Singing to the Risen Son: A History of Christian Hymns

Singing to the Risen Son: A History of Christian Hymns

Singing to the Risen Son: A History of Christian Hymns
Singing to the Risen Son

ABSTRACT: In the early second century, the Roman governor Pliny the Younger described a group of Christians singing “a hymn to Christ as to a god.” This impulse to sing to Christ as God only multiplied in the centuries that followed. Soon, Christians sang hymns to mark times of the day, to combat heresy, to distill the essence of Christian doctrine, and to drive Scripture deeper into the heart — always according to the spiritual needs of the day. In fact, the spiritual ideals of each generation in church history can be found in its hymns. The history of hymnody is the history of Christian spirituality in miniature.

The resurrection of Christ and the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit compelled Christians to sing. There was a burst of tremendous creativity for the infant church as they reinvigorated and pressed beyond the psalm tradition. Christian worship involved singing hymns to Christ from its earliest days.

‘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.”1 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?”2

One of the first Christian hymns on record is the Phos Hilaron. This was an evening (or “lamp lighting”) hymn, and it is still part of the evening office of the Eastern Church. In John Keble’s tender translation, we sing of light itself as a symbol of the divine glory of Jesus Christ:

Hail, gladdening Light, of his pure glory poured,
who is immortal Father, heavenly blest;
Holiest of Holies, Jesus Christ our Lord!

As the light fades and the stars come out, one thinks of the Holy Trinity and praises God on high:

Now are we come to the sun’s hour of rest;
the lights of evening round us shine,
we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.
Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung,
with undefilèd tongue,
Son of our God, Giver of life, alone!
Therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.3

This was, as Pliny had observed, Christians singing a hymn to Christ as to a god. Another very early Trinitarian hymn, with musical notation, has been found in the papyri in the desert at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. It invites all nature to respond “while we hymn the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”4

Choir Against Choir

In the Constantinian church of the fourth century, deep controversy arose over whether the Son was fully God. Lex orandi, lex credendi is a Latin phrase that is sometimes used to communicate the close connection between devotion and belief: “as we pray, so we believe.” The early church thus realized that their theology of Christ had to be equal to their devotion to Christ in worship. The hymns of the period show the extent to which theological debate was not academic. Doctrinal controversy was all about devotion to Christ, and hymns were a powerful means of promoting or refuting heresy.

For example, Ephrem the Syrian went “choir against choir” and “hymnbook against hymnbook” with the heretic Bardesanes (who denied the resurrection of the body). These hymns shaped the whole body of worship in the Syriac-speaking churches throughout their history.

Again, since heretical Arians (who denied the deity of Christ) sang hymns through the streets of Constantinople under Emperor Theodosius I, orthodox church leaders organized hymn-singing to counter this. Arius had written a catchy song: “We praise him as without beginning, because of him who has a beginning. / And adore him as everlasting, because of him who in time has come to be.” John Chrysostom and Athanasius answered with various forms of the Trinitarian doxology. Ambrose of Milan did likewise in the West:

All laud to God the Father be;
All praise, eternal Son, to thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To God the holy Paraclete.

In his Confessions, Augustine prayed and spoke to God of these Ambrosian hymns: “How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me.” Augustine also provided the context. There was a standoff between Ambrose and Justina, the Arian wife of the emperor, and tensions ran high in the capital city. “That was the time,” he said, “when the decision was taken to introduce hymns and psalms sung after the custom of the eastern Churches, to prevent the people from succumbing to depression and exhaustion.”5

It seemed to Augustine that these hymns were a real force to be reckoned with. Ambrose himself acknowledged the criticism that people were being carried away by the music: “They assert that the people have been beguiled by the strains of my hymns. I deny not this either. It is a lofty strain, than which nothing is more powerful.” He explained the phenomenon, saying, “What can be more powerful than the confession of the Trinity, which is daily celebrated by the mouth of the whole people? . . . They know how to confess in verse the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. They are all become teachers who were scarcely able to be disciples.”6

‘Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee’

From these beginnings there developed a tradition of church hymnody that in the West was focused primarily on the communion service and the daily worship of the monasteries. At the end of the fourth century, a Spanish aristocrat named Aurelius Clemens Prudentius retired from public life, gave up his wealth, and devoted himself to writing poetry to serve the church. Much of his work would find its way into the medieval service books. His hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” was an excerpt from a longer poem, adapted for worship. It is a splendid example of patristic christology expressed in a devotional mode, and it sums up the way the early church would sing hymns to Christ as God.

The medieval musical tradition was antiphonal plainsong (Gregorian chant), and the music to which this hymn is sung today is an adaptation of this. It makes a connection for us with these Christians long ago. In John Mason Neale’s translation, we sing of him whom the creeds describe as “begotten, not made”:

Of the Father’s love begotten,
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega,
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see,
evermore and evermore!

The work of nineteenth-century translators has given us access to much of this early hymnody. But by the early Middle Ages, hymnody was increasingly lost to the congregation and became the property of choir monks by and large. Still, Christians continued to sing to Christ as God in various modes. We have a poem from Theodulf of Orléans, which becomes the majestic Palm Sunday processional hymn, “All glory, laud, and honour / To thee, Redeemer, King, / To whom the lips of children / Made sweet hosannas ring. Thou art the King of Israel, / Thou David’s royal Son,” and so on, through all its strong cadences. As befits the Carolingian period, the hymn is appropriately royal — almost feudal — in its praise of Christ as King.

Outside the church, the laity enjoyed religious ballads and dances. This is indeed the origin of the carol — a narrative, convivial song in the common language, such as “The Holly and the Ivy.”

The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.

Here too, then, outside the cloister walls, the instinct was to sing a hymn of praise to Christ as God.

Beyond the Latin West, we may trace this same instinct. St. Patrick’s Breastplate or Lorica is a Celtic “binding hymn.” “I bind unto myself to-day / The strong name of the Trinity” it begins. It continues, giving powerful expression to the apostle Paul’s notion that we are to “put on” Christ, to be clothed with him (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27). Meanwhile, in the Byzantine world of the East, we find John of Damascus writing a hymn, “The Day of Resurrection,” which is a kind of icon of the resurrection. It prays that with pure hearts we may see aright “the Lord in rays eternal, of resurrection light.” One can picture the sun rising first in Syria to the sound of this hymn, and then a few hours later, rising again in Ireland to the sound of Patrick’s.

A new subjectivity and a more personal response to Christ emerges in the twelfth century. For example, we have the Cistercian hymn Jesu, dulcis memoria:

Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills the breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.

In particular, the figure of Christ in pity becomes a new focus in art and song. The familiar image of Jesus on the cross appears more frequently as an object of devotion. The sense of identification with the suffering of Christ is expressed with deep feeling in Salve caput cruentatum, part 7 of a work ascribed to Bernard of Clairvaux. We know it today as the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” The title of the poem in one edition of Bernard’s works is “A rhythmical prayer to any one of the members of Christ suffering and hanging on the Cross” (to the feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face, one by one). This hymn has the sort of intensity of loving contemplation that will surface later so powerfully in Ignatius of Loyola.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s celebrated book Jesus Through the Centuries looks at the different aspects of Jesus that have been emphasized at different moments in the history of the church. There is a similar procession of imagery in the sung devotion of the church: from Christ the tender Shepherd in Clement of Alexandria, to Christ the triumphant King in Theodulf of Orléans; from Christ as breastplate with St. Patrick, to Christ as icon in John of Damascus; from Christ the eternal God in Prudentius, to Christ in suffering human form in Bernard. The history of hymnody is the history of Christian spirituality writ small. The hymns of the church are an epitome — a short and crowning statement — of the spiritual ideals of each generation of Christians.

The Priesthood of All Singers

Like the fourth century, the sixteenth century was another time of heavy doctrinal controversy in the church. It was a time of renewal and reformation. And just as in the fourth century, there was a new outpouring of Christian song. Pliny would have recognized that Christians were still singing hymns to Christ as to a god, under new conditions.

The Reformation saw a resurgence in congregational hymnody. The priesthood of all believers had implications for singing. The natural route, which Luther followed, was to have the whole congregation join in the parts of the communion service that had been previously reserved for the choir. In 1523, after Luther completed his translation of the New Testament, he began writing hymns (and music for hymns). He continued up to just before he died, leaving behind 37 hymns, several of which were versions of the Psalms, always read in a Christ-centered way.

Luther battled depression, and he was known in anxious times to call the servants to him and say, “Come, let us, despite the devil, sing Aus tiefer Not schrei’ ich zu dir and thereby praise and glorify God.” He was referring to the opening words of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I cried to thee, Lord God.” Catherine Winkworth, who translated Luther’s hymns into English, noted the way he threw into all of them “his fervent faith and deep devotion.” His version of Psalm 46, Ein’ Feste Burg, has this roughness and a vivid sense of battle enjoined. Thomas Carlyle thought the language was like an Alpine avalanche or the beginnings of an earthquake. This was, of course, his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” As Dick Watson says, “The imagery of battle is employed with energy and force, and the lines are often full of violent twists of syntax, with unexpected inversions, suspensions, questionings.”7

In the Celtic hymn “Be Thou My Vision,” there is the very Celt-like verse, “Be thou my battle-shield, sword for the fight.” The ethos for Luther’s hymn is similar. Yet in the midst of this battle, the hymn communicates clearly Luther’s sense of the freedom of the word of God. His entire trust was in Christ as the one who alone would win the battle. This was still a hymn to Christ as God:

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same;
and he must win the battle.

Luther was the Ambrose of German hymnody. He set in train the great tradition of the Lutheran chorale and the hymnody of German Pietism, including the treasury of hymns by Paul Gerhardt.

The renewed focus upon the word of God in the Reformation led to a different development on the Calvinist wing of the movement. Calvin stressed the singing of scriptural words only, in the vernacular, and he oversaw the development of a metrical psalter (Geneva Psalter, 1562). He also put a few other biblical passages into verse, such as the Lord’s Prayer. But there were to be no hymns per se. Calvin’s aim was for the simplicity and modesty of Scripture itself. Still, there were wide variety in meters (110) and tunes (125). Almost all of the tunes were entirely syllabic, and the music was homophonic. There was none of the polyphony of Palestrina or William Byrd, with all of its interweaving of independent musical lines. The emphasis was decidedly on the words and on clarity. Calvin enlisted the help of Louis Bourgeois at Geneva, a composer of psalm tunes, known as the father of the modern hymn tune. The old hundredth (“All people that on earth do dwell”) is one of Bourgeois’s most famous tunes. Over time, psalm singing among Reformed churches tended to slow down, and eventually many people grumbled about how dull it all was. But initially, these psalms were sung quite brightly and rhythmically. Queen Elizabeth I in England complained about these “Genevan jigs.”

To See David Converted to a Christian

The next really radical development in Christian song came with Isaac Watts. Watts was a dissenter from the Church of England, and once again it is the impulse for reform and renewal that produces song. Watts was the most important hymnwriter to establish congregational song in England. His goal was to accept the real constraints of trying to write poetry for a group of ordinary people and turn this into an aesthetic challenge. As he said, it was to “sink every line to the level of a whole congregation, and yet to keep it above contempt.” He did this remarkably well — so much so that the critic Donald Davie describes Watts’s poetry as having a certain classicism, an austerity that “chastens even as it pleases.” It is a nice phrase.8

In particular, though, Watts felt that Christians ought to sing about Christ directly, and that the Psalms should be adapted accordingly. His breakthrough came first through his Psalms of David, where he said famously that he wanted to see David converted to a Christian. He shifted the horizon of interpretation so that in his version one sang each psalm explicitly in the light of Christ and the church. His version of Psalm 72 begins, for example, not with Yahweh and Israel, but with “Jesus shall reign where’ere the sun / Doth his successive journeys run.” His version of Psalm 98 is one we still sing at Christmas, thinking likewise of Christ: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

For churches that have struggled over worship styles, it is worth remembering that such tension is not new. Watts ignited real controversy by his approach, and some other evangelicals such as William Romaine were disgusted that he would move beyond the exact words of Scripture. He called Watts’s hymns “Watts’s whyms.” “My concern,” wrote Romaine, “is to see Christian congregations shut out divinely inspired psalms, and take in Dr. Watts’s flights of fancy; as if the words of a poet were better than the words of a prophet.”9 Ouch. If there have been controversies in churches in my lifetime over hymns versus modern worship songs, in Watts’s generation the controversy was over psalms versus hymns. All the young and radical Christians were singing hymns.

Evangelical Revival and Amazing Grace

One generation after Watts, there was a general evangelical spiritual awakening in the North Atlantic. With it came another whole renaissance of hymn-writing and hymn-singing. Just take John and Charles Wesley, for example. Charles wrote some nine thousand poems, three times as many as Wordsworth. This works out to about ten lines of verse every day for fifty years. Sometimes he would arrive at a home by horseback, and before even saying, “Hello, how are you?” he would cry, “Paper and ink! Paper and ink!” so he could record the hymns he’d been composing as he rode along. The Wesleys published some 56 collections of hymns in 53 years.10

These hymns had a profound influence on ordinary folks. I saw for myself several examples of this influence in a collection of manuscript letters to Charles Wesley. The laywoman Elizabeth Downs described an experience like an electric shock during a hymn that mentioned the cross. She recounted, “I felt as it were a change as I thought inward and outward. My heart fluttered as though it would have tore out of my body.” Thomas Tennant wrote, “I was glad indeed when one asked me to go to a meeting of Christian friends but when I came to the door, and heard them singing, I had such an idea both of their goodness, and of my own unworthiness, that I durst not presume to go in.” For Tennant, hymn-singing evoked something unspeakably holy.

The lay preacher Duncan Wright wrote about a remarkable episode in Wexford in Ireland. A Roman Catholic adversary had hidden in a sack in a barn where Methodists were meeting, planning to let in a mob in due course. The mob was waiting just outside, and the plan was that he would sneak out of the sack after the meeting began and quietly unlock the door to let them in to raise havoc. But sitting in the sack during the singing, the man was touched. “He thought it a thousand pities . . . to disturb them while singing.” Soon, Wright continued, “the power of God did so confound him, that he roared out with might and main; and, not having power to get out of the sack, lay bawling and screaming.” When some of the congregation ventured to see what the matter was, they helped him out, and “brought him up, confessing his sins, and crying for mercy; which was the beginning of a lasting work in his soul.” It was a hymn, again, that did the spiritual work.11

Clearly, evangelical hymns were no ivory-tower matter. The converted slave trader and evangelical minister John Newton used to write hymns weekly for his poor parishioners. The hymns were written to go with his sermons. The humble lace-makers in his congregation could repeat the hymns to themselves while working at their craft during the cold winter months. The hymn “Faith’s Review and Expectation” was written for a sermon on New Year’s Day 1773, on the text of 1 Chronicles 17:16–17. It was a day, of course, to look back at what God had done, and to look ahead to what God would do in the year to come. And so, in the Scripture text, we have the same backward and forward looking as King David responds to the prophet Nathan. The prophet declared that David would not be building God’s house (that task would be for his son, Solomon), but God would be building his house — that is, his dynasty. David was amazed and responded in prayer,

Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And this was a small thing in your eyes, O God. You have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have shown me future generations, O Lord God!

David said, in other words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” He said, “Grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

“Faith’s Review and Expectation” was indeed the hymn we know as “Amazing Grace.” But in the first instance, “Amazing Grace” is not a song of personal testimony. It is a paraphrase of King David’s words. Yet John Newton saw in God’s anointed King also the promise of divine grace that would come finally and fully through David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ. This too was a hymn of praise to Christ as God.

However, perhaps because neither Jesus nor Christ appears in the hymn, it has easily become a spiritual national anthem today. “Amazing Grace” has had a long run in pop music, and it has been the song people have turned to in order to express a cry for grace in the midst of searing tragedy and in times of national disaster. But properly, the word grace is what a literary critic would call synecdochal. Grace is short for “the grace of God in Jesus Christ.” Indeed, there is a tremendous richness of biblical theology in the simple words of this famous hymn.

The Song Goes On

The hymn tradition widens and strengthens powerfully in the nineteenth century, but this is perhaps enough for us to see the perennial impulse at work among Christians that leads to songs of praise. This impulse to sing to Christ as God is effervescent and ever new. This is what Thomas Chalmers called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” It is the normal mode of Christian response to the good news of the gospel in every generation. This is true for us, and it will be true for our children and grandchildren, just as it was for these earlier generations. When we have encountered the living Christ, we too, like David, can say, “He put a new song in my mouth” (Psalm 40:3).

As we think of this long history of Christians offering up praise to our Savior, let us, in conclusion, paraphrase Hebrews 11 and 12. We could say that by faith Moses and Miriam sang their new song, and by faith David sang his own song with joy. What shall we say of Prudentius and Bernard, who sang their hymns to Christ as God? Time does not permit to speak of John Mason Neale, or Fanny Crosby, or Reginald Heber. These are all to be commended for their faith, but God has planned something more for us, so that only together with us can they be made perfect. Since we are surrounded by such a great choir of witnesses, let us now sing with joy the song that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the beginning and end of every song.


  1. Pliny, Letters, 10.96. 

  2. Eusebius, History of the Church, 5.28.5. 

  3. For this and other hymns cited in this article, see further the extensive database at https://hymnary.org

  4. P.Oxy. XV 1786. 

  5. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 9.6–7. 

  6. Ambrose, Sermon Against Auxentius, 34. 

  7. See further, J.R. Watson, ed., An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 67–70. 

  8. Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse (London: Chatto & Windus, 1952), 35. 

  9. William Romaine, A Collection out of the Book of Psalms (London, 1775), 136–37. 

  10. See further, Frank Baker, ed., Representative Verse of Charles Wesley (London: Epworth Press, 1962), x–xii. 

  11. See further, my account of these and other lay narratives of hymns in Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 152–53. 

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