Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Hymnology 101: Our Hymn Heritage

O give thanks unto the Lord, call upon His name, make known His deeds among the people; sing unto Him, sing psalms unto Him, talk ye of all His wondrous works. (Psalm 105:1-2)

(for the purpose of this series, I am going to use the term hymns to refer to Christian music)

Music has always been a very polarizing subject between Christians of different generations worshipping simultaneously. The young people think the older generation's music is too traditional, old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy. The older folks think the younger generation's music is too worldly, progressive and radical.

Well, I'm here to say that there is good old music and really bad old Christian music. And there is good new Christian music and really bad new music. Good and bad both in terms of sing-ability and doctrine.

I'm also here to say that there is no merit in discarding the old simply for the fact that it is old. Nor is there any merit in rejecting the new out of hand simply because it is new.

The fact of the matter is, whether your age is "old" or "young" or whether you prefer new hymns or old hymns, all hymns are part of our combined Christian history. Hymns are an integral part of our Judeo-christian heritage.

If you take the time to trace the history of Christianity, you will begin to see swells of spiritual revival accompanied by surges in hymn writing. Over and over and over again.

The history of hymnology (in the big picture sense), is the history of Christianity.

Let me show you...

PreReformation there was no congregational singing. Performers sang the Psalms to the congregation during church services. This dates all the way back to David's time. He appointed the courses of singers and musicians to lead the temple musical worship. A lot of the Psalms have "to the chief musician" in their title. There was very little congregational singing.

The first big revival we think of is the Reformation which took place in the 1500s. The prominent doctrine of that period was salvation by grace through faith (not by works).

John Calvin has come to be known as the Father of the Reformation. He believed the entire congregation should participate in praising God during the worship service. In his Institutes of Christian Religion (1536), he wrote,

“…it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God or sings His praises so that the hearts of all may be roused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God.”

“…in this form these Biblical texts would become more easily accessible to the people.”

It was the joint reason of Scriptures coming to be known by the general (illiterate) population as well as the collective worshipping of God and praying to God.

For these reasons, John Calvin compiled the Genevan Psalter (1539), which is a versification of the Psalms. The Psalms were put into a contemporarily singable form. One hymn that is still widely sung from this hymnal is the Doxology.

Almost simultaneously-Martin Luther compiled a German versification of the Psalms.

So, during the Reformation we went from no congregational singing to singing the Psalms.

The next major revival after the Reformation was the Great Awakening (1730-1755/1790-1840), which took place in North America and England. The doctrines that were prevalent in this revival was conviction of sin, repentance, redemption, as characterized by Jonathan Edwards famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Other preachers of this period were David Brainard, George Whitfield, and the Wesley brothers.

As these doctrines were taught and people believed and obeyed them, a new era of hymn writing began. It was spear headed in large degree by Isaac Watts.

Isaac Watts is called the Father of English Hymnology. He wrote over 750 hymns. He was a radical. Talk about old generation/new generation-he rocked the music boat!

Isaac Watts introduced new poetry for the Christian experience. Like I stated before, both Calvin and Luther versified the Psalms. But, what Isaac Watts realized was that the Psalms don't cover Christian theology. When David and Asaph wrote about the Messiah, they were writing prophetically. They could not write of the love of God sending His son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for the forgiveness of sin and redemption of sinners. They didn't know those doctrines yet.

Isaac Watts realized that we were seriously limiting our repertoire by limiting ourselves to the Psalms. He straddled the two genres by writing powerful new hymns like Join all the Glorious Names and When I survey the Wondrous Cross. But he also revised the Psalms to include the Christian experience, penning such favorites as O God our Help in Ages Past (Psalm 90) and I Sing the Mighty Power of God. 

The Great Awakening hymn writing surge was joined and bolstered by Charles Wesley, Samuel Medley, Count Zinzendorf, William Cowper, John Newton and many, many other godly men. They wrote hymns that are characterized by worshipful thoughts of our God. The songs are full of God's attributes. A majority of the hymns from this time period will be found in the worship/praise section of your hymnal.

The next period of revival we come to in history is what I refer to as the DL Moody Revivals (1850-WWI). This is the time of huge gospel meetings. Tents and halls filled to the brim with people listening to the gospel. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people were saved.

DL Moody (and others) preached, and his friends wrote hymns and led singing. They were gospel hymns. These hymns reiterate the fact that we are sinners and Jesus Christ is the Savior. They emphasize the importance of choice and choosing now.

Ira Sankey, Fanny Crosby, PP Bliss and many, many others contributed to the hymns of this period. You will find the these hymns grouped in the gospel section of your hymnal.

Also, as you look at this time period in hymn writing history, you start to see woman's names popping up as authors and composers. Why? As a product of the Enlightenment, women started receiving educations. More women learned to read and write, and thus to compose poems and hymns and write books.

History plods on, through WWI and WWII, when a new preacher takes the scene. Billy Graham  and his Gospel Crusades (1947 to 2005). Billy Graham travelled all over the globe, preaching a clear gospel. Again, many were saved. And again, he brought musicians with him. The music and hymn writing of early in this time period was very folksy. Think George Beverly Shae and the Gaither Vocal Band and John W. Peterson. There was some good lyrics and tunes written by these folks, but some of it was rather shallow. It sounded nice, but wasn't much deeper than a puddle. And a shallow one at that.

Simultaneously, during this almost 60 years Billy Graham period, there was other music movements based out of other revivals happening.

There was the Jesus Movement of the 60s and 70s that spawned the CCM movement. Contemporary Christian Music was written by hippies that had become Christians. They were the rock and roll generation and they wanted their Christian music to reflect that other music that they grew up with and loved. Let's just say that their CCM didn't go over very well with the older crowd.

Anyway, the Hippies had sung about peace and love. The Jesus hippies cant about peace and love and God. It was a lot of touchy-feely music. Keith Green, Amy Grant, Michael Card, and all the other familiar artists and their music defined the next 20-30 years of Christian music-up through the turn of the century.

The term crossover music was first applied to the music of CCM. A crossover piece is one that could equally be sung about your boyfriend/girlfriend or about Jesus.

There was also another genre of Christian music that flourished in this time period-that of Maranatha music and Hillsong by the Charismatics. Lots of praise choruses.

Which, in many ways brings us to today, and the music of the past 10-15 years. This is the time of the Emergent church movement. It is the generation of the Millennials. This generation wants a Christianity of substance. Their clarion call is for transparency. Missional living is a key idea. This generation is very socially conscious. They have a renewed love of the old, though they don't want to be seen as old. Liturgy has found a resurgence with them. They want deep and meaning.

And there has been a correspondent surge in deep hymns. Hymns by Keith and Kristen Getty, Stewart Townend, Steve and Vicki Cook, Matt Maur, Matthew Redman, Chris Tomlin. These men and women have written hymns that cover deep theology. They are really good new hymns, and this genre has actually been termed New Hymns. Hymns, not just Christian music.

Rewritten hymns are also a characteristic of hymns now. Putting a more contemporary tune to old words. Amazing Grace, One Day, Complete in Thee, Amazing Love. These old lyrics have been given new life. The music has been rewritten for praise bands, as opposed to organs. Some of the new tunes are actually more singable than the old tunes. It's great.

Lecrea is also impacting the hymn scene with his rap music. It is still rap, but this guy explains deep Biblical truth in his pieces. It not exactly church music or hymns, but it is very typical of what we are experiencing in hymn writing these days.

Ironically enough, we have almost come full circle in one respect. Our praise bands of today often are walking a fine line between leading in worship (where the congregation sings) and performing (where the congregation has no idea what is going on. They don't know the songs and they aren't singing).

Regardless, I hope you can see from this (somewhat lengthy) overview, that believers wrote hymns as they heard the Word of God, and let it's truths change their lives through the Holy Spirit. They wrote hymns as they learned new (to them) doctrine and as they learned more of the greatness of Almighty God. As they dug down into Scripture, their lives were changed. Many lives were changed. And they wrote about it.

They wrote about it in the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, 1900s and 2000s. Believers wrote good hymns throughout these centuries. They bucked tradition and rocked the boat, and added threads to this tapestry that is the history of Christianity.

Our history.

So tell me, what are your thoughts of older and newer hymns? Do your thoughts directly correspond with your age?

Part Two: Hymnology 102
Part Three: Hymnology 103