Hymns are expressions of worship. They are our glad and grateful acknowledgement of the “worth-ship” of Almighty God, our confession of our own humanity before our Creator, and our bowing before the transcendence of God. Hymns are a celebration of what God is and what He has done: songs of praise, thanksgiving, and joy in God. Christians sing hymns because God is worthy to be praised.
If a hymn is an expression of the “worth-ship of God,” a statement of Christian belief, a means of teaching biblical truth, and a witness to Christian experience, it follows that its words are of utmost importance. It is words that describe the worth of a hymn. The music is merely the setting against which the words will be experienced; the hymn’s purpose is to strengthen and enhance the message of the words. The best hymn tunes are those that best illuminate their text. With this background, let me suggest seven characteristics of a good hymn.
1. Good hymns are God-centered, not human-centered. “The science of salvation,” urges Ellen G. White, “is to be the burden . . . of every song.”1 Good hymns adore God for what He is, worshiping Him for His holiness, wisdom, power, justice, goodness, mercy, and truth. They praise Him for His mighty acts—for creation, preservation, redemption; for guidance, provision, protection; for the hope of glory.
2. Good hymns are theologically sound. A hymn is a persuasive thing; it makes us feel that this is what we think, not just what the writer thinks. A singing congregation is uncritical, but it matters very much what it sings, for it comes to believe its hymns. Singing can become an emotional experience rather than an expression of worship in truth; therefore, we should seek out hymns that are true to Scripture.
3. Good hymns are doctrinal in content. True worship is inseparable from the foundational truths of our faith. Hymns can instruct and bless congregations as the great doctrines of the faith come before it in continual renewal and review.
4. Good hymns express the thoughts and feelings of believers. The doctrine of good hymns is true to Christian experience as well as to Scripture. It does not describe as commonplace certain emotional, mountaintop experiences that, for most Christians, occur rarely. They help worshipers to live as Christians should. As Ellen G. White suggests, “Often by the words of sacred song the springs of penitence and faith have been unsealed.”2
5. Good hymns have words of beauty, dignity, reverence, and simplicity. Whether lofty exultations or simple declarations of trust, good hymns are chaste, precise, and lovely in their utterance. Their language is clear and precise. Such hymns are not glib, extravagant, or sentimental; they are always true. “The melody of song,” writes Ellen G. White, “poured forth from many hearts on clear, distinct utterance, is one of God’s instrumentalities in the work of saving souls.”3
6. Good hymns can change attitudes and behaviors. A “song has wonderful power. It has power to subdue rude and uncultivated natures; power to quicken thought . . . to promote harmony of action, and to banish gloom . . . and impart courage and gladness”4 and is a “weapon that we can always use against discouragement.”5
7. Good hymns turn heavenward. A good hymn will look on the face of God, embrace His will, and sing His grace. Such hymns speak often of the soul’s true home and will carry “the mind from earth to heaven . . . from [our] earthly exile to the heavenly home.”6
In the end, good hymns are not the result of desire or ambition but are an outgrowth of spiritual life. Good hymns are free from introspection, are based not on feeling but on eternal verities, centered not on man but on God.
HYMNS OF THE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE
GOD MOVES IN A MYSTERIOUS WAY by William Cowper (1731–1800)
The author of this hymn was only 6 years old when his mother died. He was high-strung and sensitive; he was mercilessly bullied in a boarding school, attended a secondary school, and though he trained in law, he never practiced. It was arranged for him to be a clerk in the House of Lords, but he had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized and attempted suicide several times. He was befriended by John Newton (a former slave owner) and assisted him in his ministry in Olney, Buckinghamshire. They collaborated in producing 348 hymns of which 68 were written by Cowper. “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” was one of them and was originally titled “Conflict: Light Shining Out of Darkness.” His other hymns include “O for a Closer Walk” and “There Is a Fountain.”
Cowper became a leading poet and even translated Homer, the Greek poet, into English. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists 12 columns of his popular quotations, reminding the world of the genius that once lived in sleepy Olney. Cowper, the half-crazed poet, found his strength in weekly prayer meetings, kneeling with the one-time captain of a slave ship. What a picture of conversion and providential leading!
IN THE GARDEN by C. Austin Miles (1868–1945)
The author of this hymn was born in Lakehurst, New Jersey, USA, and began his musical career at age 12 by playing for a funeral in a rural Methodist church. He played a “slow march,” the only one he knew, not knowing that it was the “Wedding March” from Lohengrin. He became a pharmacist, but because of his interest in writing gospel songs, left his occupation and became editor and manager of a publishing company in Philadelphia. He composed several anthems and cantatas but preferred to write gospel songs.
In 1912, a music publisher invited him to write words to a hymn that would be “sympathetic in tone, breathing tenderness in every line; one that would bring hope to the hopeless, rest to the weary, and downy pillows to dying beds.” Miles turned to the Garden of the Resurrection and, reading John 20, seemed to see the story enacted before him. He saw it all: Mary, John, Peter, the empty tomb, the tears, and the risen Jesus. “I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life, when she knelt before her Lord, and cried, ‘Rabboni.’” Miles awakened with “muscles tense and nerves vibrating.” Gripping his Bible, he wrote the poem exactly as it had appeared to him. That same evening, he writes, “I wrote the music.”
NEARER, MY GOD TO THEE by Sarah F. Adams (1805–1848)
This hymn was written by Sarah Flower Adams, who, because of serious health issues, lived only 43 years. After a successful career on a London stage as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, she began to write and became widely known for her literary accomplishments.
In 1840, Sarah’s pastor, William J. Fox, asked for a new hymn to accompany his sermon on the story of Jacob and Esau. Sarah carefully studied Genesis 28:10-22, and, within a short time, completed all five stanzas of “Nearer, My God to Thee.” These stanzas are a simple paraphrase of Jacob and his flight from home and his encounter with God. It so happened that Sarah’s sister Eliza was gifted musically and often composed melodies for Sarah’s poems. Together they contributed 13 texts and 62 new tunes for a hymnal that was being compiled by their pastor.
The stanzas that picture Jacob sleeping on a stone and dreaming of angels seem to reflect a common yearning to experience God’s nearness, especially in times of deep need. At such a time, this hymn was played aboard the Titanic when, on the night of April 14, 1912, it sank in the Atlantic Ocean.
GOD WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU by Civilia D. Martin (1869–1948)
This hymn was first printed in a songbook compiled by a Baptist pastor, Walter Stillman Martin, for a Bible school in 1905. One year prior, his wife Civilia had been confined to bed and was unable to accompany her husband to his preaching assignment. As Pastor Martin considered cancelling his trip, their young son exclaimed, “Father, don’t you think that if God wants you to preach today, He will take care of mother while you’re away?” Returning that evening, Pastor Martin found his wife greatly improved and busily writing this text, which had been inspired by their son’s words. He sat down by his portable organ and wrote the music, providing the world with an endearing hymn. No matter how great the task or how difficult the test, “God will take care of you.”
Pastor Martin was born in Massachusetts, USA, attended Harvard University, was ordained as a Baptist minister, and later switched denominations to work for the Disciples of Christ. He became a professor of Bible study in a Christian college in North Carolina and traveled widely, conducting Bible conferences. Collaborating with his wife Civilia, he wrote a number of gospel songs to use in his work.
1 Ellen G. White, Evangelism, 502.
2 ———, Review and Herald, June 6, 1912.
3 ———, Testimonies to the Church, 5:493.
4 Evangelism, 496.
5 White, The Ministry of Healing, 254.
6 Evangelism, 499.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.