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).
A hymn is a type of song, usually religious, specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration or prayer, and typically addressed to a deity/deities, a prominent figure or an epic tale. The word hymn derives from Greek ὕμνος hymnos "a song of praise".
Since the earliest times, Christians have sung "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs", both in private devotions and in corporate worship (; ; ; ; cf. ; ).
Christian hymns are often written with special or seasonal themes and these are used on holy days such as Christmas, Easter and the Feast of All Saints, or during particular seasons such as Advent and Lent. Others are used to instill reverence to the Holy Bible or to celebrate Christian practices such as the eucharist or baptism. Some hymns praise or address individual saints, particularly the Blessed Virgin Mary; such hymns are particularly prevalent in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and to some extent "High Church" Anglicanism.
A writer of hymns is known as a hymnist or hymnodist, and the practice of singing hymns is called hymnody; the same word is used for the collectivity of hymns belonging to a particular denomination or period (e.g. "nineteenth century Methodist hymnody" would mean the body of hymns written and/or used by Methodists in the nineteenth century). A collection of hymns is called a hymnal. These may or may not include music. A student of hymnody is called a hymnologist, and the scholarly study of hymns, hymnists and hymnody is hymnology. The music to which a hymn may be sung is a hymn tune.
In many Evangelical churches, traditional songs are classified as hymns while more contemporary worship songs are not considered hymns. The reason for this distinction is unclear, but according to some it is due to the radical shift of style and devotional thinking that began with the Jesus movement and Jesus music.
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 example is the 4th century Of the Father's Heart Begotten sung to the 11th century plainsong Divinum Mysterium.
Today, except for choirs, more musically inclined congregations and a cappella congregations, hymns are typically sung in unison. In some cases complementary full settings for organ are also published, in others organists and other accompanists are expected to transcribe the four-part vocal score for their instrument of choice.
Contemporary Christian worship, as often found in Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism may include the use of contemporary worship music played with electric guitars and the drum kit, sharing many elements with rock music.
Other groups of Christians have historically excluded instrumental accompaniment, citing the absence of instruments in worship by the church in the first several centuries of its existence, and adhere to an unaccompanied a cappella congregational singing of hymns. These groups include the 'Brethren' (often both 'Open' and 'Exclusive'), the Churches of Christ, Primitive Baptists, and certain Reformed churches such as the Free Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), although during the last century or so, several of these have reviewed and revised this stance.
The Protestant Reformation resulted in two conflicting attitudes to hymns. One approach, the regulative principle of worship, favoured by many Zwinglians, Calvinists and other radical reformers, considered anything that was not directly authorised by the Bible to be a novel and Catholic introduction to worship, which was to be rejected. All hymns that were not direct quotations from the bible fell into this category. Such hymns were banned, along with any form of instrumental musical accompaniment, and organs were ripped out of churches. Instead of hymns, biblical psalms were chanted, most often without accompaniment, to very basic melodies. This was known as exclusive psalmody. Examples of this may still be found in various places, including the "free churches" of western Scotland.
The other Reformation approach, the normative principle of worship, 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 Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) which is sung today even by Roman Catholics. 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 biblical 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 even including allegory and metaphor in their texts.
Charles Wesley's hymns spread Methodist theology, not only within Methodism, but in most Protestant 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:
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, Lina Sandell, Philip Bliss, Ira D. Sankey, and others who produced testimonial music for revivals, camp meetings, and evangelistic crusades. The tune style or form is technically designated "gospel songs" as distinct from hymns. Gospel songs generally include a refrain (or chorus) and usually (though not always) a faster tempo than the hymns. As examples of the distinction, "Amazing Grace" is a hymn (no refrain), but "How Great Thou Art" is a gospel song. During the 19th century the gospel-song genre spread rapidly in Protestantism and, to a lesser but still definite extent, in Roman Catholicism; the gospel-song genre is unknown in the worship per se by Eastern Orthodox churches, which rely exclusively on traditional chants (a type of hymn).
The Methodist Revival of the eighteenth century created an explosion of hymn writing in Welsh, which continued into the first half of the nineteenth century. The most prominent names among Welsh hymn-writers are William Williams Pantycelyn and Ann Griffiths. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed an explosion of hymn tune composition and choir singing in Wales.
Along with the more classical sacred music of composers ranging from Mozart to Monteverdi, the Roman Catholic Church continued to produce many popular hymns such as Lead, Kindly Light, Silent Night, O Sacrament Divine and Faith of our Fathers.
Many churches today use contemporary worship music which includes a range of styles often influenced by popular music. This often leads to some conflict between older and younger congregants (see contemporary worship). 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 wide variety of hymns. Some modern churches include within hymnody the traditional hymn (usually describing God), contemporary worship music (often directed to God) and gospel music (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.