While the form of Christian hymns has changed considerably through the centuries, we know that "sacred poetry set to music and sung in the course of public worship has always formed part of Christian worship."—Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, art. "Hymns." The words of sacred poetry and the words of sacred traditions handed down from the fathers were set to music and used as part of the ritual of worship long before the Christian Era.
In Nehemiah 9:6 we have a record of some words sung by the Levites as follows: "Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein . . . and thou preservest them all." This singing is referred to in Patriarchs and Prophets, page 115, as the hymn of the Levites which called upon the people to "stand up and bless the Lord your God." And in Nehemiah 9:19-21 we have a recitation, some of it probably in the form of a choral rendition, of the providences of God and deep expressions of the people's adoration.
The first Christian hymns were undoubtedly mainly Jewish psalms and fragments of the Sacred Scriptures, which had been committed to memory and expressed in the form of music. When Jesus sang a hymn with the disciples (Mark 14:26, cf. Matt. 26:30) it was undoubtedly some portion of the Hebrew Scriptures, probably the hallel, or the great anthem of praise, found in Psalms 113-118. A hallel was a song of praise. The passage in question came to be known as the Egyptian hallel, while Psalms 130-136 were known as the Great Hallel, and both were sung at festivals such as the Passover, Tabernacles, Pentecost, and Temple dedication. The dominant thought in Israelite singing is preserved for us in the memorable phrases: "Praise ye the Lord," "Praise ye the name of the Lord," "Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore," "Bless ye the Lord," et cetera.
In Luke 1:46-55 we have the song of Mary, which came to be known in the early church as the Magnificat, beginning with the lovely words: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." With this song of Mary we should compare the song of Hannah found in 1 Samuel 2:1: "My heart rejoiceth in the Lord: . . . because I rejoice in thy salvation."
In Luke 2:29-32 we have the famous song of Simeon, which came to be known in the early church as the Nunc Dimittis, beginning with the gracious words of an old man whose hopes found consummation when he looked upon "the Lord's Christ": "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel."
Greek and Latin Hymns
First, appeared the Greek hymns, which had a dogmatic emphasis, with a sustained theme that became monotonous by its repetition. A visit to a Russian Orthodox Church service will reveal some majestic singing but with considerable repetition—due doubtless to the influence of the eastern rite of that church.
When Latin hymns appeared they were more simple, doctrinal, direct, and devotional, as may be seen in the following examples:
"Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts!
Thou fount of life!
Thou light of men!
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfilled to Thee again." —BERNARD CLAIRVAUX (1 09 1-1153)
"Jesus, the very thought of Thee, With sweetness fills my breast; But sweeter far Thy face to see, And in Thy presence rest."—Ibid.
The Development in Later Hymnology
Hymns changed with the times, and there is a marked trend in early hymnology toward an ordered sequence. In monastic circles hymns were closely tied with the hour services and the meaning of the particular feasts or offices, which were multiplied with the passage of time. The consequence was that hymns did not always represent the feelings of the lowly worshiper, but were created to fit in with the theological conceptions attending each of the hour services or offices of the church.
The sixteenth-century Reformation produced a wealth of new hymns, both as to number and type. The dominant trend inrith Calvinism tolerated nothing but the words of Scripture. In consequence, as seen in the previous article, the metrical versions of the psalms constituted the backbone of Calvinistic songs of praise. It is difficult to overestimate the important part that the singing of the psalms of the Old Testament played not only in strict Calvinistic circles but in all areas where the Reformation made itself felt.
In the eighteenth century, as has also been pointed out in these articles, we have the appearance of a new type of evangelical hymn, and many famous names are a part of the study of the hymnology of these times. Isaac Watts (1674-1748), Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), Augustus M. Toplady (17401778), are only a few of the illustrious names that face us in the hymnology of this period. It is possible that two men—Charles Wesley, who wrote more than five thousand hymns, and Isaac Watts—account for more hymns that are extant today than any other two men in the history of hymnology. This was the era of hymns that have weathered the times, such as "Rock of Ages, cleft for me," "O Happy Day! That Fixed My Choice," and too many others to mention here.
It has been truly said that "modern hymn writing and hymn singing was mainly the creation of the eighteenth century."—Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, art. "Hymns." Isaac Watts, the Congregationalist, wrote hymns that expressed, and still express, the deep spiritual experience of the individual singer. The same is true of the Wesleys' Collection of Psalms and Hymns, which is said to have been the first hymnbook of really modern type, followed by Hymns and Sacred Poems, produced by John and Charles Wesley. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that Charles Wesley was the most prolific and probably the most gifted of all the English hymn writers.
It can easily be seen from all this that the practice of hymn singing became an integral part of Christian worship, spreading like fire through each of the denominations.
It is unnecessary to develop here the idea that the words of Scripture run throughout almost all forms of hymnology, but perhaps we should mention two illustrations of this thought.
Many hymnologists feel that the words of Ephesians 5:14: "Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light," are part of a very early Christian hymn that was based upon Isaiah 60:1, 2. It is similarly thought that the words of 1 Timothy 3:16: "Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory," were often used in early hymns and had some theological basis in the virgin birth mentioned in Isaiah 7:14, and the prophetic utterance in Micah 5:2.
If we were to attempt a summary of the sentiments of evangelical hymn singing, we probably could not find better expression than in the new type of hymn that began to pour from the pen of an awakened
Charles Wesley in the immortal words:
"O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise!"
When the Wesleys taught men to sing of "the triumphs of His grace," it was not long before men were feeling what they sang, and when men feel as an experience what they are singing with their lips, they soon begin to believe with their whole hearts. Thus we reach the obvious conclusion that in Christian hymn singing as a part of divine worship we should aim to sing what we mean, and mean what we sing. Worship then loses its cold formality and becomes a warm and intimate fellowship between man and his Redeemer.