My God, how wonderful thou art

This is the text of the final talk in a series of talks for Lent 2017 given in the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Lufton

John Newton, born in 1725, led an unpromising early life, pressed into the Royal Navy, captured and enslaved, he became the first mate and later captain aboard slave ships. During a serious illness in West Africa  he acknowledged his need of God and was converted. In time, not immediately, he renounced his former life, married his childhood sweetheart and after a time working in Liverpool as a tax collector sought ordination. It took him seven years, because of his life as a slaver and as a virtual pirate, to persuade a Bishop that he should be accepted and was eventually made perpetual curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire in 1764. He worked there for seventeen years until he moved to St Mary, Woolnoth in London, where there is a memorial to him.

At Olney his assistant was William Cowper. Together they compiled a new hymn book, Olney Hymns, in 1779. The hymns were written not for the church services but for the prayer meeting.

It was Cowper initially who wrote the hymns. He wrote 68, some of which are still to be found in our hymn books,

  • God moves in a mysterious way
  • Hark, my soul, it is the Lord
  • Jesus, where’er thy people meet
  • O for a closer walk with God
  • Sometimes a light surprises

Poor health meant that he was unable to write more for the Olney Hymns so Newton took on the task. His best known hymn now is certainly Amazing Grace ( see here) and it is easy to see how his former life and conversion inspired it, although for many years it was relatively unknown, but in America it achieved considerable popularity, particularly among African Americans. It has been recorded many times and on at least three occasions has figured in the pop charts, reaching number one with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. His other hymns which are still sung include Glorious things of thee are spoken and How sweet the name of Jesus sounds.

The fact that the hymns of Cowper and Newton were written for the prayer meeting and not for the church services is significant. In the mid-eighteenth century hymns were still not sanctioned for use in the Church of England. Hymn singing was unofficial and even illegal. The Book of Common Prayer provided for psalms, canticles and anthems to be sung, but only one hymn, Come Holy Ghost, which was to be sung in the ordination services of priests and bishops.

Increasingly though metrical psalms were used, but gradually that tended to become less the psalms in the Old or New Versions and more paraphrases such as Jesus shall reign where’er the sun.

At the same time hymns were becoming increasingly popular due to the influence of the Wesleys and their Methodist meetings. Many of their followers were, as John and Charles Wesley were, members of the Church of England and more than a few were members of the clergy. Martin Madan was one such. He compiled a hymn book in 1760. Augustus Toplady (writer of Rock of Ages) a strong critic of the Wesleys produced two. Although the production of hymn books was illegal they were popular with congregations and no one seemed prepared to inform on the clergy who produced these books.

The problem of the illegality of hymn books came to a head in 1819. Thomas Cotterill, Vicar of St Paul, Sheffield, together with James Montgomery, produced the eighth edition of his collection, Selection of Psalms and Hymns. The congregation were not impressed (perhaps because they had already endured seven new hymn books) and sought a legal decision from the York Diocesan Court.

Archbishop Vernon Harcourt approached Cotterill and proposed the withdrawal of the eighth edition and suggested the compilation of a ninth. If Cotterill allowed the Archbishop to cut out every hymn he did not sanction the book could be dedicated to Harcourt. Effectively this reversed the Church of England’s position on hymns and prepared the way for the great flowering of hymn writing in the nineteenth century.

Hymn writers sprang into action and publishers produced hymn books specifically containing hymns intended to be sung in the services of the Book of Common Prayer. Liturgical hymnody became widely written. Hymns appropriate to the seasons of the church year, to the festivals of saints and for the services themselves, such as communion hymns, were written and included in the new officially sanctioned hymn books.

Much of this liturgical hymnody was inspired and led by the Oxford Movement, as it led the church to rediscover the value of catholic ceremonial, sacramentalism and doctrine. John Mason Neale (1818-1866) was a great translator of medieval hymns. There are more hymns in Hymns Old & New (1996) attributed to him than to any other author, the vast majority of them translations, among them,

  • O come, O come, Emmanuel
  • A great and mighty wonder
  • Christ in made the sure foundation
  • Jerusalem the golden

Similarly, Edward Caswall (1814-1878),

  • All ye who seek a comfort sure
  • My God, I love thee, not because
  • Hark, a herald voice is calling

Foremost among this movement for new hymn books was Hymns Ancient & Modern first published in 1860. However, such was the rush for hymns to fill the books that among many jewels of English hymn writing there was also much that was bland, uninspiring and frankly poor. Every occasion needed a hymn and the publishers were determined to provide it. A case in point are the hymns written for St Bartholomew (see here), an apostle about whom we know nothing beyond his name. Briefly summed up these hymns we know nothing about Bartholomew, but he was a jolly good chap!

On the other hand the nineteenth century saw some great hymns (see here) and great hymn writers. Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) – Abide with me and Praise, my soul the King of heaven; Frederick William Faber – My God, how wonderful thou art and There’s a wideness in God’s mercy; John Henry Newman (1801-1890) – Lead, kindly light, Firmly, I believe and truly and Praise to the holiest in the height; John Ernest Bode (1816-1874) – O Jesus, I have promised.

The nineteenth century also saw a number of hymns written by women being published. Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) – All things bright and beautiful, There is a green hill far away and Once in royal David’s city; Harriet Auber (1773-1862) – Our blest Redeemer, ere he breathed; Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871) – Just as I am; Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879) – Take my life, and let it be.

Alongside the Oxford Movement there was also an Evangelical revival in the nineteenth century which also produced many missionary hymns. Ira David Sankey and Dwight Lyman Moody drew together a collection of 1200 hymns and songs, collected in the United States and in Britain, which they published in their book Sacred Songs and Solos in 1877. It contained many traditional hymns but also Evangelical songs and choruses, many published for the first time. It includes,

  • Tell me the story of Jesus
  • There were ninety and nine
  • Will your anchor hold?
  • Gather at the river

The writing of hymns continued unabated into the twentieth century. The publication of the English Hymnal in 1906 marked the end of the Victorian era. The book was a response to the poor quality of some of the hymns that filled many hymn books and expressed a desire to include the best hymns in the English language together with good quality tunes. Percy Dearmer was the main driver behind the English Hymnal and Ralph Vaughan Williams was the music editor. A number of hymns were given new tunes, often drawn from English folk melodies.

It is not easy to assess the quality of contemporary hymns but there are some that will surely stand the test of time and others that will disappear never to be recovered – but it has always been so.

Among twentieth century writers some stand out for the quality and popularity of their words and tunes. Among them are Timothy Dudley-Smith – Tell out my soul and Lord, for the years; Patrick Appleford – Living Lord and O Lord, all the world belongs to you; Jan Struther – Lord of all hopefulness; Martin Nystrom – As the deer pants for the water; Dan Schutte – Here I am Lord (I the Lord of sea and sky); Graham Kendrick – The Servant King and Shine, Jesus, shine; Sydney Carter – When I needed a neighbour and Lord of the dance; John Bell and Graham Maule – Will you come and follow me and Among us and before us, Lord, you stand. That’s not an exhaustive list, nor is it certain that we shall be singing all or any of these hymns in churches in the next generation.

Although our days might seem to be a fruitful time for hymns there are hints that things might be changing. In many of our parish churches congregations are dwindling and musicians to lead singing are not always readily found. Singing hymns to recorded music is not as satisfying or satisfactory as singing to an organ or keyboard. Singing hymns in a congregation of only a few requires either that church members are either confident in their singing ability or unconcerned about making a fool of themselves. On the other side of that coin are the large town centre churches with large congregations. The trend there is towards music which is performed by soloists or music groups – musicians who have a ministry in the church which is singing God’s praise. The tendency is to have performances and perhaps congregations joining in choruses rather than traditional hymns. Many of the modern Christian songs are readily accessible sharing as they do much in common witht he popular music of the day. The writers of Christian music (as generally they are called) tend now to write and perform songs which are recorded and sold on CDs or downloaded. YouTube is full of Christian singers performing their latest songs with high production values and good quality videos.

It is not certain, but it is surely possible that we are the last genration of Christians to sing hymns as a staple of our worship of God.

Author: exultemus

I am the Parish Priest of five Anglican parishes in South Somerset. I love rugby union and cricket. I enjoy jazz and classical music (and lots besides).

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