smoother and closer to the original Hebrew than those of Sternhold and Hopkins. The early editions of the Bay Psalm Book contained no music but was referenced to the Ravenscroft Psalter for tunes. Although no psalm versions from the Bay Psalm Book remain in use in today’s congregational repertory, this psalter was widely used for over a century in New England, England, and Scotland.


Timothy DwightTimothy Dwight

After the colonies gained political independence, various psalter editions sought to accommodate Watts’ Psalms to America by removing references to Britain: Barlow (1785), Dwight (1801), Worcester (1815), and Winchell (1818). The second of these, edited by Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), an army chaplain under George Washington and later president of Yale, included the editor’s version of Psalm 137, “I love thy (your) kingdom, Lord” (B354, E524, L368, M540, P441), the earliest American congregational song remaining in common use.




Issac WattsIssac Watts

Isaac Watts possessed both the vision for and the ability to join two main streams–paraphrases of Scripture and devotional lyric poetry–and to produce the two types of true English hymn for which he is justly famous. These two types resulted from his twofold theory of congregational praise:
1. Truly authentic praise for Christian folk had to go beyond the mere words of Scripture to include original expressions of devotion and thanksgiving.
2. If the Psalms were to be used in Christian worship, they must be renovated by giving them Christian content.



John WesleyJohn Wesley

The first hymnbook to be published on North American soil for use in
Anglican worship was John Wesley’s Collection of Psalms and Hymns (Savannah, GA, printed in Charleston, SC, 1737). Of its 70 hymns, exactly one half were from Watts, the others were hymns of inner experience and evangelical concern. This early collection showed John’s tempering of the Calvinistic stream of hymnody (psalmody) with the warmer current of Lutheran pietistic devotion that had been picked up from the Moravians.





Reginald HeberReginald Heber

The movement toward the “literary hymn” was led by Bishop Heber (1783-
1826) in his attempt to compile a national church hymnal made up of
the contributions of people like Robert Southey (1724-1843), Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), and other romantic poets. Until his untimely death in India, Heber had gathered over a hundred hymns, more than half being his own, that were published posthumously in 1827. The three distinguishing characteristics of this collection were: (1) Its hymns were arranged in the order of the Christian year; (2) They were emotionally sensitive, albeit restrained; and (3) they were couched in romantic images and elegant forms, thus joining the mainstream of Romantic Literature. These mark a significant development in the evolution of the English hymn and are aptly demonstrated by Heber’s own hymns.

His “Brightest and best of the stars (sons) of the morning” (E117, 118, L84, P67)-(for Epiphany); “The Son of God goes forth to war” (L84 )–(for St. Stephen’s Day, December 26); and “Bread of the world in mercy broken” (E361, M624, P502)–(for communion), show his concern to make hymns fit the various emphases of the Prayer Book and the ecclesiastical year. Second, as evidence of his concern for sober restraint, his “Holy, holy, holy” (B2, E362, L165, M64, P138) praises not the intimate God of the mystics, nor the fearful God of the Calvinists, but the transcendent Lord “perfect in power, in love and purity.” Third, his “God, that madest (who made the) earth and heaven” (L281, M688) and “From Greenland’s icy mountains” (the first real missionary hymn after Watts’s “Jesus shall reign”) beautifully exhibit his romantic use of the imagery of nature as background for hymnic thought.


Francis Ridley HavergalFrances Havergal


This evangelical Anglican, Francis Ridley Havergal
(1836-79) wrote the following hymns:
I am trusting you, Lord Jesus (L460)
I gave my life for thee (B606)
Like a river glorious (B58)
Lord, speak to me (us), that I (we) may speak (B568, L403, M463, P426)
Take my life and let it (that I may) be consecrated (B277, 283; E707, L406, M299, P391)





Erik RoutleyEric Routley

From 1947 to 1974, Erik Routley served as editor of the Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, often furnishing the greater part of each quarterly issue with his own scholarly articles and reviews of hymnals. He served on the editorial board of many hymnals published during the last quarter of the 20th century and was the author of numerous periodical articles and other works pertaining to many aspects of hymnody. Since he was a creator as well as a student of hymn texts and tunes, Routley has been representative of the whole of late 20th-century hymnic activity.




William Walker

William WalkerThrough shape-note tunebooks, folk hymns (along with New England psalm tunes, fuging tunes, and anthems) were widely circulated in the pre-Civil War period, especially in the rural South and Midwest. Four leadirg shape-note tunebooks of this period, each containing a number of folk hymns, are Ananias Davisson’s Kentucky Harmony (the first Southem shape-note tunebook, Harrisonburg, VA, 1816), Allen Carden’s Missouri Harmony(St. Louis, but printed in Cincinnati, 1820; later eds. to 1857), William Walker’s Southern Harmony (Spartanburg, SC, but printed first in New Haven, CT, and later in Philadelphia, 1835; later eds. to 1854), and B.F. White and E. J. King’s The Sacred Harp (Hamilton, GA, but printed in Philadelphia, 1844; later eds. To the present time). Folk hymns from oral tradition thus became part of the rural singing school through their publication in numerous shape-note tunebooks, some of which survive in present-day singings. An increasing number of early American folk hymns (texts and tunes or hymn tunes for more recent texts) have appeared in most American hymnals of recent decades.
• NEW BRITAIN or AMAZING GRACE (B330, E671, L448, M378, P280) is a pentatonic melody, probably the most popular American folk hymn. Although its text was written by John Newton in the previous century, its tune first appeared in print in Columbian Harmony, or Pilgrim’s Musical Companion (Cincinnati, 1829), compiled by Benjamin Shaw and Charles H. Spilman, where it is set to other texts. William Walker first published this tune to “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” in his Southern Harmony (Spartanburg, SC; printed in New Haven, CT: Nathan Whiting, 1835). This folk hymn is equally popular among Black and White congregations and had the distinction of becoming an international hit in 1972 recording of the Royal Scotch Dragoon Guards.


Samuel F. Smith

Massachusetts Baptist minister Samuel F. Smith (1808-95) produced one of America’s enduring patriotic hymns, “My country, ’tis of thee” (AMERICA, B634, Samuel F. SmithE717, L566, M697, P561), written in 1831 and first sung by a choir of Boston Sunday School children directed by Lowell Mason. This hymn’s New England origin is reflected in such phrases as: “I love thy rocks and rills, Thy woods and templed hills.” Smith was also one of the editors of The Psalmist (Boston, 1843), a leading Baptist hymnal of the first half of the century.




John Greenleaf Whittier

John WhittierThe one Quaker hymnist of the nineteenth century whose hymns are still being sung is one of the giants of American poetry, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92). Although he did not write hymns as such, hymns have been extracted from his poems. Two of his hymns that survive are: “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” (1872, B267, E652, 653, L506, M358, 499, P345) and “Immortal Love, forever full” (1866, B480).





William B. Bradbury

Although the term “gospel hymnody” emerged in the mid-1870s, this hymnody actually appeared more than a William Bradburydecade earlier, especially in collections designed for America’s rapidly growing Sunday Schools. Some of the common features of the gospel hymn were anticipated in hymn tunes of Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings. But Mason’s student, William B. Bradbury (1816-68), a leading composer of Sunday School music, is the first composer in this idiom whose works survive to any extent in current American hymnals. The compiler and publisher of numerous collections with titles designed to appeal to Sunday School children (for example, Fresh Laurels, New York, 1867;Golden Chain, New York, 1861), Bradbury composed the musical settings for:
• “Jesus loves me” (1862, CHINA or JESUS LOVES ME, B344, M191, P304),
• “He leadeth me” (1864, B52, L501, M128),
• “Sweet hour of prayer” (ca. 1861, B445, M496),
• “Just as I am, without one plea” (1849, WOODWORTH, B307,
E693, L296, M357, P370),
• “My hope is built on nothing less” (1863, SOLID ROCK, B406,
L293 ,M368,P379),and
• “Savior, like a shepherd lead us” (BRADBURY, B61, M381,


Ira D. Sankey

The 1870s gospel hymnody was a major force in urban revivalism, especially through the meetings of evangelist Dwight L. Moody (1837 -99) and his musical Ira Sankeyassociate Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908). During the Moody-Sankey era, the hymns previously associated with the Sunday School came to be known as gospel hymns. Sankey introduced many gospel hymns as he accompanied himself at his portable reed organ. Much of Moody and Sankey’s wiork was related to the Young Men’s Christian Association (founded in London, 1844; in Boston and Montreal, 1851), an organization which utilized the popular hymns of Bradbury, Lowery, Fisher and others. Moody and Sankey first met at a YMCA convention in Indianapolis in 1870. Sankey was selected to direct music at Moody’s church in Chicago. In 1872, when Moody was invited to hold evangelistic meetings in England, he first sought the services of the more experienced musicians Philip Phillips (1834-95) and then Philip P. Bliss (1838-76); both declined. Moody then invited the less experienced Sankey, who during their British tour gained international fame. Such was the demand for the hymns used by Sankey that a series of popular gospel hymn collections emerged. Although he was more important as a compiler and a popularizer of gospel hymnody than as a composer, Sankey composed two tunes in the hymnals of this study (SANKEY, B413; TRUSTING JESUS, B417).


Charles A. Tindley

Two representative composers of Black gospel hymnody are Charles A. Tindley (1851-1933) and Thomas A. Charles TindleyDorsey (1899-1993). Tindley, pastor of the Tindley Temple Methodist Church in Philadelphia from 1902 until his death, wrote both words and music to “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” : (1905, first line: “We are tossed and driven on the restless sea of time”55; MS2S; altered version: “Trials dark on ev’ry hand, and we cannot understand,” BS22) and “Stand By Me” (1905, first line: “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me,” M512 ). Both of these hymns reflect the life of poverty and discrimination experienced by many Black Americans. Note, for example, the second stanza of “We’ll Understand It Better By and By”:




“We are often destitute of the things that life demands,
Want of food and want of shelter, thirsty hills and barren lands; We are trusting in the Lord, and according to God’s word,
We will understand it better by and by.”