Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Hymn, in Greek literature a song in praise of gods or heroes, sometimes, like the Homeric hymns, in epic metre, but more usually in lyric. A Christian hymn is defined by St. Augustine as "praise to God with song." At a later date hymns varied considerably in purpose and character, and the word acquired a more extended meaning, so as to include a prayer or any expression of devotional feeling in a metrical or rhythmical form.

The hymnody of the early Church was based on that of the Jews. The practice of singing hymns is first mentioned in the Gospels. There is nothing to show whether these hymns were or were not the Psalms of David. On the other hand the canticles, Magnificat, Benedidus, etc., are closely modelled on the sacred poetry of the Hebrews. Many of the hymns and poems of the early Greek Church - e.g. those of Gregory Nazianzen (330-89) - are in classical metres. But at the same time the use of the Jewish Psalter and of the "Hallelujah" and "Hosanna," as well as the character of the versicles and antiphons, shows that Christian worship was influenced by Jewish traditions. The Gloria in Excelsis, Gloria Patri, Te Deum, and other doxologies composed during this period are rhythmical but non-metrical hymns based on passages of Scripture. There seems to have been a prejudice against the use of hymns in the services of the Church, which lasted till the fifth century or later, but it was afterwards found that they could be made a vehicle for impressing orthodox dogmas on the minds of the people, and thus preventing the progress of heresy. After the final separation of the Eastern and Western Churches the number of hymns in the former greatly increased. Amongst the writers of Greek hymns may be mentioned St. Andrew, Archbishop of Crete (660-c. 732), whose "Christian, dost thou see them?" was, like many other early hymns, translated by Dr. J. M. Neale, and Joseph the Hymnographer (d. 883). The earliest Latin hymnographers were St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368) and St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-397). Of the many hymns attributed to the latter about a dozen are considered genuine. Perhaps the most famous name in the following centuries is that of Gregory the Great (540-604). The processional hymn, Gloria, Laus, et Honor ("All glory, laud, and honour"), sung on Palm Sunday, was written by St. Theodulph of Orleans (d. 821). Veni Creator Spiritus (" Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire") is attributed to Rabanus Maurus, poet to Charlemagne. A great impulse was given to hymn-writing by Notker (c. 840-912), a Benedictine monk of St. Gall, who introduced the sequence or prose, a rhythmical but non-metrical composition, between the reading of the Epistle and Gospel. Sequences afterwards assumed a metrical form, and thus became identical with hymns in the narrower sense. The greatest writer of mediaeval hymns and sequences was Adam de St. Victor (d. circa 1180), who founded the Victorine school. But no individual hymns are more celebrated than the Dies Irae ("Day of wrath, O day of mourning") by Thomas of Celano, the friend of St. Francis of Assisi, and the Stabat Mater of Jacobus de Benedictis (or Jacopone da Todi) (d. 1306).

Soon after the Reformation the liturgical use of hymns was discontinued in the English Church, Seven hymns translated from the Latin, one for each of the hours of prayer, were given a place in King Henry's Primer (1545), but they did not reappear in that of King Edward. Their place was taken by Sternhold and Hopkins' metrical version of the Psalms (1561), which in 1696 gave way to that of Tate and Brady. Many hymns were, indeed, written during the Elizabethan period, and the sacred poets of the first half of the seventeenth century - especially Wither, Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaugban, and Richard Crashaw - occupy a high place in English literature, but all attempts to introduce hymns into public worship were unsuccessful. Three names stand out with some prominence in the generally barren period which now intervenes until the Wesleyan revival - viz. Bishop Ken (1637-1710), whose beautiful Morning and Evening Hymns are still the most popular sacred poems in the English language, and the Dissenting ministers Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and Philip Doddridge (1702-51). The Methodist movement, with its deep personal religion, led to a great revival of hymn writing, and during the last half of the eighteenth century some twenty hymn-books were published, generally strongly Calvinistic in tone, which came into use in Evangelical and Nonconformist places of worship. The chief hymn-writers of this school were Charles Wesley (1707-88), who wrote "Jesus, Lover of my Soul," and many other favourite hymns, and A. M. Toplady (1740-78), author of the well-known "Rock of Ages." Amongst the Olney Hymns by Cowper and John Newton, there are a few - such as "Hark, my soul," "Sometimes a light surprises," and "God moves in a mysterious way" - which are worthy to rank with these. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century there was a great increase in the number of hymn-books, for public worship, all of them distinctly Evangelical or Nonconformist in tone. The publication in 1827 of Heber's Hymns, followed soon afterwards by the works of H. F. Lyte and Charlotte Elliott, did much to revive the interest in hymnody, and the movement thus instituted resulted in a general endeavour to raise the standard of the hymns used in the services of the Church. It culminated, in 1861 with the publication of Hymns Ancient and Modern, a collection which, with a great deal of indifferent work, contains most of the good hymns, representing many shades of religious opinion.

Ever since the days of Luther, whose stirring hymn, Ein feste Burg ist Unser Gott was sung by the soldiers of Gustavus Adolphus at the battle of Lutzen, Germany has, before all other countries, been the home of religious poetry. Among the more recent German hymn-writers mention may be made of Novalis, Fouque, Arndt, the Krummachers, and Spitta. In the Reformed Church of France metrical versions of the Psalms by Marot, Beza, and Conrart were successively employed in public worship from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, but, as in England, they were finally superseded by hymns.