Twenty Centuries of living Hymns

Lillianne Doukhan


The following is a distillation of a spoken presentation by the author, assisted by the Andrews University choirs, given as the opening event of Faith Ablaze! Hymns of Heart and Heritage, a hymn festival held at Andrews University in November, 1999.1 It is a journey through time, starting with the beginnings of the church and continuing to the present, one in which we hope you, the reader, like those present that evening, can come to a better understanding of how our hymns came about, and what they meant to those who preceded us. Given the constraints in time that evening and in space here, this presentation must be viewed as an introductory overview, one that we hope will give you a renewed appreciation for the magnificent legacy of hymns we have inherited from our spiritual ancestors.


From the beginning, hymns used to give expression for adoration were also used to teach doctrine, to strengthen the personal faith of the believers, and strengthen the bonds of the community through encouragement and common action. Hymn singing has its roots in the Old Testament Psalms, which were meant to be sung during the temple liturgy, and present an expression of a variety of spiritual and religious experiences. The Psalms of David, along with other songwriter’s in that collection would be used for thousands of settings throughout history. Even today, composers still favor the Psalms, writing settings for them for use in the church.


When the early church started, the Christians met in the synagogues where they gathered to chant scriptures, prayers, and to sing Psalms. Paul encouraged the members of the church in Ephesus to speak to one another with Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Besides the Psalms, Paul also mentions the hymns which, according to Saint Augustin, were meant to be "praises of God with singing."2

The early hymns typically would speak about the life of Christ and his mission, and all the things he did on earth. The early church fathers had understood the power of the hymns as a tool for teaching and moral education. Here is what St. Basil, bishop of Caesarea, said: "The Holy Spirit sees how much difficulty mankind has in loving virtue; how we prefer the lure of pleasure to the straight and narrow path. What does He do? He adds the grace of music to the truth of doctrine. Charmed by what we hear, we pluck the fruit of the words without realizing it."3 Saint Basil had already understood the power of music.


Paradoxically, it was the heretics who started utilizing this power of music. They set their heresies to beautiful melodies, formed bands of singers, and then walked through the city singing. People were charmed by these melodies, which soon became very popular. Ephraim of Syria, one of the more conservative church fathers, decided to borrow those popular tools and use them to spread the truth. Soon there were several bands going through the city singing their respective songs. It is reported that a riot broke out between the two factions, ending in violence. From that time on it was forbidden to sing in the streets.4


The earliest report of hymn singing is in approximately 40 A.D. It speaks of the congregation singing antiphonally, groups of men and women answering each other and concluding by singing together.5 This practice was brought from the Eastern to the Western churches by St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who built a whole collection of hymns according to this pattern. St. Augustine was so moved by this singing that it was partly the reason he became a Christian.6


In the fourth century great changes in hymn singing occurred, basically for two reasons. First, the status of the church changed, from a small persecuted entity which had to worship in hiding, to a powerful political and spiritual force with great material wealth. This was due to the conversion of the Roman emperor, Constantine, who become a Christian and declared Christianity the religion of his state.

Second, at the council of Laodicea (c. 343-381), when all of the bishops met and made several decisions, one of was that of prohibiting congregational singing during the church services. Only scriptural texts could be used and secular tunes and instruments were banned.

What did this mean? The congregation no longer had any part in the singing in church. While singing would continue, it would be done by professional singers. The mission of the church which was to reflect the majesty and the glory of God would now also have another role, that of projecting an image of a powerful authoritarian force.

The music was intended now to display the newly acquired material and spiritual riches of the church. The service became elaborate and often pompous. Simple melodies became complex. Gregorian chant eventually developed, a very lofty, objective, elaborate, but also contemplative music, which underlined the transcendental character of the religion.

There was no longer a place for simple folk in the church. They were sealed off from the place where the priests performed the service by the iconostasis, a screen that prevented them from seeing what was happening on the other side. Thus their participation diminished progressively all through the empire. While they still are a part of the celebration, their role is now reduced to simple responses such as hallelujahs or amens.

The people however continued to sing hymns and spiritual songs. They sang these for their private devotions and sang them in outdoor processions or other important celebrations of the church. But not until the time of the Protestant Reformation would congregations once again participate fully in the music of the church.


Martin Luther is the reformer most remembered for his contributions in reestablishing hymn singing. He was a trained musician, a singer, a player of the lute and a composer. He continued the tradition of the earlier church fathers through his understanding of the importance of the role of music as a tool for adoration and for shaping character.

He believed that "music was the right-hand of theology" and gave the music back to the people. His belief that "every believer should be able to fully understand the Biblical message" led him to translate the Bible into German. His conviction that "every believer should also be able to fully participate in responding to this message" led to the writing of hymns in the vernacular language.

Luther used secular devices in his chorales because of his conviction that the church is meant to be within the world, and to do so means then that it needs to use the language of the world. He used familiar folk tunes which spoke directly to the hearts of the people. Congregations could join instantly and sing these new hymns whole-heartedly. Luther also used the very sturdy and lively rhythms of the music of his time. His hymns conveyed through their music the dynamics of his texts, reminding us of the battle with the age-old foe.

Luther worked closely with musicians and poets of his time. He composed a certain number of chorales and we are all familiar with his reformation battle hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. In Luther’s time there was no organ accompaniment for the hymns. The congregation sang a cappella and in unison, only the choir was trained to sing in polyphony, that is, in several voices, contributing to the embellishment of the service with special settings of the chorales.


In time music prospered in the Lutheran church. Luther stimulated young people from his congregation to learn to sing and play instruments, and to participate in the choir. This would produce in subsequent years a strong tradition in the art of music in the Lutheran church and, by the 17th century, a formidable school of organ playing in Germany, that would lead ultimately to the legacy of church music left by the writings of Johann Sebastian Bach.

By the time of Bach it was customary, whenever the congregation would sing, to introduce the chorale by an organ prelude, which meant the organist would play an enhanced version of the whole chorale. The chorale melody would be heard very clearly in long notes, but around the melody the composer would write embellishments and figurations that would set the atmosphere of the text of this chorale. At the same time, this device would indicate the pitch to the congregation so that it could easily join in singing.


Parallel to Luther’s reformation there was also a reformation happening in the French speaking countries. Calvin, the leading French reformer, had to seek refuge in Geneva. His view of the role of the church and its music differed widely from Luther’s. For Calvin, the church was not of the world, as he was distrustful of the world. His idea was one of separation or distinction from the world, a theology of the elect.

He practiced very strict ecclesiastical discipline and promoted the principles of modesty and simplicity in every aspect of life, including worship. Music could only be set to scriptural texts, mostly the Psalms. The Psalms could be sung only with the unaccompanied voice in unison since using instruments or singing in harmony would neither be modest nor simple. Calvin’s tunes were plain, simple and straightforward, without instrumental accompaniment. All organs were quieted or destroyed.


The Genevan Psalter was a product of this French-speaking reformation. The Scottish Puritans who had sought refuge in Geneva during the reign of Queen Mary in the 1550’s took it back to Scotland when they returned there following her death. A hundred years later, at the time of Oliver Cromwell, the same distrust of instruments in church resurfaced in England and instruments were again banned from worship. A new way of leading out in singing had to be devised, namely, "lining-out." The church would appoint either the parish clerk or the minister to sing the Psalm line by line to the congregation. The leader would sing a line at a time, which would then be repeated by the congregation until the whole Psalm was sung through. In those times people were mostly illiterate, so "instruction" was very important.

The result of this way of singing was not always pleasant. Unfortunately, those song leaders were often untrained musicians themselves. In addition, people would take their own time or tempo in singing, generally slower than originally intended. This slow pace encouraged "creative" souls to add all sorts of embellishments. The result was something like semi-improvised chaos. An eyewitness wrote the following account about the lining-out practice in 1706:

Then out the people yawl in an hundred parts,

Some roar, some whine, some creak like wheels of carts:

Such notes the gamut yet did never know...

Straight then, as if they knew they were too high,

With headlong haste downstairs they again tumble;

Discords and concords, oh how thick they jumble,

Like untamed horses, tearing with their throats

One wretched stave into a thousand notes.7

As one can imagine from this description, it must have been quite a cacophony. There are still churches today in Scotland and the Southern United States that sing by lining-out.


About the middle of that century, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, reacted against this manner of singing. He felt it was inappropriate in the house of God to give glory to God in such a bungling manner.

Wesley started to reform hymn singing by giving advice on how to sing. Hymns were written down and taught in church. He encouraged the people to learn the hymns at home. In the preface to his Sacred Melody (1761), he admonished his followers, "When you come to church, sing vigorously, not as if you were half dead or half asleep. Sing modestly. Do not bawl so as to be heard above or distinct from the congregation. Sing in time; keep with the congregation. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself."

Wesley’s greatest contribution, however, was not in the way the hymns should be sung, but in how they were changed on a spiritual level. He created a body of hymns with an evangelical emphasis. Wesley had a personal contact with Zinzendorf, the spiritual leader of the Pietist believers. He had visited the Herrnhut domain and had been very impressed by the personal character of the Pietist religion.

Wesley believed that the gospel had to be preached in a way that everyone could understand. There was no more salvation for the elect only. Salvation was offered to everyone, and it was free. He wanted to make it possible for people in the congregation to respond in a personal and joyful way to the experience of salvation.

The hymns written by the Wesley brothers thus moved away from the predominately objective approach of the earlier hymns that carried a more universal emphasis, to become more personal. Their hymns spoke about the very close and direct relationship with Christ and made room for expression of personal emotions. An example is Wesley’s hymn, Jesus Lover of My Soul. which became an instant favorite of congregations in spite of the fact that it was banished by the Methodist leadership for forty years from the official hymnal. It was thought to be too personal and intimate.8


As we move to the 19th century, we look at what had been happening and was continuing to happen in America. The pilgrims and immigrants brought with them the Psalms, chorales, and hymns of Europe. As Christian hymnody evolved in this new country, it would be renewed in important and distinctive ways.

A first influence can be seen in the African-American spiritual that grew out of slavery. Singing among the slaves had started as a diversion from hardship and from the injustice of slavery. But very soon it grew into an expression of hope for salvation, of longing for the Promised Land which embodied the ultimate hope for freedom. The spiritual is not a song "about" something. It is an existential experience that is lived out right at the moment it is sung, by all those who participate. It is a song that comes into being through participation.

The style of the African-American spiritual radically influenced American Christian hymnody. It brought an existential dimension back into religion. One of the forms found in African-American singing is the "call and response," an old and traditional form of singing where the leader tells the story and the congregation joins in singing responses. This way of singing is still in use today in many parts of the world. It is not a performance, but a collective dialogue in which the congregation responds fervently to the leader’s story and takes an active part in it.

The other major American contribution was the Gospel or Camp Meeting song. It was to have an impact all over the world; in every denomination the Gospel song became a part of the repertoire. The nineteenth century in North America was a time of revivals, camp meetings and evangelistic campaigns, as well as a time of frontier evangelism and national youth conventions. All of these meetings and events prominently featured singing and music.

The evangelists wanted to directly reach the hearts of the people. At the frontier, most of the people had very little formal education and there was no time to waste sitting down and listening to a preacher. Evangelists needed a powerful means to catch the attention of the people and put their hearts on fire. The Gospel song was born. This was the time of famous evangelist singing teams like D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey and of great gospel song writers like Fanny Crosby.

The message in these songs is simple, speaking about Christian life, salvation, and the future joys of heaven. The poetry is very often sentimental while the music has emotional directness. The Gospel song uses simple popular melodies, is often animated by dotted or syncopated rhythms, and always features a catchy refrain. Bringing in the Sheaves is a good example of this type of song. Imagine yourself for a moment sitting in a large crowd and joining whole-heartedly in the singing to the sound of an old-fashioned pump organ.


These fervent Gospel songs, however, were only one aspect of hymn singing in the nineteenth century. Some churches reacted against these very emotional yet popular Gospel and Camp Meeting songs. Especially in England, but also in the United States, there was a desire to go back to the traditional liturgical forms, characterized by more formal and ceremonial services, through the use of vestments, processions, candles and other such additions to worship. This tendency can also be observed in the use, by those churches, of very strong and theologically well-founded hymns, written in poetic language of very high quality. Musically these hymns are much more elaborate, and they feature great organ accompaniments.

These two strands went their opposite ways and are still present today in our churches. On the one side we have the emotional and popular Gospel song and on the other, the grand hymns of the liturgical reform movement, some of those translated from the old Greek, Latin, or traditional Lutheran German hymns. An example of one of these hymns is Lift High the Cross, taken from the hymnal called Hymns, Ancient and Modern, a collection of hymns put together by the liturgical reform movement.


This hymn carries us straight into the twentieth century. The twentieth century church has honored the rich heritage of hymns brought down to us through the ages. Most of the hymns we sing today in our churches come to us from this manifold heritage of the past. They speak to us of our forefathers’ hopes and experiences. In them we can recognize our own spiritual journey and aspirations. They speak of our roots and enable us to understand where we come from, creating a bond with believers through all ages. They also help give us insight into the struggles of the church in past and present times.

The twentieth century has also made a contribution of its own. Twentieth century hymns speak of our own time, of struggles and failings of the church in this century, and of the challenges of the believers in today’s everyday life.

The 20th century hymn opens up the world at large. It is multi-cultural, multi-lingual, metropolitan, and international. It speaks a modern language and its music has been enriched by a kaleidoscope of colors from around the world. The singing church has also become a "global village."


Large cities have become characteristic of twentieth century culture. Many Christians daily encounter the challenges of city life, both in their own existence and in their outreach efforts. The twentieth century hymn is solidly anchored in today’s reality, rather than dreaming about the world to come. No one has captured this modern reality better than Fred Kaan in his hymn Sing We of the Modern City, a reaction to the traditional "Golden City" theme. In this hymn he puts the accent on the presence of Jesus in us and through us, right here and now.


Our next hymn, the Olympic Hymn is an illustration of the international character of twentieth century hymnody. By means of modern communication technology it became instantly known all around the world and was very quickly adopted into the traditional body of hymn literature. It illustrates how, still today, as was the case in older times from the very start of Christian hymnody, the sacred and secular are closely interwoven in congregational song. Christian hymnody is sacred folk song. It is meant to make the heart of the people vibrate.


Tonight we have sung through twenty centuries of Christian hymns and have encountered an incredible palette of colors and styles of singing, from the very simple unadorned hymns of the early Christians, to the grandiose and colorful hymns of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They all have in common the same faith, same love, and same hope. Through their variety they tell of the great God of Creation. God did not choose to bring about just one kind of tree, one kind of animal, one kind of color, one kind of human being, or one kind of song. He delighted and rejoiced in a dazzling display of variety in nature, people, colors, sounds, and patterns. The ultimate purpose of music and song is to glorify God in this variety, with every dimension, every instrument, and every voice, as expressed in the Fred Pratt Green’s hymn When in Our Music God is Glorified.


We now stand at the threshold of a third millennium. Enriched by the past, it is now time to turn our eyes to the future. The future belongs to the next generation, one that has the same faith, the same hope, the same love, and the same mission. This new generation is not afraid to look at the world around them with open, honest and lucid eyes. They will speak of their faith and mission, of their challenges and victories in their own language, a language that is unadorned, simple, and straightforward, while still capturing the beauty and freshness of the people’s melodies. May the message of this last song, Lord, open up our eyes, by Nicholas Zork, ignite a flame that will kindle our faith in this new century .


Dr. Lillianne Doukhan is an Associate Professor of Music at Andrews University, where she also occupies the Oliver Beltz Chair for Worship and Music at the Theological Seminary. She has been at AU since 1992.


_______________________________________ 2000


1 A videotaped version of the event featuring also the musical portions of the program is available through the AU music department office.

2 Augustine of Hippo, Ennarationes in psalmos, Psalm 72 [73], in Corpus Christinorum, Series latina, vol. 39:986.

3 St. Basil, Hom, in Ps 1, PG 29.211.

4 Cf. Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, book 6, ch. 8, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, vol. 2:144.

5 Philo of Alexandria, Treatise on a Contemplative Life, in The Works of Philo Judaeus, transl. C.D. Yonge, vol. 4 (London, 1855), 18-20.

6 St. Augustine, Confessions, transl. R.S. PineCoffin (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1961), 191.

7 Elias Hall, Preface to his The Psalm-singer's compleat companion, 1706.

8 Too "amatory" in John Wesley's own words. See Raymond F. Glover, ed., The Hymnal 1982 Companion (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994), vol. 3B: 1306.


This presentation was printed as an article in the Winter 2000 issue of Notes, a publication of IAMA.