“Let all the world in every corner sing”: A Brief History of Hymnody

By Susan Harris


“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom: teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3.16)

Let all the world in every corner sing,
My God and King!
The heavens are not too high,
His praise may thither fly;
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.
Let all the world in every corner sing,
My God and King!
          George Herbert (1593-1632)
          The English Hymnal #427

When I was a little girl, I used to “sing lustily and with a good courage”, but sometimes, although I was always pretty clear about the tune, I was less than totally precise about the words. For example, “We Three Kings” was rendered by me as:

“We Three Kings, and Orrie and I
Bearing gifts we come from the sky”

and I am told that other small children have produced such memorable lyrics as:

“When mothers went sailing
Their children bothered Jesus”

– which conveys just about the opposite impression of our Lord from the actual Biblical event!

“When mothers of Salem
Their children brought to Jesus”

…he was not bothered by them at all!

We, in our turn, may come home from Church humming the last hymn, but retaining only the vaguest impression of the words we have just sung so enthusiastically. But, of course, it is the words that matter, even though the music can help the words into our hearts in the best of hymns. So, in giving this brief account of the history of Christian hymnody, I will address the text of the hymns rather than the music.

Sacred poetry set to music has been part of Christian worship from the very beginning. There is mention of hymn-singing in the New Testament, for example, in Mark 14.26, we read that “when (Jesus and the Disciples) had sung an hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives”. This was no doubt a psalm and certainly the “hymn book”, if you want to call it that, of the early Christians would have been the Book of Psalms. But “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Ephesians 5.14) is thought to be a quotation from an early Christian hymn, as is “God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory” (1 Timothy 3.16). The Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis found in St. Luke’s Gospel are other examples.

Early in the Second Century. Pliny, Governor of Bithynia reported to the Roman Emperor that the Christians sang hymns to Christ and Clement of Alexandria records that Christian communities sang at mealtimes. The hymn “O Gladsome Light” was written in the third century:

O Gladsome light, O Grace
Of God the Father’s face,
The eternal splendour wearing
Celestial, holy, blest,
Our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Joyful in thine appearing.
          Book of Common Praise #34 (trans. from the Greek)

Several of the Church Fathers mention the singing of hymns and it seems that from the Fourth Century on their use became more and more common.

At the time of the Arian controversy, Arius wrote up his heretical views in the form of hymns set to catchy drinking songs, which people could be heard humming or whistling in the streets. Not to be outdone, John Chrysostom responded by taking to the street himself singing orthodox hymns in procession, what one might call “taking back the streets”!

In the Fifth Century, controversy arose about what the content of Christian hymnody should be. Some maintained that only the words from Scripture should be sung. St. Augustine thought that we have nothing worthy to sing to God which was not given to us, that is, the words of Scripture, meaning for the most part the Book of Psalms. He defined a hymn as:

…singing with the praise of God. If you praise God and do not sing, you utter no hymn. If you sing and praise not God, you utter no hymn. If you praise anything which belongs not to the praise of God, though in singing you praise, you utter no hymn.

But St. Ambrose wrote a number of Latin hymns (including “Creator of the earth and sky“) and fostered and encouraged the use of hymns. The Spanish Prudentius, in the later Fourth and early Fifth Centuries wrote such hymns as “Of the Father’s love begotten” and “Bethlehem of noblest cities“. Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, writing about 200 years later, contributed such hymns as “Sing my tongue the glorious battle” and “The royal banners forward go.” So we can see already a wonderful tradition of Latin hymns growing up in the Church, in addition to the Psalms and hymns of the earliest Christians.

In the Middle Ages, the hymns used for public worship were in the form of “metrical sequences” designed for use at different times and seasons in the Church Year. These were mainly to show forth the meaning of the liturgy or the festival being observed and were in no way supposed to express the feelings or thoughts of individuals. They were sung for the most part by monks or clergy in a monastic setting to Latin plainchant. Some of these “hymns” are still familiar to us, for example, “Now my tongue the mystery telling” and “The heavenly Word proceeding forth” (by St. Thomas Aquinas) But if we read the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, we find a more personal approach:

Jesu, the very thought of thee
With sweetness fills the breast;
But sweeter far thy face to see,
And in thy presence rest.
          Book of Common Praise #493 (trans from Latin)

Vernacular hymns were written during the Middle Ages, but not for use in the Liturgy, which was offered in Latin. With the Reformation, came a desire for the singing of words so that they could be understood. Erasmus said of the music of his day, “modern church music is so constructed that the congregation cannot hear one distinct word”. The music was very lovely but most people were unable to understand what was being sung. The Reformers thought that the music should be the servant of the Word, so they wanted it written more simply.

Several strands of hymnody developed at this time, largely for theological reasons. Some of the existing Latin hymns referred to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the Mass in ways with which the Reformers were uncomfortable. In Germany, Martin Luther (1483-1546) saw hymn singing as an important element of corporate worship. A number of hymns had already been written in German before the Reformation as well as others which had been translated from the Latin. Luther himself added many more hymns to this body of writings. Another important German hymn writer was to be Paul Gerhardt, who gave us the Good Friday classic “O Sacred Head“.

Luther made great use of translations of metrical Latin hymnody for his hymns, harmonized and adapted for four voices. In the music of the pre-Reformation church, the congregation had no part, but with Luther, we see hymns largely taking the place of the choir plainsong. The first German hymn book appeared at Wittenberg in 1524.

Calvin, on the other hand, believed that one ought only to sing what is explicitly sanctioned by Scripture, which, for the most part, brings us back to the Psalms! The Calvinists made great use of metrical versions of the psalms and these were their hymns.

With the introduction of the metrical psalm for congregational use, there grew up in some places the custom of “lining out” the hymn. This meant that a clerk would read out each line before it was to be sung, so that the people, who did not have hymn books and many of whom could not read would be able to take part in the singing. This custom actually lingered on in some places, after more general literacy made in unnecessary and it proved quite difficult to stamp out.

A few years ago when we were celebrating the Bishop Inglis Bicentennial, in my own parish of St. George’s in Halifax, we decided to observe the occasion by celebrating a Holy Communion Service as it would have been done in the days of Bishop Inglis. One of Bishop Inglis’ (very lengthy) sermons was preached by our then Rector and the church and service were altered and rearranged as best we could to reconstruct the past. And a clerk lined out the hymns! We all found this an extremely irritating experience, and one which thankfully seems only to live on in our own day among cheerleaders at sporting events!

In the Church of England, following the Reformation, while Morning and Evening Prayer, the Psalter and the Eucharist were pointed and given musical settings, hardly any hymns were sung other than metrical psalms. This was partly by chance and partly by design. The chance part was that Thomas Cranmer’s gifts lay in other directions than hymn-writing. (And we are certainly not likely to lament this fact!) In addition, after Cranmer, the Calvinist influence was fairly strong in the Church of England.

Miles Coverdale, the famous translator of the Bible, whose translation of the Psalms persists in use in the Book of Common Prayer (1962), tried unsuccessfully to introduce translations of Luther’s hymns into public worship. The only hymn to be found in the Book of Common Prayer at this point was the “Veni Creator” (Come, Holy Ghost), in the ordering of bishops and priests. Anthems by Byrd and Gibbons were sung where there was a choir capable of singing them. But otherwise, metrical psalms, often translated from German, were the order of the day and these appear, for the most part, to have been sung by the choir alone or by the parish clerk and were regarded as a sort of musical interlude during which people could sit back and chat and pretty much ignore the words being sung.

Meanwhile, there were hymns being written in English, or at least religious verse which we would now regard as hymns. However, they were not much used in public worship.

In 1562, Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins published their Whole Book of Psalms, subsequently to become known as the “Old Version”. This book of metrical psalmody was to continue as the authoritative church text for more than a century. It continued to be used side by side with the “New Version”, actually called the New Version of the Psalms produced in 1696 by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady. Apparently, there was considerable controversy over the relative merits of these two books as to the adequacy and correctness of their translation. Many of the metrical psalms we still know today: “Through all the changing scenes of life ” (based on Ps. 34, Book of Common Praise #355) “As pants the hart for cooling streams, When heated in the chase, So longs my soul, O God for thee, And thy refreshing grace.” (based on Ps. 42, Book of Common Praise #382).

But side by side with these metrical psalms, devotional poetry was being written for personal use. For example, George Herbert, writing in the early Seventeenth Century, “Let all the world in every corner sing“, which I quoted at the outset, and Bishop Thomas Ken writing in the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries, “Awake my soul and with the sun“, made wonderful additions to that body of poetic work which we use as hymns today.

It was the Eighteenth Century that saw the real beginning of the modern notion of congregational hymn-singing. An important figure here is Dr. Isaac Watts, whose hymns did much to make hymn-singing a powerful devotional force, expressing as they did, the spiritual experience of the singer; “O God our help in ages past” and “When I survey the wondrous Cross” to name two. This “Father of English Hymnody” published a book of hymns in 1707 and this was followed in 1737 by the publication of John Wesley’s first hymn book. The Methodist movement made great use of hymn-singing and the Wesleys (John and his brother Charles) produced a remarkable number of hymns for congregational singing. (From Charles, we think of “Love divine, all loves excelling” and “Lo he comes with clouds descending” and from John, “Author of life divine“.) Charles Wesley wrote more than 6500 hymns. Clearly he was both gifted and prolific!

So congregational singing of hymns in the Church of England became a more popular part of normal public worship.

Perhaps something more should be said about hymn-singing in North America, so let me look backwards at this point so that we can see what was developing on this side of the ocean, though very little is known about the singing of the earliest settlers.

The Pilgrim Fathers brought the metrical psalter with them from Holland, but as early as 1640 they were compiling and printing their own. As an example of Seventeenth Century North American hymnody, many of us would think of the Huron Carol (“Twas in the moon of wintertime“).

At the end of the Eighteenth Century, a wide-spread religious revival called the Second Great Awakening took place and Afro-American Spirituals played a very important part in this. Towards the end of the next century, Gospel hymns, especially as compiled and produced by Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey, came to be very popular. These were often quite repetitive and perhaps neither great poetry nor splendid music, but nonetheless they clearly touched a chord in the spiritual lives of the people of the day and were much sung and enjoyed. Indeed some are still with us today! “Joyful, joyful will the meeting be, when from sin our hearts are pure and free.” The Salvation Army also played a part in the popularizing of Gospel hymns.

By the Nineteenth Century, we find that most of the old objections to hymns as being unscriptural and perhaps Popish have died out. In the early years of this century, Reginald Heber, the missionary bishop of Calcutta, played an important role in the Church of England by relating the many hymns produced for private devotional use to the liturgy of the Church and to the Christian Year. He felt that hymns could help to reinforce lessons being read in the lectionary and the worship of the Book of Common Prayer. He produced one of the many hymn books to come out during this period, but still none was officially sanctioned by the Church of England.

Finally in 1819, the first hymn book was sanctioned for use in the Church by the Archbishop of York. After this, ever more and more hymns and hymn books were produced for public worship, but still in this period we find sacred poetry being written for personal use which was later to find its way into our hymn books. John Keble’s best-selling collection of poetry, The Christian Year, contained “New every morning is the Love” for example, and another familiar Keble hymn “Blest are the pure in heart.”

The Oxford Movement (the high church movement of the early and mid-Nineteenth Century) gave new impetus to the writing and use of hymns. In 1861, Hymns Ancient and Modern was produced and authorized for use in an attempt to amalgamate the many hymn books in use at that time. It was organized so as to accompany the Church Year and complement the Book of Common Prayer. It made an effort to include a rich variety of hymns starting with translations of the old Latin hymns and selecting from the rich hymnody of the church up to and including the age in which it was published. It also assigned particular tunes to particular words, not leaving it up to local choice, and this greatly fostered hymn-singing in the church.

The great figure of this era was John Mason Neale, a hymn-writer of the Tractarian Movement who gave us “O Happy band of pilgrims” and translated “Jerusalem the golden“. In this era, we begin to see a tendency toward a certain sentimentality in some hymns and hymn tunes. The English Hymnal published in 1906, made an effort to produce a book suitable for congregational singing but steering clear of the more sentimental choices.

The Canadian Book of Common Praise (1938), like Hymns Ancient and Modern, is designed to follow the church year. It draws on the splendid hymns written by Christians throughout the ages, even the more sentimental offerings which The English Hymnal eschews! With the red Anglican-United Church hymnal, we see many of the fine hymns of our tradition, but a number have been adjusted and “improved” to reflect a theology more acceptable to our day: “Virgin Mother” becomes “Maiden Mother“, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” changes to “and the Bible tells me so“. It includes some good newer hymns, but also some unfortunate ones.

But overall, we are the inheritors of a wonderful rich tradition of sacred poetry set to music:

  • the inspiring hymns and psalms of the Early Church
  • the liturgical and seasonal hymns of the Latin Church
  • the triumphant and glorious Lutheran chorales
  • the faithful Scriptural witness of the metrical psalms
  • the moving devotional poetry of Bernard of Clairvaux, George Herbert and John Keble
  • the warming of our hearts in the hymns of the Wesleys
  • the swinging spirited evangelical fervour of American Gospel hymns
  • and of course much more that I have missed!

No doubt there are better and worse hymns among all these, both poetically and theologically, but the intention, the purpose of the hymns of our tradition has been to praise and adore, to help us to know and love God as he is revealed to us in Holy Scripture.

Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ the true, the only light,
Sun of righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night;
Day-spring from on high, be near,
Day-star, in my heart appear.