9 Things You Should Know About Christian Hymns
9 Things You Should Know About Christian Hymns

Today is the 147th anniversary of the death of Charlotte Elliott, author of the hymn “Just As I Am.” Billy Graham said his team used this hymn in almost every one of their crusades, and the historian of hymnody Kenneth Osbeck wrote that “Just As I Am” had “touched more hearts and influenced more people for Christ than any other song ever written.” Here are nine more things you should know about one of the most important musical forms in the history of the church.

1. A hymn is a religious song or poem of praise to God sung during Christian worship, typically by the whole congregation. The singing or composition of hymns is called hymnody, while a writer of hymns is known as a hymnodist. A collection of hymns is called a hymnal or hymnary. A student of hymnody is called a hymnologist, and the scholarly study of hymns, hymnists, and hymnody is hymnology.

2. The term hymn is derived from the Greek hymnos “festive song or ode in praise of gods or heroes,” used in the Septuagint (earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) to translate several Hebrew words meaning “song praising God.”

3. The music to which a hymn may be sung is known as the hymn tune. Many English hymns were written in a particular hymn metre (i.e., a specific number of syllables for the lines in each stanza of a hymn) so that the hymn could be sung to a tune already know by the congregation. For example, “Amazing Grace” is written in common metre (8.6.8.6) and sung to the tune of the traditional song known as “New Britain.”

4. The earliest references to Christian hymnody come in the New Testament. Two references are made in the Gospels (Matt. 26:30 and Mark 14:26), likely referring to the singing of the Psalms. Hymnody is also mentioned in Acts 16:25; 1 Corinthians 14:26; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; and James 5:13.

5. Until the 18th century, most hymnody in churches consisted of singing of the inspired Psalms. During the Protestant Reformation, some reformers, like Martin Luther, began to include hymns, while others like John Calvin held to a principle of exclusive psalmody. The British hymnodist Isaac Watts has been called the “the liberator of the English hymn” for helping to move from exclusive psalm-singing to hymns. As Robin A. Leaver says, Watts believed through psalmody “that only Old Covenant themes were customarily sung among New Covenant people.” In his preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), Watts wrote:

While we are kindling into Divine Love by the Meditations of the loving Kindness of God, and the Multitude of his tender Mercies, within a few Verses some dreadful Curse against Men is proposed to our Lips; That God would add Iniquity unto their Iniquity, not let them come into his Righteousness, but blot them out of the Book of the Living (Psalms 69, 16, 27, 28). which is so contrary to the New Commandment, of loving our Enemies. [Emphasis in original]

6. The earliest post-New Testament reference to hymnody comes from a letter the Roman statesman Pliny the Elder sent to the Emperor Trajan (c. AD 113) describing his interrogation of Christians:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.

7. Charles Wesley, the younger brother of Methodist founder John Wesley, wrote 8,989 hymns. Wesley wrote an average of 10 lines of verse every day for 50 years, and completed a hymn every other day. During his life, he never heard his fellow Methodists sing his hymns in Sunday worship. At the time, Methodists were still part of the Anglican Church, and the Church of England did not officially approve the singing of hymns until 1820—32 years after Wesley’s death.

8. Although Fanny Crosby didn’t begin writing hymns until she was in her 40s, she became one of the most prolific hymnodists in the English language. Crosby is believed to have produced about 9,000 works, though as the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, “the exact number is obscured by the numerous pseudonyms (as many as 200, according to some sources) she employed to preserve her modesty.” Although a medical treatment by a man pretending to be a doctor caused Crosby to be blinded as a child, she considered her condition a blessing. “If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it,” Crosby said. “I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”

9. Modern musicians tend to distinguish between hymns and other forms of church music such as worship and praise songs. But Augustine had a broader and more inclusive definition of hymn. In his commentary on Psalm 148, Augustine said:

Know you what a hymn is? It is a song with praise of God. If you praise God and do not sing, you do not utter a hymn: if you sing and do not praise God, you do not utter a hymn: if you praise anything else, which pertains not to the praise of God, although you sing and praise, you utter no hymn. A hymn then contains these three things, song, and praise, and that of God. Praise then of God in song is called a hymn.


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9 Things You Should Know About Christian Hymns

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