In his book On Hymns, Norman P. Goldhawk says that a good hymn is one in which the words, theme, meter, and music instinctively appeal to us. He then offers 10 standards by which we may measure an effective hymn:
“It’s faith-building character; it’s doctrinal soundness; it’s faithfulness to Scripture. It expresses what is true in experience and doing so with an opening line or couplet that fastens the truth on the mind; the criterion of clarity coupled with a ‘singability’ and a unity of theme. Finally, the hymn will have a timelessness unrelated to passing fads or fashions in theology and churchly concerns, and it will raise our thoughts to God.”1
There are four criteria that can be used to evaluate whether or not hymns are worthy of a place in public worship:
- The hymn will articulate the praise of God the Father in whom His creation lives. Example: Walter Smith’s “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”
- The hymn will celebrate God’s activity in history, in past deed and in Christ incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended, and as a continuing reality in every age, including our own. Examples: S. J. Stone’s “The Church’s One Foundation” or Fanny Crosby’s “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.”
- The hymn will register its sensitivity to personal experience of God’s saving and renewing grace in Christ and in the Spirit, encouraging God’s people to rise to their full stature in Christ. Examples: A. M. Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” or Frances Havergal’s “Live Out Thy Life Within Me.”
- The language of the hymn should be readily understandable and express some aspect of Christian truth that may be applied at the social level where human life is spent in relationships. Examples: James Montgomery’s “God Is My Strong Salvation” or Albert Bayly’s “What Doth the Lord Require.”
Consider the extraordinary span of songs and hymns that have met the above criteria and endured through the ages:
- From the Red Sea celebration in song (Ex. 15:1, 21) to a cradle in Bethlehem (Luke 2:10-14): hymns with these themes include “From Jordan’s Stormy Banks” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
- From the recital of the “events of salvation” by the early church (Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20) to the third-century Latin Ambrosian hymnody.
- From the medieval hymnody of Bernard of Clairvaux (“Jesus the Very Thought of Thee”) to John Calvin’s Reformation (“Old Hundreth”).
- From the nineteenth century, Charlotte Elliott’s “Just As I Am” to the early-Advent hymns of Franklin Belden (“We Know Not the Hour”).
- From contemporary compositions such as Wayne Hooper’s “We Have This Hope” to new songs that usher in the triumph of God at the end of the age, one of which could be “Star of Our Hope,” the author of which is unknown.
Perhaps the most convincing criteria to validate a worshipful hymn is the effect on the participant described by Martin Luther as “the only art that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.” Ellen G. White affirms that music can “subdue the rude and uncultured . . . impart gladness and courage . . . [it] brings heaven’s gladness to the disheartened and carries the mind from earth to heaven.”2
1 Norman P. Goldhawk, On Hymns, October 1, 1979.
2 Ellen G. White, Education, 168.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.