Over the last year, I’ve dusted off my trumpet. (Actually, I bought a new one. Thanks, Pastor Roger Daniel, for letting me try yours and, Scott Berry, for letting me buy one of yours.) And I’ve dusted off my composition and arranging skills, or at least I’m trying to. This arrangement of “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is a product of that. For the time being, this computer generated version will have to suffice until I can get a “real” recording made. (Pat Bowden and Cheryl Crauswell, thanks for the feedback on the piano accompaniment.)
I love hymns! I love to sing them and to play them. Unfortunately, the church tradition I grew up in used what is traditionally called gospel or convention or camp meeting songs but precious few traditional hymns. I was introduced to the vast corpus of traditional hymns of the Church in high school by two people. One was my high school choir director Marla Wilson. (I was introduced to the quadratic equation and pressure on the trapezius muscles by her husband Jerald, which is a story for another day.) The other was my band director and now long-time friend Allen Bailey.
My senior year in high school, I was in Teen Talent, a talent competition hosted by the Church of God (Cleveland) to foster participation in the arts as a means of worship and ministry. Allen arranged “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us” and “The Church’s One Foundation” for trumpet and piano and accompanied me. I fared well in the various levels of competition, but the real win was in getting to know these hymns that remain two of my favorites.
Not to make this a music class, but hymns for the last few centuries tend to be strophic, syllabic, and homophonic. This is a generalization. Different church traditions adhere to or diverge from it. Of course, the primary purpose of hymns is praise and worship of God. I recall Dr. David Horton’s (Lee University) discussion of traditional hymns, how they extoll or proclaim the attributes of God or make affirmations of faith. Generally speaking, they tend toward a more corporate than individual expression of worship. Also, they are chock full of theology, much more so and much more sound than gospel songs or contemporary worship choruses. In fact, Dr. Timothy George of Samford’s Divinity School recalls his days of seminary and how various professors would parse the lines of the hymns and joined in or refrained from singing certain verses because of their theological content. I fear today we too often glibly sing along to contemporary church music because of the catchy rhyme or repetitive hook but give no thought to the Biblical validity – or lack thereof – of the lyrics. But hymns provide the depth of Biblical truth set to tune.
Finally, some of those tunes and verses stretch back hundreds and hundreds of years. The melody of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” dates back to the early Baroque. (Today, most are probably familiar with Bach’s chorale setting of the melody, but Hans Leo Hassler is actually responsible for the melody that is used for German and English settings of the hymn.) The lyrics date back to a Latin hymn Salve mundi salutare from the Middle Ages that speaks of the physical sufferings of Christ during the crucifixion. Therefore, when we sing this hymn we are singing a melody from 500 years ago during the heart of the Protestant Reformation with lyrics from the Middle Ages during a time of suffering and uncertainty when some fifty percent of Europe died from the Black Plague. Yet, this is more than an exercise in history. It is a recognition that the same pepituary death of Jesus 2000 years ago unites us as His Body, across time, geography, language, and culture.
I still respond to the camp meeting songs I grew up with and see validity in worship choruses, both of which are a more personal expression of praise. But if these are the appetizer and dessert, the hymns are the main course, musically and theologically. If you participate in a worship tradition that uses hymns, don’t sing them dispassionately but do so with fervor and listen to the lessons of the faith contained in their lines. If you do not use hymns in your worship, may I invite you to consider adding them and join with your brothers and sisters in Christ who have sung hymns for hundreds of years to declare His majesty and love.