August 5, 2013

Top 10 Most Popular Hymns of All Time and Their History

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All across the world, millions of believers sing hundreds of thousands of different songs. Singing is a natural part of worship, and our rich collection of songs is a testament to this truth. Among the thousands of songs, there are a number of English hymns that stand out as worthy of attention because of their enduring appeal and classic texts. Here are the top 10 most popular hymns of all time and their history.

Amazing Grace, John Newton (1779)
Most of us have heard the familiar words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” The author of the hymn was, by his own admission, a “wretch.”  He was a slave trader, a blasphemer, a rebel, an immoral man, a torturer, and as far from grace as anyone could ever be. As a boy, John was captivated by the adventure and risk of life on the high seas. When he was eleven, young John Newton launched into that exciting life of voyaging, sailing, and living his dream. But the dream turned out to be a nightmare. Later in life he wrote, “I sinned with a high hand, and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.” Newton lived a hard life with hard consequences. God got his attention though. In 1748, Newton’s slave ship was nearly wrecked by an intense storm. In the tempest, surrounded by crashing waves, cutting winds, creaking timbers, and the cries of onboard slaves, John fell to his knees and pled for mercy, and for grace. God’s grace, which reaches anyone, anywhere, saved a wretch like John Newton. Newton wrote the song years later while serving as a pastor in Olney, England. During America’s Second Great Awakening, the song was paired with its familiar tune and was widely used in camp meetings and revival services. Today, its lyrics still inspire, encourage, and instruct people about the radical reality of God’s amazing grace.

 

Holy, Holy, Holy, Reginald Heber (1861)
Long before Reginald Heber penned the words to this famous hymn, the prophet Isaiah had a vision and heard the call of the angels — “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Hearing the chorus, Isaiah crumpled in abject humility and adoring worship — “Woe is me!” Years later, Reginald Heber felt this same awe at God’s holiness, and wrote this hymn in response to what he experienced. Heber, who was a minister in the Church of England, composed the poem for Trinity Sunday. The poem lay forgotten until after Heber died at the age of 43. His wife found the poem in a collection of papers, and shared it with musician John B. Dykes (1823-1876). The song was published with music in 1861. God has used this song to impress millions of people with the truth of his holiness.

 

Be Thou My Vision, attributed to Dallán Forgaill, (6th century A.D.)
Most people have heard of St. Patrick, or at least celebrated his day’s namesake. Fewer people, however, have heard of the blind Irish monk, Dallan Forgaill, author of “Be Thou My Vision.” Forgaill was a 6th century Irish monk who ministered in the wake of Patrick’s evangelization and church planting. He composed the song as he remembered St. Patrick’s missionary labors and the zeal that characterized his life. For generations, the poem became part of the Irish monastic tradition, used as a prayer and chanted in the Old Irish language. It wasn’t until 1905 that the song was translated by Mary Byrne, and it was 1912 before it was versified. Today, the exalted words and Godward vision of the song are loved by believers just as they were hundreds of years ago by the Irish believers.

 

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Robert Robinson (1757)
Robert Robinson was what you would call an “unruly child.” At only eight years old his father died, and he was raised by his loving mother. In spite of Robert’s intellectual giftedness, he had a penchant for mischief. Robert’s mother sent him off for an apprenticeship when he was only 14, but once he got out of the home his life got worse. Instead of working and learning, Robert chose drinking, gambling, and carousing with the wrong crowd. Caught up in his reckless life, Robert and his friends decided to go to an evangelist meeting one night just to heckle the preacher, George Whitfield. Sitting in that meeting however, Robert felt as if the preacher’s words were meant for him alone. He couldn’t shake the feeling that God wanted him to surrender his life and serve him. When he was twenty, Robinson gave his life to God and entered the Christian ministry. At the age of 22, he wrote the song “Come Thou Fount,” for his church’s Pentecost celebration. It was written as his own spiritual story — a story of pursuing pleasure and joy, and only experiencing it when “Jesus sought me.” Millions of believers can relate to Robinson’s testimony — “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,” and the glorious testimony, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!”

 

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Martin Luther (c. 1528)
It is fitting that this hymn, known as “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” speaks of fortresses, strategy, ancient foes, and winning the battle. In Martin Luther’s time, it was an all-out battle for the faith. Martin Luther was a bulldog of a defender, going head-to-head with the established church and her officials. He didn’t flinch when challenging the Catholic Church’s departure from the true faith. Even Luther, however, had his bouts of depression. He penned the words to the song around 1527 as a paraphrase of Psalm 46. At times of discouragement, Luther would sometimes turn to his young friend Melancthon, saying, “Let’s sing the Forty-sixth Psalm. He would pull out his lute, and strum the chords of this triumphant song.  ”A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” As the Protestant reformation rolled on, believers often experienced the sting of persecution and even death. In their final moments, many were known to sing that inspiring stanza, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.”

 

How Great Thou Art, Carl Gustav Boberg (1885)
It’s a prayer, a plea, and a declaration of God’s infinite greatness. This song was written by Carl Gustav Boberg, a 26-year old pastor in Sweden. As the story goes, Boberg was caught in a thunderstorm one Sunday afternoon after church. From his perch in the mountains, Boberg watched as the storm swept in with a bolt of lightning and massive clap of thunder. The storm hurtled through the meadows and grain fields, reverberating across the countryside with the sound of its astounding power. After the storm, pastor Boberg looked out his windows overlooking Mönsterås Bay. A rainbow spread across the sky, the birds were singing, the church bells were softy tolling, and Carl was overwhelmed by God’s power and majesty. The result was an outpouring of adoration and worship in the writing of the song, O Store Gud. The song made a circuit of translations, German, Russian, and English, and picked up a stanza from an English missionary Stuart K. Hine in 1949. Now, the song is sung by millions of Christians in dozens of languages, all praying the same heartfelt prayer of “humble adoration, “My God, how great Thou art!”

 

How Firm a Foundation, R. Keene (1787)
When it first appeared in print, the author’s name was only listed as “K” leaving many baffled as to the true author of the song. Extensive research has uncovered the songwriter. English pastor John Rippon published the hymnbook, A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, in which the song first appeared. Most likely the song was written by Rippon’s song leader, R. Keene. Regardless of its authorship, the Bible is the real foundation of “How Firm a Foundation.” Many of the song’s phrases are direct Scripture quotations, and certainly the entire song is a Scripture-soaked testimony to God’s Word. The theologian Charles Hodge loved the song. During one prayer meeting in which the song was sung, Hodge was so gripped with emotion that he couldn’t sing the words, “I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.” The song is so rich that it is worthy of meditation, and certainly deserves the place of recognition that it has had during its long history.

 

Great Is Thy Faithfulness, Thomas Chisholm (1923)
It’s inspiring to hear about hymns that were written in extraordinary circumstances — thunderstorms, shipwrecks, or life-shaking events. Still, not every great hymn was written in the throes of danger or the heights of exultation. In fact, one of the greatest, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” was written by an ordinary man in an ordinary situation in the ordinary ups and downs of life. Thomas Chisholm was a pastor for one year, but for most of his life he worked as an insurance agent. He was born in humble means in Kentucky, struggled with health problems, and worked hard to make ends meet the rest of his life. He wrote, “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.” This hymn for the ordinary Christian is about an extraordinary God. Rich or poor, we all can say, “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.”

 

In Christ Alone, Keith Getty and Stuard Townend (2001)
Although it is a modern hymn, the song “In Christ Alone” has been a heartfelt favorite of so many that it is part of this list. The song was written by Keith Getty with Stuart Townend. Getty’s goal as he collaborated with Townend on the song was to tell a story, “the whole gospel story in one song.” The song does just that, and leaves us awash in the all-consuming flood of Christ’s love, “what heights of love, what depths of peace…here in the love of Christ I stand.”

 

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Isaac Watts (1707)
Isaac Watts was one of the most prolific of all English hymn writers. Today, he is referred to as the “Father of English Hymnody.” Out of his nearly 800 hymn texts “When I Survey” is considered to be his best and most poignant. Watts wrote the song to help Christians be “prepared for the Holy Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.” The song brings the believer from personal reflection, to bold testimony, to total surrender. “Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

 

It’s interesting to note that these best-loved hymns are ones that focus on the glory and grandeur of God. Although songs that deal with the human experience are necessary and meaningful, it is also important to look up at the amazing God we serve, and to gaze solely at his supreme holiness and glory. As you use these songs in your praise and worship, you will experience how gazing at God can transform your life.

 

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8 comments

  • Jamie · August 6, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    A fantastic list with tremendous meaning and insight. Thanks for sharing!

  • Doug Galzay- Blogmaster at Amazing Praising · August 6, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    This is a great list. I will share it with my readers! Good job and great info!
    Thanks and all the best from http://www.AmazingPraising.com!

    Doug Gazlay

  • Maria Arokiam Anthony · August 7, 2013 at 4:46 am

    The hymns we sing during mass without knowing its background. You have given me an insight that will certainly enrich my faith through these songs. Thanks for sharing. I will certainly share it with my congregations.

    Thank you and God Bless
    Anthony Maria Arokiam
    Malaysia

  • Jo · August 7, 2013 at 5:22 am

    I am very disappointed in this incredibly OLD fashioned list! Apart from Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art the others have no relevance for the young people. They drag and are NOT inspirational. We are not in the fear of God days & I believe we must relate to all ages so as to keep people in church hearing the word and letting the Holy Spirit do his work. Maybe think again and get some new songs with today’s language.

    • Tammy · August 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm

      Jo- Your disappointment is misplaced. First off, the title of this article is “Top 10 Most Popular Hymns of All Time and Their History”. Of “All Time” does not restrict us to the last decade nor is this article making an attempt to say that this list is something to adhere to in the music portions of our worship services. This article is informative not directive. Secondly, my 17 year old son at this very moment is saying that he doesn’t believe he or his friends think of any modern music they are growing up with as hymns and that what he enjoys is not the point of this article. My daughter is 20 and I went through this list with both of them. They did not recognize all the titles but as soon as I started singing them they could both join in. My son plays the drums in youth group and does his turn in the main morning service. He understands the value of these hymns, if not for himself, for the older generation and does not mind them being played. Especially when he is in a loving church environment that is genuinely concerned with blessing the musical needs of a broader variety of attenders. Even some of the unchurched friends he brings don’t think we are in the dark ages singing these when they are in the lineup with more contemporary songs.

      Instead of a negative response to a simple informative article please direct your wonderful concern and passion for youth to unceasing prayer for our ageing churches. Pray for their resistance to change but also pray that our youth won’t be mislead in believing that these greatly meaningful hymns have no value whether they have been beautifully set to new music or not.

    • Ben · August 7, 2013 at 9:57 pm

      Wow Jo!

      Harsh words. “No relevance?” “We are not in the fear of God days”. When was the fear of God days? I thought we are always suppose to serve God in reverent fear and awe. Have you been through half if any of the things those writers went through when they penned those incredible songs? Words that deep and reverent come from places of intense trials and overcoming, not from sipping a Starbucks with some blokes at the beach. If you think a cool beat, a fun tune is what makes worship or hymns, then you are badly mistaken. Hymns like these are timeless. That’s why they are still the most beloved.

      New and old has nothing to do with worship. Anointed and relevant is two things only God can hand out and not an attribute you can claim. You may think a song rocks, but God may take no glory in it!

      Sharefaith did write and article on the Top 120 Worship songs – Perhaps go there and be satisfied: http://www.sharefaith.com/blog/2013/07/top-120-worship-songs-sung-world/

  • Daniel Threlfall · August 7, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    Thanks for the advice, Jo. I completely agree that much of today’s music is powerful, relevant, and beneficial.

    It’s obviously hard to narrow hymnody down to just ten songs! In making this selection, we chose to include songs that have endured over the centuries.

  • Jason · September 21, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    @Jo –

    I have to say I strongly disagree.. I’m a 23 year old – just out of college. I’ve grown up in church and have grown up loving the more “modern” praise music – Hillsong, Jesus Culture, Bethel, IHOP, Vineyard – you name it.

    Even though I grew up in church and thought I was Christian – I was not saved until the latter part of my college days. You say “let the Holy Spirit do the work” – the Holy Spirit, biblically speaking, simply reveals the gospel and illuminates Christ and the cross. After being saved and as God has graciously revealed the depths and the weight of the gospel in my life – I have grown to LOVE hymns. These songs are the most powerful songs I have ever sang in my life – and leading worship for my college ministry – they have responded in a very similar way when we sing these songs (In Christ Alone, How Great Thou Art, Before The Throne, It Is Well, Come Thou Fount).

    Praise and worship is simply about singing and responding of and to the work of Jesus Christ and the goodness of the cross. These songs are much, much, more rich than any of these modern praise songs we hear today.

    The only disappoint I have in the list is not seeing “It Is Well”… beautiful song – incredibly popular – and incredible story behind it!

    Hope this didn’t come off too harsh – just a “young” guy here giving his take – as I’ve come from many different sides of theology and have found a deep, powerful truth in where I am now.

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