Hymns are one of the styles of music prescribed for singing in Christian worship (Cf. Ephesians 5:19 - "...addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs..."; Colossians 3:16 - "...teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs...") The Greek term used is humnos (^ [Strong's\ #5215]^), which simply means a song of praise or celebration, with little to distinguish it from the other two. Hodge explains:
"The early usage of the words... appears to have been as loose as that of the corresponding English terms, psalm, hymn, song, is with us. A psalm was a hymn, and a hymn a song. Still there was a distinction between them as there is still. A psalm was... a song designed to be sung with the accompaniment of instrumental music;... one of the sacred poems contained in the book of Psalms;... [or] Any sacred poem formed on the model of the Old Testament Psalms... A Hymn was a song of praise to God; a divine song..."^ ^
In the Old Testament, the people of God sang psalms in praise of his name and all that he had done for them. We have examples of songs being sung by Israel from the very beginning, when they were brought out of Egypt, across the Red Sea. In the New Testament, we have a record of the singing of hymns. Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before going out to the Mount of Olives, and Paul instructs the churches at Ephesus and Colosse to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. It is suggested that Philippians 2, "Who being in very nature God...", is an example of an early church hymn; and the Book of Revelation resounds with the praises of God in song.
As church history continued, we find that passages of Scripture were frequently sung, including, as already mentioned, the Psalms, but also passages like the Magnificat. By the second century, privately composed psalms like the Gloria were being sung; these eventually made their way into the Roman Catholic Mass, and from there have enjoyed their current popularity.
Hymns continued to be written as Christians expressed their faith in song. We have examples of hymns in Latin and Greek from throughout the post-classical period and the middle ages. However, the ossification of Latin as the language of the Church, even when it was no longer the lingua franca, meant that hymns started to drift away from being written in the common tongue. It was not until the Reformation that church services were once more heard in a language that people would understand, and by then, the writing of hymns had fallen somewhat out of favour, although not altogether.
The German Reformer, Martin Luther, wrote hymns for the new Protestant movement, including the famous Ein feste Burg, but the early English churches sang Scriptural paraphrases almost exclusively. We owe them a debt for work such as the Old Hundredth, but it was not until Isaac Watts (1674–1748) that the first English-language hymn which was not a direct paraphrase of Scripture appeared. After Watts, who wrote hymns prolifically, hymnody flourished. John Wesley wrote a great many popular hymns, and the Great Awakenings in America occasioned the writing of yet more.
Modern hymn-writing continues to grow, with people like Stuart Townend producing well-loved hymns, while the changes in musical style have also led to the writing of choruses and modern songs, which share aspects in common with traditional hymns, while differing in style or development.
- With Hearts and Minds and Voices by John MacArthur from Pulpit Magazine.
- The Cyber Hymnal, a useful resource for biographical information of hymn writers and composers
- My Grandmother Saved It, My Mother Threw It Away, and Now I'm Buying It Back (PDF), by Kevin Twit - Why Young People Are Returning To Hymntexts
- Some Thoughts On Musical Style As It Relates To Worship And Hymns, by Kevin Twit