Since 1950, there has been more music published for congregational singing than at any other time in the history of the church. Nearly every major denominational body, as well as many independent congregations and publishing companies, have produced official and supplementary hymnals and related collections of songs. In almost every case, these collections evidence a recovery of traditions once lost and relentless pursuit of contemporary music that is both faithful to the gospel and representative of the languages—both verbal and musical—of modern culture.
The three hundred year span of time from 1640 to 1940 saw the development of great variety in congregational singing throughout America. Beginning with the Psalters of the first colonists, Americans contributed widely varying styles of songs and hymns, culminating with the popular and influential gospel song.
Over a period of time the writers of metrical psalms turned to fashioning free paraphrases of psalm texts. Eventually, in the seventeenth century, several English authors began to write hymn texts independent of the specific words of Scripture. Nineteenth-century fervor for hymn singing culminated with the publication of the most famous and influential of all hymnbooks, Hymns Ancient and Modern. The first half of the twentieth century witnessed growth in the study of hymnology, which led, in turn, to a variety of carefully planned hymnals that have had great influence to the present day.
Whereas Martin Luther would admit any suitable text to be sung in worship unless it was unbiblical, John Calvin would allow only those texts which came from Scripture. Calvin commissioned poets to write metrical settings of the Psalms for the congregations in Strassburg and Geneva. Calvinist churches throughout Europe developed large repertories of psalmody, especially churches in England and Scotland.
The chorale was Martin Luther’s important contribution to church music. Featuring strong rhythmic tunes and vernacular texts, the early chorales were songs for all worshiping people to sing. Since the Reformation, a long line of hymn writers, especially in Germany and Scandinavia, has contributed to this genre, leaving behind one of the richest bodies of music in the Christian church.
The very word hymn comes from the Greek hymnos, which means a song of praise to a god or hero. Adapting this pagan practice for their own use, early Christians wrote many hymns that have become models for hymn writers over the centuries. The hymns of both early Greek and Latin Christians are represented in the most recent American hymnals by the inclusion of five to eighty selections. These hymns reflect the faith and thought of many of the most well-known early Christian leaders and theologians.
Biblical songs for corporate singing are to be found throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The earliest recorded song is the Song of Moses (Exod. 15:1–18), and the last song is found in the book of Revelation (Rev. 19:1–8). This article lists the most important biblical songs, which are sometimes called canticles, and notes how these biblical songs are sung in the contemporary church.