What is today the standard of the Best Church Hymns?




We have now reached an understanding as to what may rightly be called "The best Church hymns." We have seen that, while every one is at liberty to choose the hymns that are best to him, only the Church decides which are the best Church hymns. The Church hymn is intended for Church use, and the best hymns are those which do, as a matter of fact, fulfill that use; those, in other words, which have won the widest approval and use by the Church.

We have before us a list of the thirty-two best hymns. What remains is to examine the characteristics of these hymns, so as to gain an answer to the question, What is to-day the standard of the best Church hymns? Of these thirty-two hymns, only two are of the seventeenth century,—Bishop Ken's "Awake, my soul, and with the sun," and his "All praise to Thee, my God, this night."

Of the eighteenth century, Dr. Watts leads with five,—"When I survey the wondrous cross," "Our God, our Help in ages past," "Come, let us join our cheerful songs," "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun," and "There is a land of pure delight." Charles Wesley follows with four,—"Jesus, Lover of my soul," "Hark! the herald angels sing," " Christ the Lord is risen to-day," and " Lo! He comes with clouds descending." John Newton, with two,—" How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds," and "Glorious things of thee are spoken." And these Others with one each: Toplady, "Rock of Ages" ; Doddridge, " Hark the glad sound ! the Saviour comes " ; Perronet, " All hail the power of Jesus' Name" ; Cowper, "God moves in a mysterious way"; Williams, "Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah " ; and Cennick, " Children of the heavenly King." Of the nineteenth century, Lyte leads with two: "Abide with me," and "Jesus, I my cross have taken ''; and these writers have one each: Keble, "Sun of my soul"; Adams, xxii " Nearer, my God, to Thee " ; Heber, " From Greenland's icy mountains"; Montgomery, " Hail to the Lord's Anointed " ; Grant, " O worship the King"; Marriott, "Thou whose almighty word"; Elliott, "Just as I am"; and the anonymous recast of an older hymn, "Jerusalem, my happy home." Of the nineteenth century also are three versions of Latin hymns: Neale's "Jerusalem the golden," and "Brief life is here our portion "; and Caswall's "Jesus, the very thought of Thee." The first thing the reading of this list suggests is the catholicity of the Church's judgment; for Roman, Anglican, Independent, Moravian, Wesleyan, and Unitarian, alike, are allowed to contribute to it. The Church's unity, indeed, is foreshadowed in her hymnody.

One is impressed also with the absence from this list of all recent hymns. The latest of them was in print by 1851. At first, this would seem to indicate the judgment of the Church that in hymnody " the old is better." But the fact is rather that a hymn makes its way slowly; and naturally it takes a great while for any hymn to attain a use so general and widespread, and among so many branches of the Church.

1. Seeking now the characteristics of these "best Church hymns," we may begin with their lyrical quality. They are adapted for setting to music and singing. With the exception, perhaps, of Watts's "Jesus shall reign," you would choose to sing them rather than to read them. We put this lyrical quality first, as most naturally to be expected of a hymn. But, historically, it was by no means the first to be insisted upon. Our fathers began with versions of the Psalms which were anything but lyrical, and the hymns which succeeded them were often hardly more sing able. Some of these linger yet. Watts's " Go, preach My gospel" is as honest prose as man ever wrote. And in the case of a class of hymns, such as " 'Tis a point I long to know " and " How sad our state by nature is," nothing but an inherited tradition could account for a proposal to sing any one of them. Gradually, with the growth of musical feeling, the heavy hymns are being left behind. Already the Church has decided that only lyrics can find a place among the best hymns.

2. We note again the literary excellence of all these hymns. No less than eleven of the thirty-two are included by Mr. Palgrave in his very exclusive "Treasury" as literature, " poetry for poetry's sake " ; and three others by Mr. Stedman in his "Victorian Anthology" (including "Nearer, my God, to Thee," the faultiest of them all, but saved, in an art sense, by the beauty of its interwoven refrain). One other, " When I survey," etc., Matthew Arnold considered the finest hymn in the language. And of the remainder, representing such writers as Wesley, Watts, Heber, Montgomery, Cowper, Caswall, Neale, and Grant, there is none without distinct literary merit. Analyzing this literary excellence, we find that each one has a single theme, giving unity to the hymn; and a proper development of it, giving life and movement to the verses (the weaker and less sung verses of "Jesus, Lover of my soul" being an exception). These themes are poetically sound, and their treatment is interesting. The language is refined and beautiful, the images happy (with an occasional lapse, as in the unfortunate "stony griefs" of "Nearer, my God, to Thee"). And in all, and over all, that winning grace of simplicity. Simplicity always stands for much, but in a hymn, which must have the gift of a quick appeal to many differing minds, simplicity stands for fundamentals. Literary excellence, then, is a marked common feature of the best hymns. This means that the Church at large has not accepted a hymn of inferior literary qualities, and in view of the advance of general culture, it leaves the very comfortable assurance that she never will.

3. We note again that each of these hymns has liturgical propriety, both in the subject matter and in the form. They keep within the subjects proper to public devotions, but within that limit they range freely through the whole sphere of worship. Now, praise is the chief act of worship, but it is by no means the only one. Prayer is an act of worship, and the expression of our aspirations is an act of worship. These hymns include both. The element of praise is not quite absent from any one of them, perhaps, but not many could be classed as technically hymns of praise. This fact has its own importance just now; for, in the reaction from the use of sentimental and egotistical hymns that make much of ourselves and little of God and His Christ, quite a party has grown up which maintains that the only proper theme of a hymn is the adoration and xxvi praise of God. Didactics and invitation, supplication and intercession, they say, are provided for elsewhere in the service, and they would return to the definition of St. Augustine, that hymns are '' the praises of God with song.'' Welcome as is the reaction, the movement, while in the right direction, is too radical. It needs to be corrected by the verdict of the Church. And this verdict must settle the liturgical office of a hymn. A good hymn is not necessarily a form of pure praise, but rather a form of worship, and it may take its theme from any of the proper parts of public worship. Let us go now a little deeper, to look for the spiritual qualities which have given these hymns so long a life, so universal acceptance. These seem especially to be two. One of them is reverence, and the other is reality.

4. That tone of reverence pervades every one of these hymns. It sounds all the way from the majestic heights of Watts's " Our God, our Help in ages past," which celebrates His eternity and unchangeableness, to the familiar levels of Ken's morning and evening hymns, in which the little things of life are brought into that same august Presence. Any one can test this quality of reverence for himself, in several ways. The most natural way would be to read or sing the hymns over, and observe the effect upon himself, how that they clothe his own mood with reverence. Another way, more effective, if one cared to try it, were that of singing any of these hymns to trivial melodies, in rapid time and with careless manner. But the test is rather that one would not care to do that. The quality of the hymn makes the performance irreverent. And it is, no doubt, this quality of reverence which gives to a hymn its character, makes it suitable for use in the Church's worship. Whether it be directly addressed to God, or whether it be in the form of praise or of prayer, is not the real test of the hymn's fitness, but whether it be of the quality of reverence. And just here, just where the best hymns are strong, is where so many of the hymns which are in current evangelistic use begin to fail. They fail in other things, but they begin to fail at the very foundation; for in the worship of God there is no other foundation laid than is already laid,—in reverence. And a hymn may not be so gross as to be irreverent, and yet it may lack reverence,—in conception and in expression, and especially in the feelings it tends to excite in those who sing or hear it. A hymn may lack reverence, but a good hymn cannot lack it. The best hymns are thrilled with it through and through.

5. Then there is that other of these deeper qualities which are common to all our group, the quality of spiritual reality. It has two sides,—one turned outward toward the world of things spiritual, the side of truth, and one turned inward toward spiritual experience, the side of sincerity. And only so would God be worshipped,—in sincerity and in truth. A hymn, therefore, as an acceptable act of worship, must be true to facts and must be sincerely spoken by the singers. There are untrue hymns; and an untrue hymn is no better because the misrepresentations are veiled under poetic diction. Addison's "How are Thy servants blessed, O Lord," (in the altered form as used in the hymn-books) and Draper's "Ye Christian heralds, go proclaim " (as generally used, in the original text), are examples of untrue hymns. And there are many hymns which, put into the mouths of an ordinary congregation, are quite insincere,—the hymns, for example, which express a desire for immediate death, or, more generally, which say to God things which the singers do not feel or do not believe. A congregation will sing such hymns thoughtlessly, if they are set to music that is seductive; but certainly it is a serious responsibility to place such hymns in the Order of Worship. There are untrue hymns and insincere hymns, but the best Church hymns, as they are now set before us, are neither. They are marked by spiritual reality. They express, that is to say, spiritual truths which are within the people's apprehension, and sound spiritual feelings which are not beyond the experience of the average Christian worshiper. This is true of them in a very marked degree; but are there no exceptions? We turn instinctively to the "New Jerusalem hymns,"—"Jerusalem the golden" and "Jerusalem, my happy home." Canon Kingsley protested against such hymns as unreal, but surely it is carrying "the manly and robust" type of religion pretty far to exclude aspirations after heaven from our Christian hymnody. It is rather the class of hymns represented by Faber's " O Paradise" that are open to such objection. It is interesting to compare this recast (" Jerusalem, my happy home," probably Montgomery's) with the earlier " O mother dear, Jerusalem," on which it is based, just to see how the right feeling of the recaster has given reality to what was hardly more than a mood of individualistic transcendentalism, having poetic truth rather than congregational fitness.

This spiritual reality in the substance, and not a mere plural form, is what makes a hymn congregational: which fact has its importance to us who are so often reminded that a good hymn must use the plural forms " we, us, our," and not "I, me, mine." Our list contradicts the dictum. Many of these hymns use the singular pronouns throughout, but they are still the best congregational hymns,—congregational because they express experiences natural and proper to the average Christian. And if they express them in an individual form, they are all the more true to life; for our spiritual experiences also are individual. With this last note, the answer to our question, What is to-day the standard of our best Church hymns ? seems to be complete. These are the five elements which enter into that standard: First, the lyrical quality; second, literary excellence; third, liturgical propriety; fourth, reverence; fifth, spiritual reality.

It was interesting to discover which hymns are the best; and, if our examination of them is careful and true, it is an added gain to know what it is that makes them best. The verdict of the Church is conclusive, but it covers only the hymns old enough to have secured a full and wide trial. We are left more to our own judgment in dealing with the great body of more recent hymns, and from that very fact arises the advantage in determining the standard of the hymns known to be the best, so that we may measure the newer candidates for favor by that same standard.