Hymns and hymn-writers are gifts to the Church. Throughout the history of the Church, just a few hymnists have distinguished themselves. Not all are as “gifted” as others and even these we identify as gifted writers, like Watts and Wesley, did not always write great hymns. Only a small percentage of their hymns are used today and most have fallen out of use.
On the other hand, there are great hymnists whose works have fallen out of use for other reasons; women like Anne Steele (1717-1778) and Ann Griffiths (1776–1805) the Welch hymnist, or men like Jehoiada Brewer’s (1752-1817), or the German hymnists, Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676) and Joachim Neander (1650-1680).
The works of these hymnists need to be revived and reintroduced to the Church.
So, what makes a great hymn?
A great hymn should lift us up and bring us before the face of God. It should stir the emotions and provoke our moral responsibility, while minimalizing distractions in music, rhythm, or poetry. To do this there are a number of necessary characteristics.
Theological weight and precision. Hymnody must engage the mind (1 Corinthians 14:15). Good hymnody is not focused on the trivial, mundane life of the earth. It lifts me out of this world, transports me to another world and directs my mind on the eternal and sovereign God.
Deep theology produces lofty hymnology. A good hymn is not focused on man, but on God, it does not speak of man for man’s sake, but of God for man’s sake. Wesley’s And Can it be that I should gain” is a good example of this. Wesley is pointing to the incomprehensible fact that such a sinful being could ever have salvation. The hymn outlines aspects of salvation.
Scriptural Allusion. The language of a hymn must have dignity. Expressions of devotion and human emotions are best expressed through the language and imagery of Scripture.
During the eighteen hundred’s when immigration to America was at its height, and trade was booming in the many parts of the British Empire, there was a glut of hymns using maritime imagery. This spiritualizing of maritime imagery got confusing when some hymns had rock as pointing Christ as others as speaking of rocks as the dangers of sin.
These hymns with maritime themes had a short shelf-life and have fallen out of favor today simply because we don’t live in a maritime age. Even in the 19th century, they had limited use in landlocked countries where the people could not identify with the imagery.
Emotional Engagement. Hymnody is not just intellectual. There is to be emotion in our singing (Ephesians 5:18-19). Taking weighty theology, aided by scriptural allusions, a good hymn will resonate with the believer’s heart and stir the emotions with fresh views of a sovereign God.
The singing of hymns is not merely an expression of faith, but a hearty expression of faith, joyful faith, and loving faith.
Development of Thought. Development of thought is also important in good hymnology, rather than repetition of thought, i.e. choruses. The addition of choruses in some of the older hymns of Watts and Toplady, only serve to interrupt that flow of thought.
The best hymns follow the development of a single thought and progressively apply that thought to the heart and the emotional life of the Church. Take Wesley’s hymn again, “And Can it be.” He begins the hymn with a general statement of awe at the amazing love of God in salvation. Next, he struggles with the mystery of the death of Christ (Vs. 2) and the great mercy displayed in the condescension of this death (Vs. 3). In the final verses Wesley deals with the application of Christ’s death; the quickening of the Spirit (Vs. 4) and the declaration of “no condemnation” found in the righteousness of Christ (Vs. 5).
Contrast this with Robert Lowry’s hymn, “What can wash away my sins?” This hymn repeats the idea of being washed in the blood Jesus, without developing or explaining what being “washed in the blood” means. The singer is left with no more information about the blood apart from its exclusive power to give me cleansing, hope, and peace, comfort, and righteousness. The focus of the hymn is the emotional benefit of being washed in the blood. This does not make Lowry’s hymn a bad hymn, necessarily, but it lacks the qualities of a “great hymn.”
Musically accessible. A good hymn has to be easy to sing in a congregational setting. Hymnody is not for the choir, the quartet or the soloist, but congregation. Some hymns have great lyrics, but the complicated tune makes it inaccessible to the congregation.
Case study: Jehoiada Brewer’s (1752-1817) most famous hymn, “Jesus the Sinner’s Hiding-Place.” Brewer’s hymn meets all of the requirements for a great hymn. It is sung to a Long Meter tune. Long Meter was developed by Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century and is still a popular poetic meter today.
Hail, Sovereign love, that first began
The scheme to rescue fallen man!
Hail, matchless, free, eternal grace,
That gave my soul a hiding-place.
Against the God that rules the sky
I fought with hands uplifted high;
Despis’d his rich, abounding grace,
Too proud to seek a hiding-place.
But thus th’eternal counsel ran,
“Almighty love arrest that man;”
I felt the arrows of distress,
And found I had no hiding-place.
Indignant justice stood in view,
To Sinai’s fiery mount I flew;
But justice cry’d with frowning face,
“This mountain is no hiding-place.”
Ere long a heavenly voice I heard,
And Mercy’s angel-form appeared;
She led me on, with placid pace,
To Jesus, as my Hiding-place.
Should storms of sven-fold thunder roll,
And shake the globe from pole to pole,
No flaming bolt shall daunt my face,
For Jesus is my Hiding-place.
On him almighty vengence fell,
That must have sunk a world to hell;
He bore it for a chosen race,
And thus became their hiding place.
A few more rolling sun at most,
Will land me on fair Canaan’s coast,
Where I shall sing the song of grace,
And see my glorious Hiding-place.
From Gadsby’s Selection, Pocket Ed., 1909. Pt. I, No. 134.