Hymns are essentially poems set to music. The following article describes the poetic qualities of hymn texts, defines several of the technical terms used to categorize hymns texts, and then discusses how hymn tunes need to be sensitive to the poetic qualities of the text. Studying the examples provided in this article will help the reader to better understand and use hymns for congregational singing.
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.
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.
Singing hymns to deity was an established practice in the Greco-Roman world long before the emergence of Christianity. Christian hymns differed from pagan hymnody, however, in celebrating a redemptive historical event; they have a “prophetic” quality.
Early Christian hymnody was influenced by the tradition of psalm singing in the temple. The hymns of the New Testament church served both a doxological and an apologetic function.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is considered the father of English hymnody. Born in Southampton, England, he was a precocious child who learned to read almost as soon as he could speak and wrote verses while still a young boy.