Hymnody – Psaltries, Psalmists and Hymnists, Oh My!

The following sources are drawn on in this Post:

  • Hymnal – A Worship Book, 1992, Brethren Press, Elgin, Il

  • Sing With Understanding, by Harry Eskew & Hugh T. McElrath, 1995, Church St. Press

  • Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America, by George Pullen Jackson, 1964, Dover Publ.

  • Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, Newsletter and new Folklife Database http://www.loc.gov/folklife/

and this first section is a romp through the first 90 pages of:

  • A Survey on Christian Hymnody, William J. Reynolds & Milburn Price, revised and enlarged by David W. Music and Milburn Price, 1999, Hope Publishing

Europe, c. 450 AD

Hildegard of Bingen,
Hildegard of Bingen, Illumination from her Liber Divinorum

I’ve been exploring the evolving history of hymn singing and writing from the earliest times to just the other day.  It’s quite the revolving door.  From Clement of Alexandria (circa. 170 – 220) through Latin Hymnody and increasing Papal authority with Constantine’s conversion in the 5th c., on through Gregorian Chant in the 7th century, Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179), the Dominicans and Fransiscans and other reforms up into “the Middle Ages where in Western Europe congregational singing in corporate worship diminished, and in some areas  disappeared, as music for the liturgy became the responsibility of the clergy and the choir.” – (Reynolds, Price, Music, 1999)


Martin Luther

Least affected by this change however was Germany where it is estimated that over 1400 German vernacular hymns were written between the ninth century and 1518. Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the Reformation led also to Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular of the German folk and Luther’s own hymns, also sung in the vernacular as opposed to the former Latin texts.

Below left, the actual fortress, Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, where Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular of the German folk.

Below right, Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.

Then there were the dark times of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) further influencing the hymns.  Just as Johann Sebastian Bach was raising the Lutheran chorale singing to new heights of kanonic structure and polyphony, (see my post,  J.S. Papa Bach’s Ministry of Music ) other movements such as the Pietists, Calvinists and Moravians moved radically in the opposite direction.  By the nineteenth century the rhythmic energy of the chorale had been lost in the move toward an isorhythmic structure, and the practice of congregational singing in German churches had deteriorated, according to one account in 1847:

The hymns of Luther have had their wings clipped and have put on the straightjacket of 4/4 time.  And so it came about that the more inflexible the singing of the chorale was, the more solemn it was thought to be.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the metrical psalm gradually gave way to the hymn. The same tunes were often used by both psalm and hymn singers, common ground which proved advantageous to both.

Issac Watts (1674-1748) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) composed hundreds, if not thousands of hymns and along with many others motivated congregations to become more musically educated.


Therefore unless
Notes, Tunes and Rests
Are perfect learn’d by Heart
None ever can
With Pleasure scan
True Tune in Music’s Art

During the 19th and 20th centuries British, Scottish, Irish and American folk melodies came to be borrowed to bring new hymns to new congregations with familiar tunes everyone already knew well.

As you can see there’s something here for everyone, (should instruments be allowed or not? Should plainchant and later hymns use only text from scripture? etc…) Anyone could find adequate support for their own particular views… hmmm, what other book do people often do that with?

So, the journey continues….

Whether we look at Hymns As Music, or Hymns As Theology, first and foremost Hymnody functions in the church as one or more of the following


Reynolds, Price and Music, 1999, point out the following:

1) Hymns combine theological concepts with the emotional power of music and poetry.

2) Hymns are couched in a memorable form. Strophic tunes, rhymes, metric devices, and other features help one more easily remember the words and concepts that are sung.

3) Hymns compress profound theological thoughts into brief form making them easier to grasp and memorize, serving as a convenient and accessible vehicle for expressing the thoughts and beliefs of the individual.  (Before learning this, I had formulated the very same theory in my songwriting, particularly in Songs From the Tree of Life – ‘seed crystals’ I called them. – tm)

4) Hymns singing calls for active participation on the part of the congregation.  When a person is actively involved in learning, the lesson is likely to be retained longer.  (In folk music think of Hootenannys, Civil Rights Marches, We Shall Overcome, and campfire songs. – tm)

5) Hymns may be repeated frequently without becoming tiresome. Most people don’t mind singing the same hymn, five or six times a year.

6) Hymns often contain associations with past experiences. While care must be taken that the association of hymns with earlier events does not degenerate into mere sentimentality, it is certainly true that singing a hymn may bring to mind past spiritual struggles and triumphs and result in a renewed sense of committment or understanding of the faith.

Point 6 also helps recognize a ‘common ground’, inter-generational or cross-cultural, especially when inclusive language is applied.

Finally, any poet or songwriter will be familiar with the concepts, if not perhaps the technical term, of the poetic devices that hymn writers incorporate. Try using one of these you may not have used previously the next time you write a song or a poem:

Alliteration – Using identical consonant sounds at the beginning of words: “God of grace, and God of glory./On thy people pour thy power.”

Anadiplosis ( I think I had this in my right leg a couple weeks ago – 🙂                                  Use of significant words or ideas that end one stanza at the beginning of the next stanza. “The triumphs of thy grace and My gracious master and my God

Anaphora – Repeating a word at the beginning of successive lines. “Rejoice, ye pure in heart/Rejoice, give thanks and sing.

Antithesis –  Setting sharply contrasting ideas in balance, “I once was lost, but now am found“.

Apostrophe – Addressing inanimate objects: “Orbiting around the sun, encircled by the moon“.

Chiasmus – The crossing of lines or phrases: “Sorrow and love flow mingled down/Did e’er such love and sorrow meet“.

Climax – Arranging ideas in order of intensity: “Ours is the cross, the grave, the skies“.

Epanadiplosis – Beginning and ending a line with the same word, “Ride, captain, ride!”

Epizeuxis – Immediate repetition of a word or phrase within a single line: “I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

Hyperbole – Using exaggeration to make a point. “O for a thousand tongues to sing.”

Itemization –  Making a list. “The God of all creation,/ The God of power, the God of love,/The God of our salvation

Metaphor – Using a word or phrase in place of another to suggest a likeness between them. “Wandering star, sailing through heaven, streaking across the night sky.”

Paradox – Linking two opposite ideas in a single statement: “Love, drowned in death shall never die.”

Personification – Treating an abstraction as if it has human qualities: “Our Father, who art in heaven.”

Simile – Comparing unlike objects in one aspect: e.g., asking the Holy Spirit to come “Like the murmur of the dove’s song.” Simile is different from Metaphor by the use of the words ‘like’ or ‘as’.

Synechdoche – Using part of an object to stand for the whole object: “O Sacred head, now wounded.”

Tautology – Repeating the same thing in other words: “Are you tired, worn out and empty, is your soul weary?”

Poetry and music have always excelled as effective tools for discussing things difficult to grasp in everyday conversation.  Poetic language alludes to, rather than strictly define its subject. This happens when the reader, or singer, is drawn into the process actively, not simply talked at.  So it’s time for me to stop talking now, for a while….

Another way to be actively involved could be to leave a comment below. Thank you!

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