By Ephraim Radner

We all have strong views about hymns. My standard is whether they can be remembered in prison, be sung aloud, and have a practical immediacy capable of encouraging those in the cell next door. Like Paul and Silas.

We have all read about Christians thrown in a dark hole somewhere, perhaps for years, who roused the spirits of others, and their own, with songs of praise and hope. I knew the daughter of Bishop Leonard Wilson, who was horribly tortured and imprisoned in Singapore for months during World War II. In some of the worst moments of this ordeal, alone and without access to books, he would sing Charles Wesley’s “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Sky,” a marvelous and compact skein of scriptural references to the Son of God. I don’t know what tune he sang it to. But Wilson sang. And those around him remembered.

I have known a handful of others who have been incarcerated for long periods. They were not singers. Their spirits sagged. Would I manage to sing and encourage? I need to remember good words and good music both and sing them well. Most of what I hear in contemporary worship is a mush in my mind — the words are generic, the music desultory. I have tried the experiment, with “better” hymns, while sitting for hours in airports or bus terminals around the world. The tunes come up quickly enough: good! But then I realize the words falter, and after a bit, the tunes drift off into the emptiness like unattached balloons. Only a few hymns, words and music both, seem to have stuck. Why?


The prison test has to do with whether a hymn is actually sung by a real person, with or to and for other persons. Such hymns are enacted and interacted, in the sense that they express something true about real bodies — ours, others’, the Lord’s. Spirits too — but always graspable here, where I stand with others.

There are, in fact, a range of supremely important benchmarks for such hymns besides prison. Hymns sung with children, for instance, at bedtime, or waiting with them somewhere, or gathering at the table. “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless this bed that I lie on”; “Fairest Lord Jesus” (Sung to the Silesian melody known as St. Elizabeth); “Jesus, Good Above All Others” (a children’s hymn that uses an old carol, Quem Pastores, as its music). All these are sung to relatively ancient folk tunes, remembered, tested, passed on. The category of children’s hymns — as distinct from Sunday school doggerel — is important, and has been influential. Modern hymn collections, which mostly discard the category, have in the process thrown out Christian songs whose roots were (until now) deeply cast in the ground of common Christian experience.

The point is, children’s hymns, more than many, have been shared and winnowed. This is true of sung table graces — “All Good Gifts Around Us” or “We Thank You, Lord, for Jesus Christ.” They have a simplicity appropriate for children, but are in fact lodged in a deeper part of the adult community, having arisen within it, to be offered by it across the generations. In any case, if you cannot sing a hymn by a bedside or at supper with a child, you probably won’t sing that hymn much at all “in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened” (Eccl. 12:3).

Together with prisons and children, another touchstone might be the street corner. I mentioned the time-stretched character of the folk song behind many children’s hymns. But that temporal breadth lies behind many adult hymns too, having been sung, repeated, and passed down in public places across the decades and centuries — standing up to the cacophony, opposition, emotional rough and tumble of popular encounter and expression. Luther’s Christian appropriation of local secular songs is well-known. Jewish culture in Eastern Europe did something similar. Such borrowing was an important thread of hymnody’s flourishing in Britain too.

Thomas Ravenscroft was a pioneering collector of folk music in the early 17th century; but he was also a pioneering collector of and contributor to metrical psalm-singing and its melodies. The genres are not the same, but the crossover was probably more common than we realize. The wildly popular broadsides of the 17th century and later were founded on singing. These single sheets, posted on walls and hawked to pedestrians, laid out ballad verses that conveyed the local and international news, offered political commentary, and shared religious song. The verses were printed, often with a well-known tune identified as the melody. The unorthodox “Ranter” Abeizer Coppe offered an otherwise traditional rhyming catechism on “The True Christian Character” (1680) that treats virtues like Humility, Resignation, Charity. On “Stability,” Coppe writes (or sings):

He still at home doth keep, and his own door doth sweep; Doth not debase his mind, in seeking Faults to find: He picks no hole in Neighbours Coat; nor strives in’s Ey to finde a Mote.

I cannot find the broadside’s suggested tune for this moral exhortation, “The Fair Nimphs,” but it was hardly a sacred air. Given Coppe’s rather anarchist leanings, the song was probably sung in taverns as much as by the fire. The song, however, is about the Christian life, announced among those for whom its virtues might happily rejig habits and reorient work and loves.

Earlier in the century, a broadside with a hymn to be sung by the orphaned children of Christ Church Hospital was posted on the walls of London. Here, the simple notes were written out, and the tune resembles the kind of psalm melody Ravenscroft and others were framing at the time, from who knows what sources:

Regard O Lord from heaven above, accept the hartie prayse, which Children render for the love, thou shewest to them alwayes. The goodnes of the Lord is seene, in all that he hath made, his mercy tis in all extreames that sends his creatures aide. No worme so small, no wight so poore, but he preserveth still, the sicke he heales, the weake sustaines, and hungry soule doth fill.

It is an odd assumption, to us at least, that passersby might seek to learn these words and sing them, even share them in their home. But that seemed to be the expectation. In this case, formal charities, supported by church and wealth, yet aimed at the most destitute, were offered in song to the wider populace, for fundraising, moral self-promotion perhaps, but more likely, for the simple purpose of strengthening the civil ties of welfare and its source in God’s goodness. Our expectations today seem quite different: to listen to others sing (most often on an electronic device), to experience the music privately, like a personal prayer, to be inwardly moved. That’s not a good recipe for “the voice of the congregation” to offer a song such that “all the peoples praise thee” and the “earth” itself is transformed by the clear proclamation of God’s ordering governance (Ps. 67).

Ralph Vaughan Williams has a central place in Anglo-American Anglicanism. He wrote some of the best-known modern English hymn tunes. Oddly, perhaps, he was himself not a believer, but an atheist-turned-agnostic, whose meditative gifts were geared, as he explained it, to a mysticism of “beauty” that merged with a vague cosmic spirit. But he was himself a keen student of folk music, and the hymns he produced that are most remembered are those that derive from venerable tunes, sometimes arranged, sometimes wholly composed. These are worded with scriptural specificity and narrative concreteness, such as in Kings Weston (“At the Name of Jesus”), or with the practical energies and full-blooded faith of classical proclamation (the thrilling setting of Bunyan’s “He Who Would Valiant Be”). Enacted and interacted. A modern attempt to simulate this way of singing hymns – “broadsiding”, if you will — can be glimpsed in a collection of Maddy Prior, “Sing Lustily and with Good Courage.”

The enacted and interacted character of Vaughan Williams’ best hymns could also be quite personal, in a resonant way. One of his most beloved hymn tunes is one he composed as a setting to a poem about the Holy Spirit (“Come Down, O Love Divine”) by the 15th-century Italian Bianco da Siena. It is an interesting conjunction: Bianco came out of the tradition of the Italian Christian troubadours, like Jacopone da Todi, whose personal songs of devotion (laude) they would share as they wandered about the countryside, pilgrims of scriptural praise.

These too were often borrowed popular songs and dances, though Vaughan Williams provides a simple, almost wistful elegiac color to his music. He gave the tune the title “Down Ampney.” The name referred to his childhood home, where his clergyman father had ministered, yet had also died when Vaughan Williams was barely three. He wrote the tune, then, turning to a lost childhood and parent, but in service of words imbued with an incandescent fervor that marked the medieval tradition of “holy poverty”: purgative and humble, the Spirit “burning” us into the palpable form of the humiliated Christ. The hymn involves both an exterior and interior witness to God’s transforming power. Sung as a hymn, it can re-form a congregation in the way a deep current turns the drifting leaves on a river’s surface into a swirl of grace. But it has to be sung together — learned and vocalized. It is its own kind of broadside, however gentle.

There are good hymns, of course, that are not founded on enacting and interacting, that is, on actually learning, singing, sharing, injecting into the life of family and neighborhood, even public square. Adorative, meditative, some of these “other” hymns have words that are clear enough, a tune of value and beauty (sometimes). But they will wend their way to heaven outside the channels of those beside me, and some are so oriented toward God in a personal way that they leave others out altogether, often just plain too difficult to sing as groups without musical leaders. If taken up by the broadsiding witness of inmate, parent, or public minstrel, they would probably drift into the buzzing or uncertain air waves of prison, bedside, or air terminal, lost in the crowd’s vaporous indistinctness. I will, by contrast, try to sing “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Sky.” I know there are those around me — bowed down and “brought very low” (Ps. 38:6) — who will, against all expectation, lift their head and smile.

About The Author

Ephraim Radner is a priest in the Episcopal Church (Diocese of Colorado) and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary affiliated with the University of Toronto. His doctorate from Yale University is in theology.

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4 Responses

  1. Barbara Rixey Darrow

    I have written a novel that has a bit about prisoners forming a glee club, and they sing “Amazing Grace” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” The point is that my fictional characters think hymns are not just for church services.
    And so I say sing-a-long hymns are needed now more than ever at every possible occasion. Bring on the Salvation Army band and the New Orleans “Saints Go Marching In.” Bring a singing prayer to every morning and “Now the Day is Over” to every evening. Instead of Happy Birthday, sing the celebrator’s favorite hymn. Somewhere tucked away, there are old college hymns like “Eternal Father Strong to Save” and “Ancient of Days.” Why not sing “How Great thou Art” in the shower or while traveling? I long to see a flash mob do “The Magnificat” or simply “When Morning Guilds the Skies.” That would top off my bucket list and I would sing
    “Joy to the World.”


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