Hymns with History

In the ever-raging battle between contemporary and traditional music, traditional music usually gets credit for having ties to historic Christianity. These are traditional songs! They were passed down by generations before us! They’re the classics of worship music!

But how old is your average hymn?

In the United Methodist Hymnal (which is the one in my office), the overwhelming majority of hymns were written between 1850 and 1989. I’ll pop the book open right now and prove it! Starting at hymn 365 (the random page I opened to) and moving forward, the year of composition is 1911, 1963, 1834, 1873, 1939, 1905, and 1749. Ok, we ended on one that broke the norm a little bit, but you can see where I’m going with this. Where is a hymn from year 300? 1423? 1555? Why is the genre we call “traditional” so lacking in tradition beyond the 1800s?

The simple answer is that the first American hymnal was printed in 1831. Of course most hymns are from that year or later; that’s when their distribution really took off. Before that, hymnals were collections of lyrics that you’d put to music on your own. But just because people didn’t have hymnals didn’t mean they weren’t singing hymns. Hymns go waaaay back. Take, for example, this hymn by 4th century bishop Ambrose of Milan:

Come, Holy Ghost, who ever One
Art with the Father and the Son;
Come Holy Ghost, our souls possess
With Thy full flood of holiness.

In will and deed, by heart and tongue,
With all our powers, Thy praise be sung;
And love light up our mortal frame,
Till others catch the living flame.

Almighty Father, hear our cry
Through Jesus Christ our Lord most high,
Who with the Holy Ghost and Thee
Doth live and reign eternally.

How cool is that? Yes, this edition of it is a little older and could use some paraphrasing to modernize it, but the language is so evocative! Lots of trinitarian references, and a gorgeous example of participation in God’s action there in that middle verse. We sang this every day at Mepkin Abbey when I was staying there a few summers back. The Rule of Benedict (their monastic rule) requires you to sing Ambrosian hymns, and so we did. We protestants may not be required to sing old hymns, but are we missing out by skipping stuff like this?

Here’s another genuine oldie, this one by the 7th century Greek theologian Andrew of Crete:

Whence shall my tears begin?
What first-fruits shall I bear
Of earnest sorrow for my sin?
Or how my woes declare?
O Thou! The merciful and gracious One.
Forgive the foul transgressions I have done.

With Adam I have vied,
Yea, passed him, in my fall;
And I am naked now, by pride
And lust made bare of all;
Of Thee, O God, and that celestial band,
And all the glory of the promised land.

No earthly Eve beguiled
My body into sin:
A spiritual temptress smiled,
Concupiscence within:
Unbridled passion grasped the unhallowed sweet:
Most bitter— ever bitter— was the meat.

If Adam’s righteous doom,
Because he dared transgress
Thy one decree, lost Eden’s bloom
And Eden’s loveliness:
What recompense, O Lord, must I expect,
Who all my life Thy quickening laws neglect?

By mine own act, like Cain,
A murderer I was made:
By mine own act my soul was slain,
When Thou wast disobeyed:
And lusts each day are quickened, warring still
Against Thy grace with many a deed of ill.

This one is a little harder to imagine singing in worship, even if you modernized the language a bit. People tend not to sing about lust in churches these days. Go figure. Still, there’s a lot to love here! The story of Adam’s first sin is opened up and applied to the singer. You are like Adam. You are like Cain. You are the sinner. Genesis isn’t just the story of someone else in some other time; it’s your story. How many songs today help you live out the reality of Scripture this well?

If you’re someone looking to get a fix of some old hymns, check out the cyber hymnal. Nothing there is copyrighted! It’s prime for singing! Browse by person to find older stuff easier (spoiler: anybody named Someone of Somewhere is probably old). You can always tweak the language to make it a little more modern. Whether you want a rock guitar up front or an organ, there’s some real gems in the Christian tradition. “Traditional” hymnals be darned; this is real traditional music!

2 thoughts on “Hymns with History

  1. Thanks for this reflection. I often have people ask me why we can’t sing “the old hymns” more often, but they almost never mean hymns written before 1850! When I ask them what they mean by “old,” we usually end up having a pretty interesting conversation. Your post will make these conversations even more interesting going forward.

    Liked by 1 person

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