In Christian religions, hymns are usually directed toward God. Most Christian worship services have, since the earliest times, incorporated the singing of hymns, either by the congregation or by a selected choir, often accompanied by an organ.
Thomas Aquinas, in the introduction to his commentary on the Psalms, defined the Christian hymn thus: “Hymnus est laus Dei cum cantico; canticum autem exultatio mentis de aeternis habita, prorumpens in vocem.” (“A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.)
Since there is a lack of musical notation in early writings, the actual musical forms in the early church can only be surmised. During the Middle Ages a rich hymnody developed in the form of Gregorian chant or plainsong. This type was sung in unison, in one of eight Church modes, and most often by monastic choirs. While they were written originally in Latin, many have been translated. A familiar hymn of this type is the 11th century plainsong Divinum Mysterium, (although the words Of the Father’s Love Begotten date back to around the 4th century), that is a common part of church Christmas repertoires in the English language.
The Protestant Reformation produced a burst of hymn writing and congregational singing. Martin Luther is notable not only as a reformer, but as the author of many hymns including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, which is sung today even in Roman Catholicism. Luther and his followers often used their hymns, or chorales, to teach tenets of the faith to worshipers. The earlier English writers tended to paraphrase bibical text, particularly Psalms; Isaac Watts followed this tradition, but is also credited as having written the first English hymn which was not a direct paraphrase of Scripture. Later, writers took even more freedom, some included allegory and metaphor in their texts. Four part harmony also became the norm, rather than unison singing.
Charles Wesley’s hymns spread Methodist theology, not only within Methodism, but in most Protesant churches. He developed a new focus – expressing one’s personal feelings in the relationship with God as well as the simple worship seen in older hymns. Wesley wrote:
Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great deliverer’s praise.
Wesley’s contribution, along with the Second Great Awakening in America led to a new style called gospel, and a new explosion of sacred music writing with Fanny Crosby, Ira D. Sankey, and others who produced testimonial music for revivals, camp meetings and evangelistic crusades.
African-Americans developed a rich hymnody from spirituals during times of slavery to the modern, lively black gospel style.
The Methodist Revival of the eighteenth century created an explosion of hymnwriting in Welsh, which continued into the first half of the nineteenth century. The most prominent names among Welsh hymn-writers are William Williams of Pantycelyn and Ann Griffiths. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed an explosion of hymntune composition and choir singing in Wales.
Some Christians today are using Christian lyrics in the rock music style although this often leads to some controversy between older and younger congregants. This is not new; the Christian pop music style began in the late 1960s and became very popular during the 1970s, as young hymnists sought ways in which to make the music of their religion relevant for their generation.
This long tradition has resulted in a rich lode of hymns. Some modern churches include within hymnody, the traditional hymn (usually addressed to God), praise choruses (often sung scripture texts) and gospel (expressions of one’s personal experience of God). This distinction is not perfectly clear; and purists remove the second two types from the classification as hymns. It is a matter of debate, even sometimes within a single congregation, often between revivalist and traditionalist movements.
Some Christian hymnists and their more well known hymns are:
Thomas Aquinas : Pange Lingua, Verbum Supernum Prodiens
Tommaso da Celano : Dies Iræ
William Cowper : There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood
Fanny Crosby : Blessed Assurance and 8,000 others
Paul Gerhardt : O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded
Martin Luther : A Mighty Fortress is Our God
John Newton : Amazing Grace
Dan Schutte : Here I Am, Lord
Joseph M. Scriven : What a Friend We Have in Jesus’
Knowles Shaw : Bringing in the Sheaves’
Timothy Dudley-Smith : Tell Out My Soul
Eliza R. Snow : O My Father
Isaac Watts : When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Joy to the World
Charles Wesley : Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, many others
John Greenleaf Whittier : Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
Christian hymns, especially in more recent centuries, were often written in four-part vocal harmony. Today, except for choirs and more musically inclined congregations, hymns are typically sung in unison. In some cases complementary full settings for organ are also published, in others, organists and other accompiansts are expected to mentally transcribe the four-part vocal score for their instrument of choice.