Hymns and psalms have had a prominent place in Protestant devotional life since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The foremost reformers placed music among God’s choicest gifts to humankind. Although they differed among themselves on what and how to sing in the sanctuary, they shared the ancient Christian belief that music nurtured Christian piety. Singing together wherever Christians gathered united hearts in worship, proclamation, and resolve, while congregational singing invited lay participation in public religious assemblies and provided a vehicle through which people could articulate their deepest feelings. The reformers not only made the case for vernacular sacred songs, they also thought deeply on the content of Christian songs and expressed strong opinions about appropriate tunes and instrumentation. They encouraged the use of hymns outside of public worship—in family devotions, public occasions, and at social gatherings. Moreover, hymns were not merely words set to music, they were also staples of devotional literature. Often printed without musical notation with reading in mind, collections of hymns like metrical psalters helped form individual and family piety.

Early Protestants owned their own hymnals and carried them to church. Embellished with woodcuttings depicting biblical scenes and augmented by prayers and devotional lines from liturgies, many Protestant hymnals were attractive books with content geared to clarify doctrine and nurture faith. Some were bound with the biblical text. Within the different Protestant traditions, people at first read and sang their own hymn texts: in time, cross-fertilization made hymnals ecumenical resources, and the language of Christian songs became a staple of Protestant discourse. Denominational hymnals featured both texts particular to their tradition and hymns that had made their way into common Christian use. At first, though, musical practice—choices about repertoire and performance style—helped differentiate one Protestant family from another.

The earliest Reformation traditions—Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist—made much of vernacular hymns in different ways. Martin Luther used psalms and hymns to instruct and rally his followers, while John Calvin opted for metrical psalms over the “man-made” phrasings of hymns. Anabaptists first developed their best-known hymnal, the Ausbund, as a poetic record of the persecution that dogged them wherever they turned. Harmonization, organs, and other instruments accompanied Lutheran hymn singing, whereas other Protestants sang psalms or hymns in unison, generally without accompaniment. Differences arose at the outset, and leaders justified their choices about the content and style of congregational songs in ways that had enduring impact on wider Protestant practice.

Martin Luther.

Textbooks traditionally date the Reformation to Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on 31 October 1517. Three years later, Luther’s distaste for a local indulgence seller had escalated into a thoroughgoing critique of Catholic practice. Excommunicated in 1521, Luther was officially declared an outlaw. During a few months in hiding, he translated the New Testament into German and began working on a small collection of hymns to support the new form of worship he prepared for his supporters. His translation of the Bible and preparation of a hymnal went hand in hand: both made the word of God available to the common people for instruction, encouragement, and worship. Luther’s personal enthusiasm for music pervaded his life’s work: later generations remembered him as the “father” of Protestant hymnody. There were, of course, many hymns before Luther, but Luther integrated hymns into communal worship and private devotions. He made congregational singing part of the fabric of Protestant Christianity, but Lutheran hymns also incorporated features of an older hymnody with centuries-long precedent in German Catholicism and in German culture where folk songs—or songs that arose from the common experiences of ordinary people—enjoyed wide popularity. Their tunes and their phrasing influenced Luther and his contemporary hymn writers—as did monastic plainsong. Past and present, sacred and secular influenced German Protestant hymnody.

Martin Luther wrote his first hymn in 1523 in response to the martyrdom of two of his young supporters in Brussels. Twelve nine-line stanzas describing their courage and celebrating their faith concluded with lines that recast apparent defeat as part of God’s triumphant march: martyrdom demonstrated beyond question that the word of God was once again active in a fallen world; winter had passed, and spring was at hand. God, who had begun a new thing, would certainly perfect it. The first collection of Lutheran hymns appeared the next year (1524), featuring eight texts: four by Luther; three by his friend, the one-time Catholic priest Paul Speratus; and one usually attributed to the reformer Justus Jonas. Luther commended the hymns, collected under the title Etliche Christliche Lieder, as “the pure word of God.” Widespread demand led to the publication of an expanded version later in 1524. This Erfurt Enchiridion featured 26 psalms and hymns, 18 by Luther. Among the contributors was Elisabeth Cruciger, the first female hymn writer of the Lutheran Reformation. The number of hymnals and hymn writers grew rapidly, and in the absence of copyright laws, collection editors freely altered text. In a preface to a 1543 hymnal, Luther found it expedient to implore people to prepare their own hymns rather than tamper with the words of others.

Luther himself improvised freely and composed hymns on a variety of topics. His 36 hymns relied heavily on his translation of the Bible, setting scripture—especially loose paraphrases of the Psalms—as well as his theology in meter. He frequently composed sturdy tunes that found popular favor. He incorporated phrasing from prayers, hymns, and spiritual writings anchored in the church’s long history and interwove his own text to give ancient Latin or Greek lines fresh meaning. His example as a hymn writer, his encouragement of hymn writing by others, and his enthusiasm for music as God’s gift to draw people Godward earned Luther his reputation as the father of Protestant hymnody. Seventy-five years after Luther posted the 95 Theses, publishers had released at least 2,000 Protestant hymnals and hymn sheets that reached an audience conservatively estimated at over 2 million. The media revolution helped disseminate the simple, vernacular, memorable lines that made Luther’s understanding of scripture in his own and others’ words accessible and easy to memorize. In 1529, Luther issued Geistliche Lieder aufs neu gebessert alongside a catechism and a prayer book. He intended its 48 hymns to help laypeople understand the convictions behind the rapid religious changes of the previous decade. Tunes at the end of the book anticipated singing in parts. By the end of the sixteenth century, a vast corpus of hymns had helped shape a distinctive Lutheran piety.

Several early Lutheran hymns remain in common use, but none rivals Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” a setting of Psalm 46 first published in the late 1520s. Luther wrote both text and tune, and this “battle hymn of the Reformation” rallied support for Luther’s cause and encouraged faith in uncertain times. It is sung around the globe, and in the twenty-first century it appears in Catholic as well as Protestant hymnals. Composers from Bach to Mendelssohn to Wagner used Luther’s tune in major works, and in Germany over the centuries this hymn frequently played a cultural as well as a religious role.

Luther’s enthusiasm for good music helps account for the prominence of church musicians in German musical culture. Protestant Germany’s greatest seventeenth-century hymn writer was perhaps Paul Gerhardt, who, like Luther, was both pastor and poet. A graduate of the University of Wittenberg, Gerhardt collaborated closely with the organist and cantor Johann Crüger, who set many Gerhardt texts to his own tunes. During the same years, Martin Rinkhart, pastor in a small German village devastated by the Thirty Years War and beset by the plague, wrote the hymn that became Germany’s national song: “Nun danket alle Gott” (Now Thank We All Our God). Like “A Mighty Fortress,” Rinkhart’s hymn migrated around the world and across denominations. The man whose musical genius best blended religious and secular impulses was the Lutheran organist and composer Johann Sebastian Bach. His chorales incorporated Germany’s best-loved hymns and expanded their audience, and his artistry later made him one of the most influential European composers of all time.

Reformed Protestant Singing.

Luther resolved to change religious practices that he found contrary to scripture while proceeding more slowly with altering worship customs that did not directly contradict the Bible. For music, this meant that he endorsed hymn singing with instrumental accompaniment as well as choirs and parts singing. Other reformers, however, took a different view. They opted to embrace only what they believed the Bible directly commanded, and they radically simplified public worship to conform it to New Testament practices. The most influential reformer who adopted this approach was John Calvin, the French Protestant who turned the city of Geneva into a laboratory for his ideas.

St. Augustine deeply influenced Calvin’s wariness of the power of music itself to delight the ear and distract from words: both men recognized that singing engaged hearts and minds and insisted that effective congregational singing necessarily involved attention to words. To this end, Calvin decided to adopt vernacular congregational singing. But the problem remained: How could he guard against music’s recognized penchant to delight the ear and distract the mind? His Institutes of the Christian Religion warned that songs written “to tickle and delight the ear” were unbecoming in worship and certainly displeased God (ch. 20, par. 32). Like Luther, Calvin acknowledged music as one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind, and he valued its power to touch emotions and move hearts. Christians, then, had an obligation to be disciplined in its use and to regulate its role in their worship. To guard against potential excesses while safeguarding music’s rich potential, Calvin decided that congregations should sing in unison without instrumental accompaniment. Further, he insisted that psalms offered the most adequate language in which to glorify God. The “divine and celestial hymns” of David, whose words Calvin believed were divinely inspired, facilitated Christian worship in language inspired by God and directed to God. Feeble human efforts could not surpass the word of God (Preface to the Genevan Psalter, 1543).

Calvin put his beliefs into practice by preparing a psalter for his followers’ use. The product of decades of work by various authors, the final version of the Genevan Psalter (1562) quickly became a defining text of Calvinism and a widely influential Christian resource. As early as 1537, Calvin had decided to restrict congregational music to psalm singing, a choice in line with his famous observation of 1542: “When we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor any more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him.” Calvin’s service book of 1542, The Form of Prayers and Ecclesiastical Songs, framed congregational worship remarkable to visitors to Geneva for its fervent and joyous singing. The Genevan Psalter was a joint effort among Calvin, his colleague (and eventual successor) Theodore Beza, and Clément Marlot, court poet of Francis I of France. Many of the texts were set to music by professional musicians like Claude Goudimel and Louis Bourgeois, who provided simple, direct, and memorable tunes. Each syllable had its own note, and many tunes were adapted from popular and classical sources. Calvin valued “strong” tunes. Like Luther, he believed that music “moved and inflamed hearts,” and so he demanded that music intended for congregational use be distinguished by “weight,” “modesty,” and “majesty.” The first psalters were published with melodies only, and congregations sang in unison so that the words would sound forth clearly, unimpeded by distractions of harmony. In the 1560s, composers provided harmonizations for use in family devotions and private gatherings.

During the religious turmoil in England associated with Queen Mary’s attempt to reimpose Catholic religion (1553–1558), several hundred English Protestants took refuge in Geneva, where they formed an English congregation patterned on Calvin’s system. During their exile, they undertook several projects with long-term import: they issued the Geneva Bible, an edition with extensive notes that gave a Calvinist gloss to the text; and they expanded a small psalter they brought from England. Primarily the work of Thomas Sternhold (37 psalms) and John Hopkins (7 psalms), it was dedicated to the Protestant King Edward VI (r. 1547–1553). In 1556, the refugee congregation published the first of four Genevan editions of the psalter that soon came to be known by the names of its original compilers, Sternhold and Hopkins. One of the refugees, the Oxford-educated biblical scholar William Whittingham, added new metrical psalms, and the Genevan edition was the first to include tunes. The 1558 edition featured 62 psalms, with 9 of the additions by Whittingham; two years later, a third Genevan edition boasted 65 metrical psalms. The final Genevan edition of this earlier English psalter appeared in 1561 and included 100 numbers, with the largest share of additions from the pen of William Kethe. Kethe’s rendering of Psalm 100 remains in use and is generally known by its first line: “All people that on earth do dwell.”

While the Genevan psalter poetry required 110 tunes for 150 psalms, the English psalter relied largely on three meters—short, common, and long. A limited number of tunes sufficed for congregational needs. When the English exiles returned home, they introduced their expanding psalter to British Protestants. It had particularly strong influence on the practice of the Church of Scotland. Wherever Calvinists gathered, vernacular psalters provided congregations with their musical language of praise. Calvin’s influence on the course of British Protestantism made his musical preferences part of the formative heritage of Protestants in Canada and the United States.

In German-speaking Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich, took a more conservative stance on church music. An able musician, Zwingli excluded music entirely from Zurich churches. He encouraged psalm singing in private gatherings and especially in family devotions, but he feared that music’s emotional power would overwhelm text. Augustine’s famous fourth-century reflections on the topic had set out the problem. Calvin sided with Augustine: the problem was not music but human weakness, and the benefits of carefully regulated singing were worth the risk. Zwingli chose to avoid the problem by eliminating its source. In sixteenth-century Zurich, antiphonal recitations of psalms took the place of congregational singing, and the absence of choirs and instruments made Zurich churches uniquely word focused. The omission of music was confined to city churches, however. In outlying towns in the Canton of Zurich, congregational singing that combined psalms and hymns flourished. Zwingli did not write extensively on music; he simply omitted it from the church order he prepared, and his prohibition on music in Zurich’s churches lasted through the tenure of his successor, Heinrich Bullinger. In 1598 a German psalter was finally published in Zurich, and the established church incorporated sung psalmody into its worship. Elsewhere in German-speaking Switzerland, from the beginning of the reform of church life in 1526, Protestants in Basel sang unaccompanied psalms, while in a few places (St. Gall and Constance, for example) hymnals influenced by Lutheran practice incorporated both metrical psalms and hymns.

One other family of sixteenth-century Protestants had a formative influence on Protestant hymnody. The label “Anabaptist” referred to a scattered group of sectarian people divided by many ideas but united around a few convictions about the church and the world. Anabaptists rejected infant baptism in favor of baptism on profession of faith; they found no biblical warrant for state churches and concluded that the true church would always be a persecuted minority; they refused to take oaths or to engage in warfare. In the Reformation era, Anabaptists were persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike, and they expressed their suffering in a body of hymns closely tied to their historical experience. The oldest Anabaptist hymnal, the Ausbund, was first published in 1564, and it included more than 50 hymns composed in the 1530s and 1540s by Anabaptists confined to the dungeon of the Castle of Passau, home of Passau’s bishop, a prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Some Anabaptists died in the castle dungeon; many more were martyred. Writing and singing hymns enabled survivors to contextualize their own experiences in the biblical narrative. They relied on popular tunes, and hymn singing encouraged and comforted the 60 victims. The book’s long descriptive title said the hymns were written and sung through God’s grace and cited Psalm 139, a text brimming with the assurance that God knows human circumstances and ending with a prayer for the destruction of the wicked. An expanded edition in 1583 added 80 hymns and described the collection as suitable for all Christians everywhere.

Two distinct general views of Christian music emerged out of the Reformation and shaped the future course of Protestant Christian song. The first, exemplified by Luther, affirmed that hymns, metrical psalms, instrumental music, and choral performance had an integral role in Protestant public and private devotion; the second, represented by Calvin, chose unaccompanied unison metrical psalm singing in public worship while permitting parts singing and instrumental accompaniment outside the sanctuary. In general, these two paths remained largely separate until revivals in the eighteenth century helped initiate a gradual process of cross-fertilization.

British Hymnody.

Early British Protestants, meanwhile, came to be known for two distinct streams in religious song: a rich and expanding corpus of cathedral music and unaccompanied psalm singing. These contrasting musical choices came to distinguish Anglican cathedral worship from parish church custom. Anglican cathedral music featured male choirs, choral services, chanted or sung responses, anthems, choral settings for the Eucharist, hymns, psalms, and motets. Custom dictated that congregations sang hymns; choirs, priests, and lay cantors typically performed most service music. Cathedral music drew on the rich resources of the larger Christian communion Catholic and Protestant and from the beginning highlighted the talents of a long list of British composers and hymnwriters like William Byrd (ca. 1543–1623), William Croft (1628–1727), and later Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876), Sir John Stainer (1840–1901), and Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848–1918). Among Anglican Church musicians—organists, choirmasters, hymn writers, composers—were some of Britain’s best known musicians. Anglican cathedrals kept alive the ancient custom of boys’ choirs: eligible at the age of seven, boys auditioned for places in choirs and cathedral schools, a custom that has continued with encouragement since 1927 from the Royal College of Church Music.

The majority of British Christians worshipped not in cathedrals but in parish churches, where Calvin’s preference for metrical psalms rather than Luther’s for hymns prevailed. The psalters produced in Geneva and Britain did not feature hymns based on the Psalms but, rather, rearranged the words of English translations of the Psalms into metrical versions intended for singing and reading. Pious desires to be faithful to the biblical text, however, frequently resulted in awkward phrasing. An injunction in 1559 provided for the singing of a hymn (commonly interpreted to mean a psalm) in the Church of England. For the next 134 years, Sternhold’s and Hopkins’s psalter as expanded in Geneva was the closest thing to an authorized hymnal in the Church of England. Scotland produced its own psalter in 1564, an edition that took final form after a revision in 1650 and presented most psalms in common meter. In 1696, the poet laureate Nahum Tate along with Nicholas Brady revised Sternhold and Hopkins by editing existing text and providing new materials. Their psalter came to be known as the New Version: it did not immediately displace the Old Version, which went through some 300 editions before the mid-nineteenth century. These psalters had supplements including such resources as a long-meter version of the Ten Commandments, versified canticles from the Book of Common Prayer, the Magnificat, the Lord’s Prayer, two metrical texts of hymns included in the book of Revelation, and the Apostles’ Creed. The 1708 musical supplement to the New Version became an important source of tunes for congregational singing.

In the early eighteenth century, dissatisfaction with the limitations of the metrical psalter as a Christian hymnal led the Congregationalist Isaac Watts to publish alternatives. Between 1705 and 1719, Watts prepared four books containing some 700 poems, most intended for congregational singing. Watts composed metrical versions of the Psalms that often broke free from close paraphrasing of the biblical text. He made them immediately usable by employing meters suitable for commonly used psalm tunes. Watts also went beyond psalms to compose hymns rich in Christian doctrine and profession. Rhyming lines aided memory. Watts found his first audience among Congregationalists, but cross-fertilization eventually assured his hymns an enduring place in most Protestant hymnals. Biblically rooted but not tied to literal biblical text or clumsy paraphrases of the Authorized Version of the Bible, Watts’s hymns pointed toward the explosion of Protestant hymnody that was already underway when he died in 1748.

Eighteenth-century revivals not only invigorated piety and practice, they also featured hymns that expressed personal testimony, devotional intensity, and experiential awe. Revivals occurred in different places—among European Lutheran and Reformed Protestants where revival devotees were known as Pietists; in the American colonies where leaders of the Great Awakening reported unprecedented concern about spiritual matters; and in Britain where John and Charles Wesley used both spoken and sung words to insist on humankind’s need for saving and sanctifying grace. Travel, correspondence, and publications facilitated the confluence of these revival streams: together they helped birth modern evangelicalism.

Pietist hymns, like other German texts, did not find a prominent place in English-language hymnody until the nineteenth century, but Pietist spirituality featured prominently in eighteenth-century continental hymnals. Like Pietism more generally, these hymns directed the singer or reader’s focus inward to probe the state of one’s soul before God, celebrated the indwelling Holy Spirit, gave thanks for the new birth, and elicited adoration and praise. Pietists made much of the Bible, commending regular Bible study to laypeople and promoting family devotions. In the university town of Halle, they established the first Bible society, taking as their goal the wide distribution of inexpensive portions of scripture. They insisted that only the new birth transformed sinners into Christians and made much of the saving work of Christ on the cross. They demonstrated their heartfelt piety in acts of service that included foreign missions, orphanages, hospitals, and schools. Since Pietists made much of lay Christian activism and religious experience, the movement produced a flood of hymns that radiated the warmth and joy of heartfelt Christian experience. Pietist hymns and poems are perhaps the best digests of Pietist thought, and Pietist texts set to familiar hymn and psalm tunes entered the Protestant repertoire wherever Pietist impulses flourished.

Meanwhile, the explosion of popular hymnody in Britain owed an incalculable debt to the labors of John and Charles Wesley. They made hymn singing a central feature of the Methodist revival, and Methodist hymns accompanied the rapid spread of Methodism beyond Britain, first to North America and then around the globe. Three subjects suggest how the Wesleys shaped future Protestant song: hymn translation, hymn composition, and hymn publication.

Before he began his itinerant preaching in England, John Wesley traveled to Germany to visit the Moravian settlement at Herrnhut. There he found a society suffused by hymnody and music making. Fervent hymn singing in the congregation and homes he visited enabled a vital expression of faith, worship, and testimony. In Herrnhut Wesley saw hymns at work in the spiritual lives of a community of faith. On his return to England, he translated a few German hymns for English use. He paraphrased freely and did not use the common German tunes for his translations. Meanwhile, Charles Wesley’s poetic instincts gave his work a towering influence on Englishlanguage hymnody and made it a turning point in its development.

Charles Wesley wrote some 6,000 hymns, and they popularized the distinctive message that made the Methodist revival a watershed moment in English religious life: conversion, assurance, sanctification, consecration, service. The imagery of the hymns conveyed the sensory components of an emotion-stirring encounter with God: the blood of Christ spoke; the penitent felt the cleansing blood; the fire of the Holy Spirit warmed and purged. The texts relied heavily on biblical phrasing and imagery, but unlike metrical psalms, they ranged freely through the entire text, combining and arranging biblical phrases to make their points. Phrases from biblical passages interspersed with poetic artistry drew from the Old and New Testaments, weaving together biblical language to present a message. No longer bound by the need to paraphrase a portion of scripture, Wesley roamed the full text in search of imagery, allusions, and turns of phrase to celebrate the work of Christ, the joy of conversion and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Mosaics of scripture and a poet’s genius yielded profound and enduring hymns. His famous hymn on free grace, “And Can It Be,” for example, wove words from 1 Peter, Philippians, Acts, Ephesians, Romans, and Hebrews into a seamless whole. Wesley’s unmatched output relied on a wide variety of styles and more than 80 meters and so required many tunes.

John Wesley devoted significant effort to editing and publishing his brother’s hymns. Between 1737 and 1787, he produced more than 25 hymnals that collected the hymns that nurtured the Methodist revival. Most featured Charles Wesley’s work, and John Wesley’s alterations crafted his brother’s poems into hymns that later took their places in hymnals of every Protestant denomination. John Wesley offered the hymns with instructions for singing: from “sing lustily” to “sing spiritually,” these admonitions captured the Wesley brothers’ conviction that congregational singing at its best united people of faith in a wholehearted corporate offering of praise to God.

For the moment, Methodist hymns were sung mostly by Methodists, just as Watts’s compositions had as their primary audience his Independent (Congregationalist) cohorts. The unmatched output of these giants of eighteenth-century English hymnody inspired others and became part of a larger outpouring of Protestant hymns, some rooted in revivals and others prepared primarily for particular congregations. Many were inspired by a deep love of scripture: they popularized theology and brought phrases from the Authorized Version into common use. Following Watts’s example, the Psalms and other Old Testament passages became foundations for unabashedly Christian song. One example was the London cobbler Thomas Olivers’s “A Hymn to the God of Abraham,” which set the biblical story of redemption to a celebrated Jewish melody. If one cites the scripture references line by line, Olivers’s original text drew from at least 65 distinct biblical passages.

The explosion of hymns that accompanied eighteenth-century revivals did not immediately displace the use of psalms in the Church of England or in the Established Church of Scotland. The 1650 metrical psalter remained the central text of Scottish congregational praise. As Watts and the Wesleys reshaped English hymnody, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland refused to authorize anything but psalmody despite growing pressure to provide resources beyond the Psalms. Not until 1781 did it accept a collection of paraphrases of other portions of scripture set to psalter meters and drawn from the Old and New Testaments. Nearly half of the additions were adapted from Watts; 32 came from the Old Testament and 25 from the New Testament. Many later made their way into general Protestant use.

A survey of Protestant hymnody offers a glimpse of cultural, political, intellectual, and theological transitions. The Enlightenment focus on the natural world, the romantic fascination for feeling, the foreign missionary movement’s preoccupation with spreading the Christian message, or the anti-slavery cause prompted hymns filled with biblical imagery that served the needs and tracked the values of the times. And migration vastly increased crossfertilization. Especially in the United States, people from different European countries and different denominations mingled. Hymns were translated; union meetings drew on multiple resources; cooperation in moral causes (Bible societies, reform endeavors, temperances) encouraged shared resources. Missionaries brought their traditions’ hymns around the world, translating them for use wherever Christians gathered. The global dissemination and translation of Protestant hymns beyond the European population began with eighteenth-century Pietist missionaries from continental Europe. While missionaries and colonists took Protestant hymns wherever they went, British Protestants at home vastly increased the repertoire of English hymns.

The increase in repertoire came about for two basic reasons: first, a movement within the Church of England and, second, translation of hundreds of German hymns into English. First, promoters of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church set out to appropriate the larger church’s historic past and recover liturgical worship and ancient traditions. They deplored trends within the Anglicanism of their day and imagined renewal through spiritual disciplines and hymnody associated with the past. Hymn writers who supported this Oxford Movement’s High Church aims translated Latin and Greek hymns for English use and participated in preparing an influential hymnal for Anglican use. Known as Hymns Ancient and Modern, the first edition was published in 1861 and became an important marker in the ongoing incorporation of hymn singing into Anglican worship at a time when numerous local hymnals offered a wide variety of choices. The editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern aimed at a standardized repertoire that featured High Church convictions.

A second source of new English hymns arose out of the fascination for German hymnody that accompanied a growing interest in foreign literature. Augmented by more frequent travel and wide familiarity with German classical composers, awareness of German hymns convinced English writers to attempt translations. The most prolific and influential was Catherine Winkworth, whose two-part Lyra Germanica (1856, 1858) presented translations of German hymns for reading. In 1863, Winkworth followed these texts with The Chorale Book for England, a collection of 200 translations set to their historic German tunes. Unlike John Wesley, Winkworth rigorously adhered to meters that allowed her translations to fit their common German tunes. Others supplemented Winkworth’s work—Jane Borthwick, Emma Frances Bevan, Sarah Borthwick Findlater, Frances Cox, and others—effectively shaping an English language hymnody that drew on metrical psalters, ancient hymns, English poets, and the rich corpus of historic German text that emerged from the Reformation in the homeland of Protestant congregational singing.

All the while, of course, other Protestants had been writing hymns and paraphrasing psalms. Borrowing across traditions was a next logical step as ecumenical cooperation and American influence increased general awareness of the vast hymn resources available for Christian devotion. Hymnal editors freely made the small changes that allowed Calvinists to sing Charles Wesley’s hymns; John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” and other hymns in the collection he prepared for his Anglican congregation became favorites across Protestant traditions. Hymns offered women an opportunity to shape the language of corporate worship and voice publicly their understanding of scripture and doxology.

In the revivals that coursed through American and British Protestantism in the late nineteenth century, new and popular gospel songs aided evangelistic appeals and came to be known as gospel hymns. With their frequent use of the first person and their preoccupation with religious experience, gospel hymns admonished people to repent, trust, commit, and obey the clear message evangelists found in the Bible. Featuring simple repetitive texts set to catchy tunes, gospel hymns often featured choruses that drove their points home. Many evoked biblical stories or verified biblical understandings through personal testimony. With no time for subtleties, they promoted certainties about heaven and hell, sin and redemption, mission and duty. The expanding market for gospel songs coincided with the rise of inexpensive publishing that required a steady stream of new materials to make a profit. Inexpensively bound and widely marketed, they underwent a natural process of sifting in which thousands fell by the wayside while the most used and most effective survived. Printed with music, gospel hymns were not intended for reading; their effectiveness depended on their tunes, their adaptability to sermon topics, and their appeal to the emotions through the combination of text and tune.

Gospel hymns overlapped with an explosion of children’s hymns that became staples in nineteenth-century Sunday schools. Some of the best-loved revival hymns appeared first in collections intended for children. In 1715, Isaac Watts published the first widely acknowledged children’s hymnal, Divine and Moral Songs for Children. Replete with vivid descriptions of sinners doomed to damnation, Watts’s stern verse gave way a century later to a rush of sentimentalized encouragement to do one’s duty and respond to God’s loving invitation. Editors of Sunday school hymnals sought out new materials and depended on the audience to winnow the mix of texts they offered. A handful of songs survived, while many more quickly fell into disuse only to be replaced by a new rush of compositions. Especially in the United States, Sunday schools inculcated the values their promoters believed produced responsible citizens. Promoters assigned them a critical role in strengthening Protestant America and favored Sunday school music with simple gospel themes and generous advice about conduct, punctuality, cleanliness, and duty. The best known Sunday school hymn “Jesus Loves Me,” combined lines from a novel with a tune by the organist, composer, and music publisher William Bradbury. The refrain concluded with an appeal to ultimate authority: “The Bible tells me so.”

As the nineteenth century waned, increasing numbers of Protestants questioned long-held assumptions about the Bible. In the United States, Modernists and Fundamentalists debated the Bible’s place in a modern scientific world. Fundamentalists voiced their claims about the Bible in gospel songs that celebrated the inerrancy of the biblical text. The songs themselves were confrontational: for example, “The Bible Stands” asserted triumphantly, “Its truth by none ever was refuted, and destroy it they never can.” Such songs popularized the claims of the stalwart conservatives who battled for the Bible, and they became features at the youth rallies and Christian camps that nurtured the next generation in Fundamentalist religion.

The content and use of hymns, then, reveals much about the changing concerns of Protestant Christians. Denominational hymnals include a selection of hymns that cover both the rhythms of the Christian year and the range of life’s experiences. Such hymnals include texts that address issues like grief, frailty, loss, death, eternity, or creation stewardship. Congregations shaped by the various post–Civil War revival movements, on the other hand, relied heavily on hymnals that featured gospel hymns, many of which were written within a generation of the hymnal’s publication. These hymnals often lacked the organization that structured denominational hymnals, and they neglected most of the classic hymns of the Protestant past in favor of recent texts on personal experience set to spirited tunes. Such gospel hymns worked well for revivals, but their uncomplicated, activist, and historically uninformed selections devalued the church as community of faith in favor of individualistic activism.

Many gospel hymns offered neither good poetry nor good music, and in the second half of the twentieth century, their evangelical consumers readily moved on to embrace the new sounds of contemporary Christian music. Scripture choruses flourished, but in time it became evident that much of the new music popular in evangelical and charismatic congregations focused on some biblical themes while ignoring others. All along, however, contemporary hymn writers continued to do what hymn writers had done for centuries—present the gospel in words and meters suited to the times. And so modern Protestant hymn writers from many denominations and none write about all aspects of the biblical narrative and its meaning in the modern world. In the twenty-first century, Protestants sing every kind of Christian music from traditional hymns to contemporary choruses. Some sing from within a context that values the hymns of the church through the ages and around the globe. Others sing in contexts that celebrate personal religious experiences and ignore the ecumenical richness of the long tradition of Christian song. Nonetheless, singing and Protestant religion go hand in hand in the modern world as they always have.

For Protestants, hymns and psalms have always been devotional texts for private and public use; as sung texts, they help people express their deepest religious beliefs while also invigorating their convictions, stirring their feelings, and articulating their aspirations. At the same time, they offer windows into the belief systems and concerns of the singers, revealing change over time. Hymns provide an invaluable window on the lived religion of ordinary Protestants as well as on both popular and formal understandings of the biblical message in different times and place.



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Edith Blumhofer