The Development and Major Influences on Christian Hymnody through the 18th Century.

Christian hymnody holds a rich and diverse history, spanning centuries of worship and devotion. Providing a rich theological and literary heritage, its development can be traced to the earliest mention of psalms sung by Hebrew Temple priests in the Old Testament with hymns sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments for both festive and religious occasions. In the book of Psalms it is written “Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands! Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before His presence with singing.” (Psalm 100:1-2).

In the early New Testament church, hymns were used to praise God, teach doctrine, and encourage believers. “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord”. (Col. 3:16).

The Oldest Known Christian Hymn.

Oxyrhynchus is an ancient Egyptian town situated about 100 miles southwest of Cairo. During the season of 1896/97, two young archeologists, B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt from Queen’s College in Oxford, England found a huge ancient garbage dump at Oxyrhynchus that was to yield over the next one hundred years the largest collection of ancient papyri ever found.

In addition to important fragments from most of the books in the Old Testament, we have fragments and whole passages from all the books in the New Testament.

One of these papyri discovered in 1918 and published in 1922 has what is considered the oldest known Christian hymn–Papyrus 1786 now in the Papyrology Rooms of the Sackler Library in Oxford. Written in Greek and containing both lyrics and musical notation, it is dated c. 260 AD so it is a very early example of how Christians in the early Church praised the Lord in music. The translation into English from the Greek of this hymn comes from M.L. West:

“Let it be silent
Let the Luminous stars not shine,
Let the winds (?) and all the noisy rivers die down;
And as we hymn the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
Let all the powers add “Amen Amen”
Empire, praise always, and glory to God,
The sole giver of good things, Amen Amen.”

Psalms in the Hebrew Temple and Hymns in the Early Church
The practice of singing psalms and hymns can be found in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the book of Psalms. These songs were a vital part of worship in the Hebrew Temple, where choirs and congregations would lift their voices in praise and adoration. In the early Christian Church, hymn singing continued, as evidenced by references in the New Testament, such as the mention of hymns sung by Jesus and his disciples during the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30).

“A Hymn to Christ as to a God.”

Some of the earliest evidence of Christians singing to Christ outside the New Testament comes from a pagan governor of Pontus and Bithynia, Pliny the Younger. In the early second century, he wrote a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan after encountering some Christians and wondering what to do with them. He writes, “They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god.” Similarly, Eusebius, the early fourth-century historian of the church, discusses how the church responded to the heresy that Christ was merely human. He offered the witness of the church’s song: “For who does not know … all the psalms and hymns written from the beginning by faithful brethren, which sing of Christ as the Word of God and address Him as God?”

St. Ephraem and the Early Development of Hymnody
In the 4th century, St. Ephraem, a deacon from Mesopotamia, played a crucial role in the development of Christian hymnody. Known as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit,” St. Ephraem composed numerous hymns in Syriac, a language accessible to the common people. His hymns were characterized by their poetic beauty, their theological depth, and their passionate spirituality. St. Ephraem’s contributions paved the way for the expansion of hymnody beyond the Hebrew and Greek languages.

Saint Ephraem’s Story.

St. Ephraem from the Mosaic in Nea Moni Monastery of Chios (11th century).

He had a prolific pen, and his writings best illumine his holiness. Although he was not a man of great scholarship, his works reflect deep insight and knowledge of the Scriptures. In writing about the mysteries of humanity’s redemption, Ephraem reveals a realistic and humanly sympathetic spirit and a great devotion to the humanity of Jesus. It is said that his poetic account of the Last Judgment inspired Dante.

It is surprising to read that he wrote hymns against the heretics of his day. He would take the popular songs of the heretical groups and using their melodies, compose beautiful hymns embodying orthodox doctrine. Ephraem became one of the first to introduce song into the Church’s public worship as a means of instruction for the faithful. His many hymns have earned him the title “Harp of the Holy Spirit.”

Medieval Latin Influence
The origins of Latin hymnody in the Christian Church date back to the 6th century when theologians began to draw upon the oral tradition of Latin hymnic poetry to create new hymns for the Church. Over the following centuries, the use of Latin hymns and other liturgical texts for Christian worship grew steadily, eventually becoming ubiquitous in most branches of the Western Church. Meanwhile, the techniques of writing musical settings for the Latin hymns became increasingly formalized and elaborate. These early musical compositions are sometimes referred to as Gregorian Chant or Plainsong and were often taken from older Byzantine chant traditions.

6th Century…
The emergence of Gregorian chant, also known as plainchant, had a profound impact on Christian hymnody. Gregorian chant originated in the liturgical practices of the early Christian church and was primarily sung in Latin. These chants were monophonic, meaning they consisted of a single melodic line without any harmonization. Gregorian chant served as the basis for many hymns composed during this period, which were predominantly in Latin. Although popular legend credits Pope Gregory I with inventing Gregorian chant, scholars believe that it arose from a later Carolingian synthesis of the Old Roman chant and Gallican chant.

7th to 9th Centuries…
During this period, hymnody underwent further development and expansion. Notable figures such as St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Venantius Fortunatus composed numerous hymns in Latin, which became an integral part of the Christian liturgy. These hymns focused on various themes such as praise, adoration, and theological reflection. St. Ambrose, in particular, is credited with popularizing the use of hymns in public worship.

The Cistercians originally wore habits of plain wool as a sign of poverty. This would change over time.

10th to 11th Centuries…
The Cluniac and Cistercian monastic orders played a crucial role in the development of hymnody during this period. Monastic communities, such as those in Cluny and Cîteaux, emphasized the importance of liturgical music, including hymns, as a means of spiritual contemplation. These monasteries produced hymnals, which contained a collection of Latin hymns for use in both public and private worship.

The Cistercian movement grew at a monastery in Citeaux, also located in Central France, which was founded in 1098. The leader of the movement was Bernard of Clairvaux, an influential figure of the 12th century. Despite their attempts to follow the rules of Saint Benedict closely, the Cistercians ended up attracting huge donations and eventually ended up becoming extremely wealthy. Their rules against accepting oblates and certain forms of income, and living austerely, were slowly relaxed, and by 1200, they, too, were lost in the sea of indistinguishable Benedictine monks.

Hymnal in Latin, decorated manuscript on parchment with musical notation Western Germany or Southeastern Belgium, c. 1500-1525.

12th to 13th Centuries…
In the 12th century, the rise of the troubadours and the development of courtly love poetry influenced Christian hymnody. Hymns during this period often adopted poetic forms and styles inspired by secular music and poetry. The popular hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which originated during the 12th century, exemplifies this trend. These hymns continued to be predominantly in Latin but began to incorporate vernacular languages as well.

The Medieval Latin influence on Christian Hymnody remained strong throughout the middle ages, but declined in the 14th century, as vernacular languages began to be used more widely in worship. However, Latin hymns continued to be sung in some churches and monasteries, and they continue to be sung today by some Christian groups.

The Reformation
The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century brought about significant changes in the practice of Christian worship – including hymn singing. Martin Luther, one of the most influential figures of this movement, understood the power of music to engage and educate believers. He translated the Psalms and other biblical texts into German, making them more accessible to the masses. He also composed or reworked existing hymns, encouraging congregational involvement in the singing. Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” became what some call a Battle Hymn of the Reformation. Luther’s writings and hymns spread throughout Europe, shaping the Christian scripture to this day.

Did Martin Luther really use tavern tunes in church?

“A Mighty Fortress” (originally written in the German language with the title “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”)

It has been claimed by many people over the years that Martin Luther boldly seized songs commonly sung in taverns, changed the lyrics and then made them the basis of congregational song. In the interest of historical accuracy, in fairness to the reformer, and for the purpose of conversation about worship music today, this claim must be challenged, or at least be carefully qualified. At its worst this claim is a misrepresentation of fact. At its best, it is a misleading oversimplification of Luther’s intention and his practice of liturgical music.

Comparing the music situation of Luther’s time with our own is like comparing apples with oranges. At the time of Luther, there were not sharp distinctions between secular and sacred musical styles. When we speak today of “popular music,” we mean it in a way not familiar to sixteenth-century Germany.

Wikipedia: The Protestant movement changed many aspects of Europeans’ daily lives.

One of the most noticeable changes to take place was the way in which Christians worshiped through music. Before and during the Reformation, much of Catholic worship music consisted of highly florid choral works, Gregorian plainchant, and responsive songs in praise of God and in honor of the Virgin Mary. Protestant reformers, however, sought to change Catholicism’s perceived “dangers of overly theatrical performances, the unwarranted expense of elaborate ceremonies and enormous pipe organs and the uselessness of text unintelligible to the common man.” The urge for reform in these areas created two main schools of thought: One which adhered to the regulative principle of worship music, and one which followed the normative principle, with the latter becoming far more prevalent as time progressed. The dissension between these two groups led to stark contrasts in worship practices.

Isaac Watts, from Edwin Long, Illustrated History of Hymns and Their Authors (ca. 1882)

Isaac Watts and the Birth of English Hymnody
Isaac Watts, an English hymn writer of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is often hailed as the father of English hymnody. His creative approach included adapting regimental tunes for new lyrics and abandoning the restriction of using only biblical texts. His hymns addressed theological themes in a poetic style previously unseen in English and made them accessible to the less educated. Some of his most popular hymns, such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World”, have become enduring classics and are still sung today. Watts’ innovation created a new form of hymnody that expressed the Christian faith in a fresh and stimulating way.

Watts explains his methods as follows: “Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I have added the merits of a Saviour. Where he talks of sacrificing goats and bullocks, I rather mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. When he attends the ark with shouting into Zion, I sing of the ascension of my Saviour into heaven, or His presence in His church on earth. Where he promises abundance of wealth, honour, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory, and life eternal, which are brought to light in the Gospel, and promised in the New Testament.”

The “Lily Portrait” of a young Charles Wesley, in the New Room, Bristol.

Charles Wesley and the Methodist Hymnody
Charles Wesley, an 18th-century English hymn writer, and co-founder of Methodism, had a major influence on the development of Christian hymnody. His prolific hymn writing, characterized by emotional fervor and evangelistic zeal, has been recognized as an essential part of the Methodist tradition. Many of his hymns, such as “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” continue to resonate with believers to this day. Wesley’s hymns reflected his deep spirituality and devotion to the Christian faith, and they have been instrumental in bringing spiritual enlightenment and joy to believers around the world.

The 18th century also saw a dramatic increase in the popularity of hymn singing, with congregations large and small uniting in song. This growth led to the production of hymnals – collections of both traditional and new hymns, compiled for use in public worship. Notable hymnals from this period include the “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” by Isaac Watts, compiled in 1707, and the “Methodist Hymn Book” edited by John Wesley, published in 1780. Hymnals provided a standardized repertoire of songs for congregations to sing at public worship services, preserving and disseminating hymnody, and allowing believers to unite together in song and praise.

The Golden Age of Hymns: Did You Know?
Charles Wesley was an accomplished field preacher, who on occasion addressed crowds of 10,000 and 20,000 people. He experienced considerable opposition, sometimes from rock-throwing mobs. In fact, his well-known hymn “Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim” was written “to be sung in a tumult.”

Throughout Charles Wesley’s life, his Methodist companions sang none of his hymns in Sunday worship. Throughout Wesley’s lifetime, Methodists stayed in the Anglican church, which did not employ the new hymns in worship. Wesley’s hymns were sung in informal Methodist gatherings during the week.

Through the years, hymnody has served as an important expression of faith, shaping and expressing theological beliefs and creating a sense of identity within believers. Hymns functioned as a powerful medium for conveying and internalizing biblical truths through memorable melodies and lyrics. They also fostered social cohesion, connecting Christians across geographical and denominational boundaries, and serving as a storehouse of spiritual insight and knowledge. From simple village chorales to complex compositions, hymns still bring joy and direction to Christian worshippers today, doing as they have always done – expressing faith in the inexpressible.

Christian Hymns and Social Power.

Hymns are powerful emblems of our faith. We often hold our favorites of them as we would a favorite Sunday hat or a colorful brooch on the lapel, but when we sing hymns we say more than what we individually believe. We engage with a larger Christian body than any denomination can hold exclusively, too. Hymns open our faith experience and practice to that of the entire Church—folded in time and rooted in Christ. Hymns are more than devotional or catechetical. They are a uniquely social form of centuries-old Christian discourse, revised and expanded in circulation, but never shedding the truths that they have come to present throughout history. 

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