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.