<-Back to the Library

Hymns From Chant to Now

The European and American Christian Hymn from Ancient Gregorian Chant to Today

The Hymns of Gregorian Chant

The hymns that are sung in European and American Christian churches began as hymns sung in the Latin language… a part of the Gregorian chant repertoire of the Roman church.

“Veni Creator Spiritus”
Vesper Hymn for Pentecost

“Creator alme siderum”
Hymn for 1st Sunday of Advent

“Te lucis ante terminum”
Compline Hymn

Polyphonic Hymns of the Renaissance

During the polyphonic era, in the 15th and 16th centuries, some composers created polyphonic settings (multiple voices singing in harmony) of the Gregorian chant hymns, setting either the odd verses or the even verses in polyphony  alternating with the original Gregorian hymn melody for the verses between. The composers could even cleverly weave the chant melody into polyphonic settings. The video below provides examples of three hymns by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria:

Three Hymn Settings by Tomás Luis de Victoria

Martin Luther - German Language Hymns

With the beginning of the reformation in Germany in the 16th century, Martin Luther promoted the congregational singing of hymns in church services, wrote over thirty hymns himself and translated Latin hymns from the chant repertoire into German. Many great hymns were composed by German composers and writers, and the Western hymn tradition developed there, spreading throughout Europe.

“A History and Celebration of the Hymns of Martin Luther”

“Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”

The English Traditions

The center of the hymn tradition moved to England during the 17th century where Isaac Watts began a transformation of congregational singing and created hundreds of new hymns that spread to America. John Wesley, the leader of the Methodist movement and his brother Charles also promoted a congregational-singing movement, and many of Charles’ hymns are the most popular hymns today. A Century later, English hymn writer John Newton composed the famous “Amazing Grace”.

“Hymns of Praise”
The Story of Charles Wesley

“The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley”

“The Life and Hymns of Isaac Watts”

“The Life and Hymns of John Newton”

Hymns in America

In America, there was a strong hymn movement, with hymns written by writers such as Fanny Crosby and Ira Sankey popular today. There is also a very interesting history of shape-note song books and the Sacred Harp singing traditions. 

Sacred harp singing in the Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church

“Fanny Crosby
Legendary Methodist Hymn Writer”

Romance Watson sings
“Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior”

Amish Church Singing

The German language hymn tradition continued in America in the Amish and Mennonite “plain community” established by the Anabaptists who came from Southern Germany and Switzerland.

The German hymn “O Gott Vater” (O Father God) is also called “Das Loblied” (The Praise Song). This hymn, published in the first Anabaptist songbook, the “Ausbund,” is still sung today at the beginning of Amish church services. More information is avalable here.

The German hymn “Lebt Friedsam” (Live Peacefully) is a farewell song, often sung for visiting ministers and others. It is on page 786 of the Ausbund.

Lining-Out Hymns

“Lined-out hymnody is America’s oldest English language religious music, at least of the oral tradition. It goes back to the 17th century, and is basically call and response music. Most parishioners, in the 18th and early 19th centuries especially, could not read. This provided a way to sing many hymns without having memorized the words, as the congregation could follow the leader.” (Edmund StAustell)

“I am a Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow” 
Old Regular Baptists (1993)

“A Charge to Keep I Have” 
Candace Heggs

“I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” 
Brother Kenneth Lowe

Primitive Baptist Church Singing
Pilgrim’s Rest Church

“I’m Going Home” 
Thornton Old Regular Baptist Church

“Separating Line” 
Mt. Moriah Baptist Church

Gospel Hymns

The Southern Gospel “convention-style” gospel song is an important contribution to the singing traditions of Southeast America. The Church Hymnal of the Church of God denomination, based in Cleveland, Tennessee, is the standard source for singers of these types of songs.

A Cappella Hymn Singing Today

The hymn tradition today is alive in the churches and singing groups of the Anabaptist communities. Singing a cappella hymns is their chosen music tradition.

Hymns of the Church Hymnal

The 1020 songs in Hymns of the Church include approximately 800 hymns, 200 gospel songs, and 20 full choral arrangements including the entire Hallelujah Chorus, Send Forth Thy Spirit, Holy Art Thou, Like a Choir of Mighty Angels, Praise Ye the Father, Remember Now Thy Creator, and True Evangelical Faith. About 500 of the songs will be familiar to the average singer, leaving about 500 new songs to be learned. The new songs were drawn from a wide range of sources, including British, German, and Scandinavian hymn collections. The music is set in shaped notes. (hymnsofthechurch.com)

“Down to the River to Pray”

“Nearer My God to Thee”

Mennonite Hymn Videos by S.E. Samonte

S.E. Samonte has created some beautiful videos set to recordings from some of the great Mennonite choral groups (SE Samonte Channel on YouTube) 

“Abide With Me”
Antrim Mennonite Choir

“All the Way My Savior Leads Me”
Mennonite Hour Singers

“God Be With You Till We Meet Again” 
Antrim Mennonite Choir

“Hail Holy Light! the World Rejoices”
Lebanon County Youth Chorus

“I Know Whom I Have Believed” 
Antrim Mennonite Choir

“Where He Leads I’ll Follow”
Fairhaven Amish-Mennonite Choir

Hymns in Our Library

Ausbund Songs with Score

Gesangbuch Mit Noten

Harmonia Sacra

Philharmonia Hymn Book

Singing the New Song