By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
A ‘hymn’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, variously, ‘a song of praise to God’, ‘any composition in praise of God which is adapted to be chanted or sung’, and ‘an ode or song of praise in honour of a deity, a country, etc.’
Hymns can be religious or secular, in praise of God or a nation, then. Many classic hymns are religious, and the word ‘hymn’ is first and foremost associated with Christianity in the West.
Below, we have selected ten of the very best hymns – some of the most popular hymns to be sung at religious and state services – and say a little bit about them. But have we missed off the one that you consider the greatest? Let us know in the comments below.
1. ‘Amazing Grace’.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see …
Published in 1779, this is one of the best-known hymns in the English language, with words by John Newton. Newton became curate of the small parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire (not far north of the modern town of Milton Keynes) and wrote ‘Amazing Grace’ to illustrate a sermon on New Year’s Day 1773.
Oddly, it remained little-known in Britain at large, and it wasn’t until the nineteenth century, when it took off among American Methodist congregations, that it became one of the most recognisable and celebrated hymns in the world.
2. ‘Rock of Ages’.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure …
Written in 1763 by the Anglican cleric Augustus Toplady and published in 1775, ‘Rock of Ages’ is another very well-known hymn. There’s a rumour (though it may be mostly myth) that Toplady came up with the idea for this hymn after he took shelter from a storm in Burrington Combe in the Mendips in England.
Whatever the inspiration, this hymn about the unfailing and unwavering strength of God – who is a rock of all ages, providing support for mankind – rapidly became a staple of Anglican church services.
3. ‘How Great Thou Art’.
O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made;
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art …
This hymn is different from the first two on this list, in that its English lyrics are a translation of a nineteenth-century Swedish poem, written by Carl Boberg as ‘O Store Gud’ (‘O Great God’) and set to a traditional Swedish tune. Indeed, it had a curious route to English, via a Russian translation of a German translation of the original Swedish lyrics.
As with ‘Rock of Ages’, it took its inspiration from a storm: Boberg was walking home from church in Sweden when a storm came on, before receding as quickly as it had come.
This, combined with the sound of church bells, combined in the poet’s mind to form the nucleus for this hymn, which topped a poll carried out by the BBC’s Songs of Praise to find Britain’s favourite hymn.
4. ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’.
I vow to thee my country
All earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect
The service of my love
The love that asks no question
The love that stands the test …
This famous hymn had its origins not long after the First World War, in 1921, when Gustav Holst set to music the words of a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, the British diplomat to the US during the Great War (and, curiously, best man at Theodore Roosevelt’s second wedding).
The words to the hymn show how a Christian should be faithful to both God and country. The music was adapted by Holst from his own ‘Jupiter’ – a famously stirring and rousing piece of music – from his Planets suite.
5. ‘Morning Has Broken’.
This hymn is more modern than many people may realise: its words date from 1931, and were written by the children’s author Eleanor Farjeon, who wrote them to an old Gaelic tune associated with the Scottish village of Bunessan.
As the title suggests, the hymn gives thanks for another day arriving, with the blackbird’s song announcing the morning.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home;
Under the shadow of thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defence is sure …
An older hymn than ‘Morning Has Broken’ – it dates from 1708 – this hymn is the work of Isaac Watts, perhaps the most famous hymn-writer in the English language. The hymn is a paraphrase of the 90th Psalm of the Book of Psalms.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills …
The hymn called ‘Jerusalem’ is surrounded by misconceptions, legend, and half-truths. The poet William Blake (1757-1827) wrote the words which the composer Hubert Parry later set to music in 1916, but Blake didn’t call his poem ‘Jerusalem’, and instead the famous words that form the lyrics of the hymn are merely one part of a longer poem, a poem which Blake called Milton.
The poem has been read as a satire of the rampant jingoism and Christian feeling running through England during the Napoleonic Wars, and has even been described as anti-patriotic, despite the patriotic nature of the hymn it inspired.
8. ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’.
The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; he leadeth me
The quiet waters by …
One of the oldest hymns on this list, dating from 1650 when it appeared in the Scottish Psalter, ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ – taking the text of the 23rd Psalm as its basis – is commonly sung to the tune ‘Crimond’ (credited to Jessie Seymour Irvine, a nineteenth-century Scottish minister, though we cannot be sure he was the composer).
9. ‘Lord of All Hopefulness’.
Another hugely popular hymn which only dates from the previous century, ‘Lord of All Hopefulness’ was published in 1931. It was also one of only a small number of hymns on this list whose words were written by a woman: Jan Struther (1901-53), the English writer whose other lasting legacy was Mrs Miniver, the wartime housewife who was the title character of a 1940 novel by Struther and, two years later, a popular film starring Greer Garson.
Often set to the melody of an Irish folksong ‘Slane’, the hymn uses the various times of day in each of its verses as markers, as the singer beseeches God to support them. It was the opening hymn at Harry and Meghan’s wedding in 2018.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings …
No list of classic hymns would be complete without this – one of the best-known and most widely enjoyed. The words were written by a woman, Cecil Frances Alexander, in the 1840s and published in her Hymns for Little Children (1848).
The melody is from a 17th-century English country dance tune, ‘The 29th of May’. As the lyrics quoted above show, the hymn is a celebration of God’s divine creation, celebrating the idea (common across all Christian denominations, of course) that God created all living things.