There are records of hymns dating from the 4th and 5th centuries that are still sung in Catholic churches today. In the 6th century, Benedict of Nursia (480-547), founder of the Catholic Benedictine Order of Monks translated many of the existing hymns into Latin and formatted them into Gregorian Chants. With few exceptions, these hymns sung primarily by monks, remained the acceptable Christian church music for many years.
In the early 16th century the Protestant Reformation brought about many changes, including hymns being translated from Greek and Latin into languages of the common people, and songs being written with familiar folk rhyme and rhythm easy to sing and memorize.
In England, the church determined to adapt all their new hymns from the Holy Scriptures, primarily the Psalms. In Germany, Martin Luther (1483-1546) created songs based on scriptural principle but not taken directly from the Scriptures. The most famous of his hymns, A Mighty Fortress is Our God lives on in hymnals of this century.
Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748) was instrumental in motivating England to expand their hymn base when he wrote and distributed such beautiful and thought provoking hymns as When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and Joy to the World.
In the early 18th century Charles Wesley took hymns to another level altogether. He wrote and published more than 100 songs designed to appeal to the emotions and salvation experience of the Christian. O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing, Hark the Harold Angels Sing, Christ the Lord is Risen Today, and his other songs quickly became popular first within the Methodist church and then within other denominations.
The song styles of Watts and Wesley form the foundation of contemporary Christian music. Their words still ring true today and their melodies still ring out from many churches around the world. The hymns of past centuries are here to stay.
(For information regarding hymns written after the 18th century go to History of Hymns Part 2.)