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Hymn Writing Is Alive and Well

If you think hymns are so last century, and praise songs are totally where it's at now, Carl P. Daw, Jr. begs to differ. A feature story exploring how hymn writing is alive and well today.

When you consider hymns that English-speaking Christians of all ages know-"Amazing Grace," "How Great Thou Art," "A Mighty Fortress"-you might conclude that most of the great hymns have already been written.

In fact, you might wonder whether the churches best at connecting worship and real life have moved on from hymns.

The truth is that more hymns are being written now than ever before.

"The explosion of hymn writing started in Great Britain in the late 1960s and gradually moved to the United States," says Carl P. Daw Jr., an Episcopal priest and writer who teaches hymnology at Boston University and is executive director of The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. His hymn texts are in hymnals of many denominations and in many countries.

Leaders in that first hymn writing explosion include Fred Kaan, a Dutch-born pastor who wrote the communion hymn "Put Peace Into Each Other's Hands;" Fred Pratt Green, honored by the Queen of England for pieces such as "When in Our Music God Is Glorified;" and Brian Wren, who wrote texts for "Christ Is Risen" and "Great God, Your Love Has Called Us."

While serving on the selection committee for the Episcopal Church's The Hymnal 1982, Daw helped evaluate 30,000 submissions-received for 250 slots.

Young Catholics around the world are already singing "We Come to Adore Him," a new song by Gregor Linssen, a German hymn text writer and composer. Up to 800,000 people will sing it together-in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish-when they gather in Cologne, Germany, for XX World Youth Day.

A recent BBC contest drew 3,000 entries from hymn text writers hoping to have their words set to music by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, two of Britain's top Christian composers.

What is a hymn?

"What is a hymn? People have been wrestling with this question for centuries, as far back as St. Augustine's commentaries on the Psalms," Daw says.

People define hymns-as opposed to anthems, worship songs, or chorales-by their metric form, lyric quality, devotional or emotional content, reverent impact, and more.

In his thoughtful essay on well-rounded "musical diets" for spiritual nourishment, John Witvliet, director of Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, writes: "Erik Routley once defined hymns as 'songs for unmusical people to sing together . and such poetry as unliterary people can utter together.'

"Nicholas Temperley concluded his massive study of English parish church music by saying that 'hymns exist for the singers, not for an audience, still less for a critic . if a hymn tune gives pleasure to a musical connoisseur, this must be a merely incidental benefit.' By these definitions, hymns are vernacular, radically inculturated forms of expression."

Daw often refers to an address by Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, who described Christian song as giving us a "map of the landscape of faith." Thinking of a hymn as a song map of the landscape of faith distinguishes it from praise and worship music, which Daw sees more as a "snapshot of the landscape of faith."

"A map is a public document, what poet W.H. Auden called 'civic poetry,' " Daw adds.

Putting words in your mouth

Writing hymns is like putting words in a congregation's mouth. "Hymns are intended for a corporate body. They must be of use to many people and build up a sense of shared identity and shared purpose, just as working songs, marching songs, and protest songs do.

"Hymns have a 'corporate I.' When we sing 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,' we are sharing an intense individual experience of the cross," Daw explains.

Just as readers live vicariously through explorers' travel journals, a song like "The Lord Is My Shepherd" can become an archetypal expression that we all identify with, something both identifiably personal and corporately understood.

In lectures across North America, Daw reminds would-be hymn writers to remember the corporate purpose of their craft. His dozen-plus tips for beginning hymn writersinclude the advice to write hymns for a community you're part of.

"There is no such thing as an average congregation. You have to write for people and situations you know. What metaphor is central to your congregation? Not necessarily a cross. If your church is on top of a hill, then people always think about going up to church," he says.

If you find that the urge to be creative overwhelms your reason for writing hymns, Daw offers two remedies. First, re-read 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. The Corinthians were so eager to share their hymns and prophesies that they interrupted each other during worship. Paul reminded them that God gives spiritual gifts "for the strengthening of the church," not personal gratification.

Second, consider writing hymn texts in small groups, and be willing to listen to others' comments about which lines work and which might be hard to understand or sing.

Singing is believing

"A hymn makes you believe it's also your song if it's capable of being sung as a common, shared experience," Daw often says.

That communal element explains why it's important to appreciate the hymns we already have and to write new hymns to fill the gaps.

Daw says that singing classic hymns "sends us back to places of our strength and dependence, and ultimately brings us home to God." He disagrees with the practice of revising hymns that are already in corporate memory, because taking out archaic language deletes the sense of history-and "without a sense of history, we don't have hope, because we're caught in the now."

But we Christians also need new hymns about today's challenges, from AIDS and natural disasters to feeling rootless.

A hymn Daw wrote in response to September 11, 2001 begins: "When sudden terror tears apart 
the world we thought was ours, we find how fragile strength can be, how limited our powers." The hymn works well with either the alternate or better known tune for "O God, Our Help in Ages Past."

When The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada sponsored a contest for hymn texts "to fill the gaps," 129 entries poured in. A hymn by British pastor Andrew Pratt won honorable mention for this wonderful title and first line: "Lives are the currency spent in war's carnage" (scroll to fifth song).

The winning hymn, "When Eyes That We Once Knew as Keen," addresses the heartbreak of watching an elderly Christian lose memory and clear thinking. The author is John Core, a music librarian at West Virginia University in Morgantown and member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "Even if you don't have a relative with Alzheimer's, you probably know someone who does," Daw says.

The Hymn Society's current contest seeks hymn texts that celebrate the power and promise of peace. Its 2,300 members post dozens of texts each year for each other's review, on subjects such as the Olympics, tsunamis, baptism, reconciliation, and wedding vows.

Daw notes that although many hymns are about permanence, few people today live where they grew up or where the rest of their family lives. "If we don't sing hymns about dealing with change or disappointment, why not?

"Because no one has given us a hymn as a shared sung map for that part of our spiritual journey. A Moravian bishop once said, 'If we don't sing about it, we don't believe it.' That's why we need new hymns," Daw says.

Learn More

Consider submitting a hymn text to the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Faith Alive Christian Resources forthcoming New Testament Songbook project.

The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada has 2,300 members and draws about 400 people to the annual conferenceBrowse new hymn texts submitted by site visitors. Order recordings of hymns and hymn festivals. There's also a hymn society in Great Britain and Ireland.

Read Carl P. Daw, Jr.'s article in Reformed Worship on choosing hymns for Ascension and Pentecost. Listen to a National Public Radio commentary on Methodist hymns. Explore the stories behind songs and hymns such as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," and "I Can Only Imagine." Watch a DVD of "How Green Was My Valley" to see and hear how hymn singing was woven into the lives of Welsh miners.

Study classic hymn texts now in the public domain. Listen to thousands of hymn tunes. Daw says that though "writing in a hymnic style can be deadly," nevertheless, you can still learn a lot from studying hymns. Check out Smith Creek Music's hymnody resources.

Kevin Twit, a campus pastor, explains why the postmodern generation is embracing hymns.

Learn about writing and choosing choral anthems.

Start a Discussion

  • What hymn would you choose to blast on your car stereo on the way to the beach? What hymn would you like sung at your funeral?
  • What percentage of songs sung in your services are hymns? Do you see differences by age in which hymns congregational members know or appreciate? What can various groups learn from each other's preferences?
  • Look at recent church bulletins, recall current congregational prayer needs, and list issues that get the most conversation in your local community. Which hymns address these pressing concerns? Which deep problems have no corresponding choral response?
  • In what ways have you encouraged people in your church to write hymn texts that fit your congregation? How have these hymns affected your worship or your life? 

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to mine the riches of hymns, from centuries old to recently written?

Whether you do these or any other things, we'd love to learn what works for you:

  • Did you gather church members for a survey of who knows which hymn and chart how these hymns fit into various categories (e.g. new, classic, simple to sing, complex and challenging to sing)? Did you also look at how these well-known hymns fit within your order of worship (e.g. praise, lament, confession, petition, thanksgiving, dedication)?
  • Have you written out your process for forming, training, and encouraging small hymn writing groups? If so, have you shared your model with another church or at a symposium?
  • Have you developed any best practices for sponsoring a hymn text contest or hymn singing festival?