“Music has power to create a universe or to destroy a civilization.” Katherine Neville
Without a doubt, music has power.
Music has the power to soothe a broken heart…it has the power to strengthen feeble knees. Music has the power to motivate men to war…or to move an enslaved people to freedom.
As I see it, music has the power to bring an obscure message into the light, giving life and vibrancy to words that might have been overlooked otherwise. It’s been said that if you truly want to know the makeup of any given society, listen to the music the people in that society are singing. Indeed, anyone who studies human history with a heart for true understanding must embrace the power of song. And anyone who looks at the history of the Christian faith must understand the amazing power of music to bring God’s often-scattered people together for the common purpose of celebrating the holy sacraments of worship and prayer.
In truth, God’s people have been singing forever. From the Song of Moses and Miriam found in Exodus 15, right through to the concluding choruses found in the Book of Revelation, it’s obvious to any casual reader that God’s Book is filled to the brim with music and song! What other holy book do you know of, for example, that has a complete songbook (The Psalms) located right in the middle of its pages? In the New Testament, Matthew’s gospel (26:30) tells us that even our Lord and Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, on the night before His crucifixion, led His disciples in a hymn of praise before they trekked up to the Mount of Olives!
Most music historians would agree that for the greater part of the 2,000 years of church history, the Christian church sang hymns that took their lyrics directly from the Scriptures. There are records of such songs dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries! In the 6th century, Benedict of Nursia (480-547), founder of the Catholic Benedictine Order of Monks, translated many of these earliest scripture-songs into Latin and formatted them into what are called Gregorian Chants. But by the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation was beginning to change the way music was used in the church, with many scriptural songs being translated from Latin into the language of the common people. In central Europe, Martin Luther (1483-1546) experimented with a new type of German hymn based on scriptural principles rather than taking lyrics directly from the Scriptures. The most famous of his hymns, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, lives on in our hymnals of this century. In England, the church began to adapt the translated Word of God (primarily the Psalms) into English-speaking chants and called these collected hymns and songs, The Psalter. But while Luther and the other reformers played a key part in opening the door to God’s people being invited to sing hymns both inside and outside the church, it was Isaac Watts (1674-1748) who was instrumental in composing the type of hymns we are most familiar with today.
Legend has it that one Sunday afternoon, the young Isaac Watts was complaining about the deplorable songs that were being sung at church. (The Psalter limited church music to metered renditions of the Psalms, intoned by a cantor and then repeated mindlessly by the congregation.) His father, a devout man of God who attended church faithfully, rebuked his son, saying, “I’d like to see you write something better!” Isaac Watts retired to his room and appeared several hours later with his first hymn, Behold The Glories Of The Lamb. It was enthusiastically received at the Sunday evening service that same night and Watts went on to pen over eight hundred hymns, rightfully earning him the title, the Father of English Hymnody!
By the mid-18th century, the Wesley Brothers (Charles and John) and others had run with what Watts began, taking Christian hymns to yet another level altogether. Charles Wesley wrote and published hundreds of songs, all designed to appeal to the personalized heart and soul experience of the revived Christian life. O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing, Christ the Lord is Risen Today, and other songs written or translated into English by the Wesley brothers quickly became popular, first within the Methodist movement, and then within other Protestant denominations as well.
But enough hymn history for now.
Next time, come back and allow me to share with you my hope and vision in blogging our way through thirty of the greatest hymns of all time. And we’ll also share with you how we arrived at the list of hymns we’ll be pondering along the way!
My prayer: Father God, I thank You for the rich heritage You’ve given us in singing our way through our journey with Jesus. Fill me, Holy Spirit, with abounding joy as I ponder and reflect, in the days ahead, on these great hymns of the Christian faith. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: So which hymn has impacted my life the most? What is it specifically that spoke to me through the lyrics of that hymn and how might it help renew my faith in Christ today?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together 30 Great Hymns of Faith?
Between now and Easter 2016, we will be sharing with you this blog series we call Thirty Great Hymns of Faith. In order to keep all 34 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Thirty Great Hymns of Faith home page for ease of use. ENJOY!
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