Many have found the hymns a rich reservoir of spiritual supply and enjoyment. The deep and lofty revelations songwriters have received from God’s Word, the joy experienced in the Lord’s presence, the comfort given when they suffer for His sake, and the solace received in the midst of trials, are embodied and voiced in the hymns they write. Spiritual songs can convey the heart and flavor of one’s thoughts, moods, emotions, and experiences in a way that mere prose cannot adequately communicate. The spiritual sentiments of past Christians and the lessons learned through their many experiences of the Lord are thus captured and preserved for the benefit of all who would come after them. Rex D. Edwards in this new series, “Great Hymns of the Church” will explore the beautiful stories behind some of these great hymns. Enjoy reading!


Hymns are songs by which the heart communicates with God. They rank with prayers as an expression of a person’s faith. But, beyond that, they occupy a special place in our devotion, responding to a deep, inherent urge to praise divinity musically.

They cover the whole range of our religious life. There is a hymn for every season, every mood. There are hymns to mark the festive moments of the year, hymns voicing our hopes and sorrows, hymns of thanksgiving, hymns of exaltation. Most of us know by heart at least a few of the 400,000 hymns in English. Among them are those “personal” hymns written in our souls that hit a tender and responsive chord whenever we intone them. Vibrant with memories, they hold in their slender frame big chunks of our lives. In hours of stress, a hymn frequently springs to mind. According to tradition, when the Titanic sank in 1912 with a loss of more than 1,500 lives, the ship’s orchestra struck up “Nearer My God to Thee”; passengers joined in, singing as the ship went down.

Behind these hymns looms the ageless rock of Scripture from which congregations draw their living themes. From Genesis to Revelation, there is hardly a book of the Old and New Testaments that is not mirrored in a sacred song. The four Gospels and Paul’s letters provide an infinite variety of topics, and it is Paul to whom we owe the virile strain of militancy in so many of our hymns.

But, the book of Psalms of ancient Jewry has bequeathed to us the mother lode of songs of praise. From the chanting of the Bible’s 150 psalms in the temple in Jerusalem to A.D. 380— when St. Ambrose, the fighting bishop of Milan, introduced to the European church the Eastern custom of singing—it is a long gamut.

However, this early bloom bore little fruit. All through the Middle Ages, the clergy did most of the singing—usually in Gregorian plainsong—while congregations were restricted to merely chanting brief responses. This sorry state was abruptly breached by the Reformation, when Martin Luther used congregational singing as a weapon in the battle for spiritual freedom. “I would gladly see the arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them,” he wrote. A gifted musician (he sang and played the lute), the former monk set about creating a hymnal of the people, for the people. His own pugnacious character, his iron will, and his contempt of death ring out in every verse of the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” published in 1529. Sung to Luther’s own defiant tune (later polished by Bach), it became the marching song of the Reformation.

During the next three centuries, Germany was to give the world more than 80,000 hymns. English fugitives from the religious persecutions of Queen Mary I found in the Protestant churches of the Continent an audience participation unheard of in their homeland. Once safely back in England, they became ardent advocates of congregational singing, and some began translating Europe’s sacred songs. But the Church of England, in line with Calvinist ideas, considered the freewheeling hymns nonbiblical and unfit for public worship. Because of this Anglican resistance, Baptists and Methodists are the great songsters in English-speaking Christendom.

It was Charles Wesley, the prolific Methodist genius and natural-born poet, who gave the English hymn its iridescent beauty; “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are samples of his craft. In his long life as an itinerant preacher, he wrote more than 6,000 hymns, blending deep religious passion so wondrously with art that some of them rank with the best of eighteenth-century poetry. Contagious joy flows from such songs as “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Rejoice, the Lord is King!” and Methodism’s flagship hymn “O for a thousand tongues to sing/ My great Redeemer’s praise, / The glories of my God and King, / The triumph of His grace.”

The Pilgrims brought the tradition of pure psalms to America. The Bay Psalm Book of 1640 was the first book published in English in the western hemisphere. In 1703, the first church organ was imported. And, by and by, the homegrown hymn, a free American creation, came into its own. Among American originals is the beloved “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” written by Phillips Brooks for his Philadelphia Sunday School after he visited the Holy Land.

But perhaps the grandest hymn to come out of America is a song written by Julia Ward Howe, a lifelong fighter for equal opportunities for women. Her “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” sung to the rousing tune of a campmeeting song, was published in 1862, during the Civil War.

Today, new hymns, often bearing the stamp of folk music and youthful minstrelsy, are riding in on winds of change. In vast cathedrals and in small village churches, young voices praise the Lord in a new idiom. Piano, banjo, clarinet, and the ubiquitous guitar are challenging the venerable organ.

But how should hymns be sung? Charles Wesley’s pocket hymnal, Sacred Melody, gives these directions:

“Sing all. Join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not weakness or weariness hinder you. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself . . . so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of.”

In future issues of Elder’s Digest, I will provide guidelines on how to choose a good hymn. Further, so that you can sing with understanding, I will tell the stories of how the great hymns were inspired. These historical vignettes can be shared with your congregation before a hymn is sung.

Finally, much of Christianity’s vitality lies in its hymns. Their mighty surge, their tender lyrics, and their triumphant joy set our mood during the worship service. Sung by the congregation as a body, they help create the living fellowship that has been dear to Christians since the days of the apostles. And, as they well up from uncharted depths within us, they reassert that childlike faith we are often on the brink of losing. In the word’s most profound and most dynamic sense, they are religion.

“Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord,” exhorts the last verse of Psalms. “Praise ye the Lord.”


“WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE IN JESUS” by Joseph Scriven (1819–1886)

Joseph Scriven had wealth, education, and a devoted family in his native Ireland. Then tragedy came uninvited. On the night before his wedding, his fiancée was thrown from her horse into a river and drowned. Scriven decided to begin a new life and emigrated to Canada, where he taught in a school for the Plymouth Brethren in Bewdley, Ontario.

But tragedy struck again. This time his fiancée died from pneumonia after being baptized in an icy lake. Scriven’s lifestyle changed. He worked without pay and gave away his possessions—even his clothing—to poor widows and the needy. He became known as “the Good Samaritan.”

When his mother became ill in Ireland, he wrote a comforting letter with a poem which became the verses of the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It was found by a friend beside his dying body. When asked who wrote it, he replied, “The Lord and I did it between us.”

“CHRIST THE LORD IS RISEN TODAY” by Charles Wesley (1707–1788)

This triumphant hymn of the Resurrection was written by Charles Wesley one year after a “heart-warming” experience at the Aldersgate Hall in London, England, in 1738. The first Wesleyan Chapel in London was a deserted iron foundry, which became known as the Foundry Meeting House. This hymn was written by Charles for the first service in that chapel.

Following his Aldersgate encounter with Christ, Charles began writing numerous hymns, some 6,500 in all, on every phase of the Christian experience. It has been said that the hymns of Charles Wesley clothed Christ in flesh and blood and gave converts a belief they could grasp and embrace with personal faith.

Charles knew that the human condition would be hopeless if all our eternity was to be realized on this side of the grave. This hymn, based on 1 Corinthians 15, gave assurance of God’s tomorrow because of the Resurrection.

“GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS” by Thomas O. Chisholm (1866–1960)

While many enduring hymns are born out of a particular dramatic experience, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” was simply the result of the author’s “morning-by-morning” realization of God’s personal faithfulness in his daily life. Shortly before his death in 1960, Thomas Chisholm wrote: “My income has never been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has fallowed me on until now. But I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He had given me many wonderful displays of His providing care which have filled me with astonishing gratefulness.” His life is a testament to Israel’s wilderness lesson: that God’s provision of manna for them was daily and that old manna cannot be stored for future use (Ex. 16:19-21).

Thomas Obadiah Chisholm was born in a crude log cabin in Franklin, Kentucky, USA. From this humble beginning and without the benefit of high school or an advanced education, he became a teacher himself at age 16. After accepting Christ at the age of 21, he became editor of the Pentecostal Herald and later was ordained as a Methodist minister. Throughout his long lifetime, he wrote more than 1,200 sacred poems, of which 800 have been published.

“ROCK OF AGES” by Augustus M. Toplady (1740–1778)

The story goes that while walking through the limestone cave country of Burrington Combe in Somersetshire, England, Toplady was caught in a sudden storm. He sheltered in a crevice between the limestone slabs. Afterward, he picked up a playing card which he found lying on the ground and wrote this hymn on the back of the card.

But the story is not true! The hymn entitled “A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World” was written around 1776 as Toplady’s refutation of the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection. The hymn argued that even a good-living Christian had only one hope, namely, that Jesus paid it all.

The idea of Toplady writing the hymn as thanksgiving for deliverance from a thunderstorm is romantic, but the story did not start up until 12 years later, in 1850, when an ingenious vicar of Blagdon spread the rumor. Nonetheless, the “rock” in the hymn that was “cleft for me” is Jesus, who is both our Savior and Judge.

Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.