Of all the hymns I know, my very favourite couplet was penned by that most prolific of writers – Father Faber: “The Holy Father’s eyes were dim, The feast had been too much for him”!

But the history of hymns predates the 19th-Century Father Faber by at least two thousand years. The word “hymn” comes from the Greek “hymnos” and this gives some indication as to the age of hymnody. They were originally songs written in honour of the Gods, leading figures and heroes.

How things changed a few centuries later when their structure was adopted by the Christian Church! Notably by the 6th-Century St Benedict who founded the Benedictine Order of monks.

Benedict looked for Latin texts to fit the structures and turned them into the plainsong hymns which have achieved such an important role in monastic liturgy. Ave Maris Stella, Pange Lingua and Veni Sancte Spiritus are examples from this date, immortalised in masterworks by Monteverdi, Palestrina, Victoria and Grieg.

Hymns at the Reformation

At the time of the Reformation – in the 16th Century – the reformers wanted the liturgy to be said in the vernacular. They also insisted upon hymns which could be understood and sung by the people, and they wished to get away from plainchant hymnody, most of which could only be performed by monks.

The reformers demanded that the new hymns should have a strictly scriptural basis and they therefore began to introduce metrical versions of the psalms – where the psalms were given a rhyme and rhythm and verse structure – making them easy to sing and understand. Take The Lord’s my shepherd for example. In doing so they began the divide between metrical psalms and hymns which caused so much controversy in the Anglican church in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The Reformation coincided with the world-shaking introduction of printing and this gave church-goers access to many vernacular hymns. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) played a great role in the development of hymnody – not only was he a radical theologian, he was also a fine musician with a deep knowledge of German folksong, an influence which can still be heard in his famous hymn Ein’ feste Burg.

The Reformation and the use of vernacular hymns opened the way for Bach to produce his famous harmonisations of the German Chorales, and Luther played no small part in this.

In England, metrical psalms directly modelled on the Bible were the main liturgical diet – hymns, with their vague scriptural references, were frowned upon. Worshippers became dissatisfied with metrical psalms because their texts were not of the rhetorical quality of the Book of Common Prayer and many were very poor adaptations of scripture.

It was the great Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748) who began the reform of congregational singing in England. He wrote many fine hymns – Joy to the World and O God our help in ages past are examples – and started from the principle that texts should express the religious feelings of the people. This was a total turnaround from the previously-held view that they should be scripturally based! Isaac Watts’ principle holds today – I write as the General Editor of two hymn-books, both of whose editorial committees were guided by it.

Hymns come of age

It was the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, who – early in the 18th Century and almost contemporary with Watts – set out to change worshippers’ views of hymnody. They were not only the founders of Methodism, but they insisted that hymns, both words and music, should be written to stir the congregation, re-inforce its religious emotions and play on the “feel good” factor.

The Wesleys made hymns the central feature of Methodist worship, and before long many people began to admire the Methodists for their hearty and fervent singing. The qualities of sincerity and conviction were a vital part of the Wesley approach and congregations responded with vigour and enthusiasm. So powerful was this surge that many were attracted away from the established church into Methodism.

A number of forward-looking Church of England clergymen began to see the need for a similar musical revival in their own church. But many Anglicans resisted the introduction of evangelical-style hymns because they were still wedded to the metrical psalm – the musical embodiment of Scripture.

The matter came to a head in Sheffield, England in 1819 when Vicar Thomas Cotterill imposed Methodist-style hymnody on his congregation. The people rebelled and took him to the Diocesan Consistory Court. The case was heard by the Chancellor of the Diocese of York who, in a typical Anglican compromise, concluded that both hymns and metrical psalms were illegal in Anglican liturgy but, because their use was widespread, he didn’t feel able to enforce his decision!

This opened the floodgates to all manner of hymns – including Gospel Hymns – and, coupled with the pioneering work of Watts and the Wesleys, laid the foundation of Anglican hymnody as we know it today.

The other great impetus was the publication in 1861 of Hymns Ancient and Modern. Its enlightened committee insisted that the book should reflect the very best of the many traditions of hymnody. It was an amazing success – sales reached 500,000 annually (and this was at a time when many people couldn’t read or write) and by 1912 it had sold a staggering sixty million copies – it’s still in print today!

Meanwhile Catholic Church services, now openly permitted since Catholic Emancipation, were enlivened by hymnody peculiar to itself, with great emphasis on Marian hymns, as well as the great corpus of Latin hymnody. Read more about Catholic hymns here.

Hymns mean a great deal to many people. They remember fondly those they learned in childhood and the ones associated with particular family events or great occasions. Since the end of the 19th Century there’s been an explosion in hymn-writing, but the traditional repertoire of Anglican hymnody was largely written by the end of the Victorian era. English hymnody is not only the equal of the German Chorale, it still speaks with a vibrant and vital voice.

The Holy Father’s eyes may well have been dim, but the Anglican hymns of Father Faber’s period were lively, invigorating, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed! Long may the tradition develop.

These articles may also be of interest to you:

Gospel Music – Gospel Music – a fascinating history

Funeral Music (Organist) – Funeral Music – a Guide for the Organist

Composing for a Congregation – Composing for a Congregaion – some pointers

Funeral Music (Family) – Funeral Music – a Guide for the Family

The Salvation Army – The Salvation Army – marching to a Gospel beat