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HYMNS. Hymns, original religious poems intended for singing in public or private, were very widely known and used in early modern Europe. As well as embodying communal religious feeling across class barriers, they were the sole form of musical expression in many a devout family and institution.


The familiar metrical form in several stanzas is credited to St. Ambrose (c. 340397). Medieval hymns were sung by priest and choir at mass or office. Their plainsong tunes, repeated with each stanza, later became the basis of polyphonic compositions in several vocal parts. In the sixteenth century and after, many composers published hymn settings. Instruments were generally added after 1600: an outstanding example is "Ave maris stella" (Hail, star of the sea) from Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers (1610).


A key aspect of Martin Luther's theology was the praise of God with understanding, and (following Jan Hus) he promoted a kind of singing in worship that could be understood, and if possible, joined by the congregation. The texts must be in the vernacular and in simple diction; the tunes were often adapted folk songs, or were composed in a popular style by Luther himself or by one of the skilled musicians among his followers. In hymns like "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A mighty fortress is our God) Luther literally planted the Christian message, as he saw it, in the people's mouths and hearts. Many of his hymns ("chorales"), and those of a distinguished line of successors including Philipp Nicolai (15561608) and Paul Gerhardt (16071676), have been in continuous use, firmly wedded to their early tunes. Like their medieval precursors, they were used as a basis for more elaborate compositions by such men as Michael Praetorius (15711621) and Samuel Scheidt (15871654). Above all, Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750) displayed a seemingly inexhaustible creativity in the treatment of hymn melodies in his organ chorales (often misnamed "chorale preludes"), fantasias, cantatas, and passions.


Because of the predominantly Calvinist theology of the early Church of England, hymns of "human composure" had to give way to metrical paraphrases of the psalms in Anglican worship. Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins's The Whole Booke of Psalmes (London, 1562) did, however, include a few anonymous hymns in an appendix, nominally for domestic use, and there is evidence that the pre-Reformation custom of the communion hymn survived in Anglican worship. The now widely sung hymns of George Herbert (15931633) and Thomas Ken (16371711) were intended for private use only, or even for silent reading. Hymns in worship were championed by the Independent Isaac Watts (16741748), and by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, whose brother Charles (17071788) has a claim to be the greatest hymn writer in the English language. These leaders championed a vigorous, heartfelt singing by women as well as men, which was in striking contrast to the then-current Anglican mode of singing. The Wesleys adapted tunes from any available source, including theater pieces, concert music, and folk song.

See also Church of England ; Luther, Martin ; Lutheranism ; Methodism ; Wesley Family .


Anderson, Warren, et al. "Hymn." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, 29 vols. 2nd ed. London, 2001, vol. 12, pp. 1735.

Benson, Louis F. The English Hymn: Its Development and Use in Worship. Richmond, Va., and London, 1915.

Nicholas Temperley

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Hymns, in their purest form, are communications from believers to God. They can express praise, supplication, adoration, and a host of other positive emotions and attitudes. In human terms, they can serve as teaching tools, encourage flagging spirits, and bring comfort to the dying. As a musical form, they were an integral part of nineteenth-century culture, found not only in the churches, but also on the front pages of the nation's newspapers. Given that prominence, it is little wonder that hymns figured prominently in Civil War daily life.

During the early days of the conflict, both sides sought especially to emphasize that God was on their side. Theologians and preachers attempted to lay biblical foundations for their respective causes, and the songwriters and musicians did their part. Even poets joined the mad rush for validation. In July 1861 a Boston newspaper published Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.'s "Army Hymn" (sung to the tune of "Old Hundred"), which concludes with the fierce passage: "God of all Nations! Sovereign Lord / In thy dread name we draw the sword, / We lift the starry flag on high / That fills with light our stormy sky" (New Hampshire Statesman, July 6, 1861).

On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, politicians, newspapermen, and other interested parties sought a national hymn that would claim God's favor, enunciate their goals, and like Holmes's work, properly threaten the enemy. With the offer of a $1,000 prize, many entries were submitted, but none took the prize. The "Star Spangled Banner" was dismissed as being too difficult to sing (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 3, 1865). Yet, on the Union side, one hymn above all captured the spirit of the age: Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic." In it, she transformed a soldiers' simple marching tune, "John Brown's Body," into Christological justification of the Union cause by proclaiming the Union army to be an instrument of God and comparing the soldiers' sacrifices to Christ's with the line "as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." If it was not the national anthem, it certainly became the anthem for abolitionism. Within weeks of the song's publication, William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator declared, "The negro boys around Annapolis have caught the 'Army Hymn' and Old John Brown's 'Glory, Hallelujah,' from the New England soldiers. As for the latter, an Annapolis resident says, 'the negroes are clear carried away with it'" (The Liberator, January 10, 1862).


"Hold the Fort" is a hymn written shortly after the Civil War (1870) by Philip Paul Bliss (1838–1876), based on the events of a battle that took place near Atlanta, Georgia, on October 5, 1864. Bliss wrote the lyrics as well as the tunes for this and many other hymns, sometimes using the pen name "Pro Phundo Basso." Bliss's Gospel songs were very popular with Dwight L. Moody (1837–1899) and his lay missionaries in Chicago. The composer sometimes performed as a vocal soloist at Moody's revivals, with his wife as his accompanist. Husband and wife were killed in a train wreck in Ohio in 1876; Bliss was only 38.

The battle that inspired "Hold the Fort" took place on October 5, 1864, at at Allatoona Pass, a key Union supply depot at a railroad cut on the Western & Atlantic Railroad about forty miles northwest of Atlanta, Georgia. Confederate general John Bell Hood (1831–1879) saw an opportunity to cut Union General William T. Sherman's supply line by seizing the pass. A small group of Union defenders at Altoona were forced backward to a fort at the top of a hill overlooking the pass. They refused a Confederate order to surrender, even though prolonging the battle seemed hopeless. One of the Union officers then saw a signal flag from Sherman's headquarters on Kennesaw Mountain fifteen miles (24 kilometers) away. The flag conveyed the message: "Hold the fort; I am coming. W. T. Sherman." Bliss may have been thinking of the reference to Jesus as the "captain of our salvation" in Hebrews 2:10 when he compared Sherman's signal to Jesus's message of encouragement.

Ho, my comrades, see the signal,

Waving in the sky!

Reinforcements now appearing,

Victory is nigh.


'Hold the fort, for I am coming,'

Jesus signals still;

Wave the answer back to heaven,

'By thy grace we will.'

See the mighty host advancing,

Satan leading on,

Mighty men around us falling,

Courage almost gone!

(Refrain repeated)

See the glorious banner waving,

Hear the trumpet blow!

In our Leader's name we'll triumph,

Over every foe.

(Refrain repeated)

Fierce and long the battle rages,

But our help is near,

Onward comes our great Commander,

Cheer, my comrades, cheer.

'Hold the fort, for I am coming,' Jesus signals still;

Wave the answer back to heaven, 'By thy grace we will.'


SOURCE: "Hold the Fort." Public Domain Music. Available from http://www.pdmusic.org/bliss/ppb70htf.mid.

Though the Confederates tried, they never found a hymn to match the power of Howe's. At about the same time that the "Battle Hymn" took hold in the North, a Savannah newspaper published the lyrics to a rather tepid hymn sung to the tune of Britain's "God Save the King," which it described as being "Suitable for the Times" in the Confederacy. It went: "God of the brave and free, / Father of all, to Thee / Our voice we raise. / For all Thy blessings shown, / For deeds of mercy done, / Thy guardian care we own; / Accept our praise" (Daily Morning News, February 22, 1862). It was reverent, praiseful, and theologically correct; but it did not capture the imagination of many Confederates. Later in 1862 that same newspaper proclaimed "The Oath of Freedom" as the Confederate national hymn, not at all recognizing the irony. Perhaps its opening line, "Liberty is always won where there exists the unconquerable will to be free" made some Southerners uncomfortable (Daily Morning News, October 21, 1862).

Aside from broad characterizations of their respective causes, hymn writers wrote about anything that struck them as noteworthy, and not always successfully. One hymnist, perhaps envious of Howe's success, penned "The Battle Hymn of the West," a truly ponderous hymn, triple the length of the original "Battle Hymn" but with none of its grace (The Dakotian, June 3, 1862). Then there was the "Battle Hymn for Midsummer 1862," which was as unimaginative as its name (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, August 23, 1862).

Civil War—era hymns also spoke to civilian life, the mundane, and the tragic. In Vermont in 1863, a newspaper published "A Hymn on the Death of a Child," and in San Francisco, "The Hymn of the Harvesters" and "Hymn to the Flowers" invoked God's blessing in a pastoral setting (Vermont Chronicle, March 3, 1863; Daily Evening Bulletin, October 15, 1862; Daily Evening Bulletin, November 20, 1863). Some hymns were written for the National Day of Fasting, others commemorated the national feast of Thanksgiving, and at least one letter to an editor complained that there were not enough hymns on temperance and intemperance (Daily Cleveland Herald, April 29, 1863, November 26, 1862; The Congregationalist, April 21, 1865).

The conclusion of the war inspired a flurry of new hymns. According to one newspaper, Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865 put the nation in a grateful mood, claiming "the people in many places gave vent to the joy and gratitude by the singing of psalms, hymns, chants, & c" ( Union and Dakotaian, September 16, 1865). But the joy did not last long, for John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865) took Lincoln's life less than a week later, prompting an outpouring of grief that often manifested itself in hymns. One hymn called Lincoln "The people's friend—the friend of God"; another, returning to Julia Ward Howe's sacrificial theme, lamented, "His voice in clarion notes rang out / The bondsmen's Jubilee; / His name is on Freedom's tongue, / Watchword of liberty. / Thy might, O God, was in his heart; / Thy wisdom made him wise; / He lived a man—he rule a prince— / He died a sacrifice" (The Congregationalist, April 28, 1865).

Ultimately, hymns of the Civil War era represented people's belief in and desire to influence God, whom they believed was active in everyday affairs. When good things happened, such as a victory on the battlefield, the harvest of a bountiful crop, or even the blooming of a pretty flower, people felt it worthy of mentioning to God in song. Conversely, when things went terribly wrong, as in the death of a child, a defeat of arms, or the loss of a beloved president, people sought comfort in solemn song. Hymns, in everyday life during the Civil War, thus were like their conception of God—omnipresent.


The Congregationalist, Boston, April 21, 1865.

The Congregationalist, Boston, April 28, 1865.

The Daily Cleveland Herald, Cleveland, OH, November 26, 1862.

The Daily Cleveland Herald, Cleveland, OH, April 29, 1863.

Daily Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, October 15, 1862.

Daily Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, November 20, 1863.

Daily Morning News, Savannah, GA, February 22, 1862.

The Dakotian, Yankton, SD, June 3, 1862.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, New York, August 23, 1862.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, New York, June 3, 1865.

The Liberator, Boston, January 10, 1862.

New Hampshire Statesman, Concord, NH, July 6, 1861.

Union and Dakotaian, Yankton, SD, September 16, 1865.

Vermont Chronicle, Bellows Falls, VT, March 3, 1863.

David H. Slay

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hymn, song of praise, devotion, or thanksgiving, especially of a religious character (see also cantata).

Early Christian hymnody consisted mainly of the Psalms and the great canticles Nunc dimittis, Magnificat, and Benedictus from the Bible and of the Sanctus, Gloria in excelsis, and Te Deum. These were chanted in unison (see plainsong). Metrical Latin hymnody began with the hymns of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and St. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, in the 4th cent. This type of hymn, usually four-line stanzas in iambic tetrameter, was the basis of nearly all Christian hymnody until the 16th cent.

Notable Latin hymns are Corde natus ex parentis by Prudentius in the 4th cent., and Fortunatus' 6th-century processionals, Vexilla regis and Pange lingua (whose meter was imitated in the Pange lingua of St. Thomas Aquinas). From the 11th cent. came Wipo's Easter sequence, Victimae paschali laudes. The Dies irae, probably by Thomas of Celano, and the Stabat Mater dolorosa by Jacopone da Todi are great hymns of the 13th cent.

With the Reformation came the development of Protestant hymnody. The first hymnbooks in the vernacular are probably those published by the followers of John Huss in Bohemia in 1501 and 1505. In 1524 the first Lutheran hymnal was published at Wittenberg. The early Lutheran hymns were translations of Latin hymns, folksongs with new texts, often paraphrases of biblical verses or passages, or sometimes original melodies. Calvinism contributed the Genevan Psalter (final version, 1562). It contained the Psalms, translated into French verse by Clément Marot and Theodore Beza and set to music, most of which was supplied by Louis Bourgeois, who used some original tunes and adapted others. The familiar doxology tune Old Hundredth is the tune of Psalm 134 in this psalter.

The first collection of English church tunes was Sternhold's Psalter (1556), published at Geneva and consisting of metrical versions of the Psalms by Thomas Sternhold (d. 1549) and others, which were set to unharmonized tunes. John Wesley's hymnal (1737) contained metrical psalms, translations from Greek and German, and original lyrics and melodies, and was thus the first hymnal in the modern sense. Other notable English hymnists of the 18th cent. were Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and William Cowper, poets whose hymns are still sung in nearly all Protestant churches. In the 19th cent. there was a revived interest in plainsong that resulted in many translations of ancient Latin hymns, such as those by John Mason Neale.

In America the Puritans used psalters brought with them from Europe until the Bay Psalm Book (1640), the earliest American hymnal, was published at Cambridge, Mass. William Billings wrote the first original American hymns as distinguished from paraphrases of psalms and psalm tunes; another important composer was Lowell Mason, whose song collections, such as Spiritual Songs (1831), compiled jointly with Thomas Hastings, attained wide distribution.

In the latter half of the 19th cent. the gospel hymn was developed (see gospel music). It is marked by lively rhythm, constant alternation of the simplest harmonies, and sentimental text. Arthur Sullivan's "Onward Christian Soldiers" (1871) is a well-known example of the martial hymn of the period. In the 20th cent. radical variations in church music have emerged: folk-song and jazz elements have been integrated with older music and frequently replaced it. Troubadour-style "protest" songs with theological content were common in the 1960s alongside a newly vital, more conservative hymnody.

See A. E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns (1950); H. W. Foote, Three Centuries of American Hymnody (1940, repr. 1968); L. F. Benson, The English Hymn (1915, repr. 1987); I. Bradley, ed., The Book of Hymns (1989); W. J. Reynolds, Songs of Glory (1989).

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The use of poetry, or metrical prose, in worship may be detected in the New Testament (e.g. Ephesians 5. 14, 19). A 3rd-cent. writer (perhaps Hippolytus) refers to ‘Psalms and odes such as from the beginning were written by believers, hymns to the Christ, the Word of God, calling him God’ (Eusebius, History 5. 28. 5).

Latin hymns appear later than Greek. The most famous of early ones, the Te Deum, is written in rhythmical prose. Hymns were admitted into the Roman office in the 13th cent.

The Reformation affected greatly the development of hymns. Many were written by Luther (imitating the pattern of medieval secular music), by P. Gerhardt, and others. Since Calvinism resisted anything but the words of scripture in its services, the Psalms were converted into metrical versions.

The practice of hymn-singing was encouraged and developed by the Methodists, and soon spread among the Evangelical party of the Church of England.

The 19th cent. saw the establishment of hymn-singing in all parts of the Anglican church. Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) was an eclectic collection that set the pattern for most modern hymnals. In virtually all parts of the Church there has developed a wide use of chorus-type hymns in a modern idiom.


Sikh worship consists mainly of kīrtan, singing the hymns comprising the Ādi Granth. Gurū Nānak is popularly represented singing his compositions to Mardānā's accompaniment. See AṢṬAPADĪ; CHAUPAD; CHHANT; RĀG; RĀGĪ; ŚABAD; ŚALOK; SAVAYYE; VĀR.

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hymns. In the sense in which most people understand the word, hymns are overwhelmingly a product of the 18th cent. They have been described as sacred poetry set to music, and have always been part of the Christian tradition, and the Jewish from which it derived. The psalms and specially composed sacred songs were certainly widespread in Christian worship by the 4th cent., and there is evidence to suggest that some passages in the New Testament, e.g. Ephesians 5, are actually quotations from hymns already in use within a generation or two of the lifetime of Christ.

Hymns in the early and medieval church were less expressions of personal or corporate devotion, than associated with the daily offices sung by members of monastic communities. In England the Reformation saw their virtual disappearance from public worship. There was a deep-seated prejudice against the use of non-scriptural language among many protestants, but the 16th and 17th cents. saw the composition of metrical versions of the psalms, notably by Sterhold and Hopkins (1557) and Tate and Brady (1696). These attained widespread popularity and were bound in with many editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

The work of Isaac Watts and John and Charles Wesley revived the popularity of congregational hymn-singing, and Wesley's Collection of 1737 is widely regarded as the first hymnal as we understand it. Suspicion of hymnody remained among many Anglicans, who associated it with evangelical ‘enthusiasm’, and not until Hymns Ancient and Modern, a fruit of the tractarian movement and Anglo-catholic revival, appeared in 1861 was this finally overcome.

Since then the writing of hymns and the publishing of collections has gone on apace among Christians of all traditions, though the appearance of many repetitive ‘choruses’ alongside hymns expressive of doctrine or personal devotion in recent years, whilst embraced enthusiastically by some, has been viewed with distaste by others.

Revd Dr John R. Guy

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hymn / him/ • n. a religious song or poem, typically of praise to God or a god: a Hellenistic hymn to Apollo. ∎  a formal song sung during Christian worship, typically by the whole congregation. ∎  a song, text, or other composition praising or celebrating someone or something: a most unusual passage like a hymn to the great outdoors. • v. 1. [tr.] praise or celebrate (something): Johnson's reply hymns education. 2. [intr.] rare sing hymns. DERIVATIVES: hym·nic / ˈhimnik/ adj.

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hymn a religious song or poem, typically of praise to God or a god. Recorded from Old English, the word comes via Latin from Greek humnos ‘ode or song in praise of a god or hero’, used in the Septuagint to translate various Hebrew words, and hence in the New Testament and other Christian writings. (See also sing from the same hymn sheet.)

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hymn. Song of praise to the deity or a saint. Particularly assoc. with Anglican church where words and melodies of hymns are especially popular for congregational singing. Books of hymns and hymn-tunes of special significance are Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861 and many subsequent edns.), The Yattendon Hymnal (Bridges, 1899), The English Hymnal (1906, rev. 1933, mus. ed. Vaughan Williams, in which some folk tunes were adapted as hymn-tunes), and Songs of Praise (1925, rev. 1931, mus. ed. Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw). In Eng. hymn-books, tunes are given an identifying title such as a Latin translation, or the name of a town or village, e.g. Down Ampney ( Vaughan Williams's birthplace) is title of his Come down, O love divine.

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hymnbedim, brim, crim, dim, glim, grim, Grimm, gym, him, hymn, Jim, Kim, limb, limn, nim, prim, quim, rim, scrim, shim, Sim, skim, slim, swim, Tim, trim, vim, whim •poem • goyim • cherubim • Hasidim •seraphim, teraphim •Elohim • Sikkim • Joachim • prelim •forelimb • Muslim • Blenheim •paynim • minim • pseudonym •homonym • anonym • synonym •eponym • acronym • antonym •metonym • Antrim • megrim •Leitrim • pilgrim • Purim • interim •passim • maxim • kibbutzim •Midrashim • literatim •seriatim, verbatim •victim •system • ecosystem • subsystem •item • Ashkenazim

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hymn . XIII ME. imne, ymme — OF. ymne — L. hymnus — Gr. húmnos song in praise of a god or hero. The later form was refash. after L. Hence vb. XVII.
So hymnal XV. — medL. hymnāle (imnale). hymnody singing or composing of hymns XVIII; body of hymns XIX. — medL. — Gr. humnōidíā (cf. ODE). hymnographer, hymnology XVII. — Gr.