Posted by: rcottrill | June 8, 2009

Hymns and Gospel Songs

Colossians 3:16 talks about music in the local church. It says we are to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” But what are these three types of sacred music?

1) The Psalms
That seems simple enough. It refers to the 150 songs in the Old Testament book of Psalms. But did you know that for a time many were convinced that was all the church should sing? In the eyes of some, writing new hymns was like trying to add to the Bible–which would be sinful. John Calvin believed that. But it is a point on which he and Martin Luther (a hymn writer himself) took opposite views.

In 1696 Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate collaborated to produce a new metrical version of the Psalms “fitted to the tunes used in churches.” Fine. But they had the boldness to include, in a supplement, sixteen new hymns. This caused an uproar! On one occasion, Tate was visiting a friend when the time came for family devotions. The maid explained her refusal to take part, saying indignantly,

“Sir, as long as you sung Jesus Christ’s Psalms, I sung along with ye; but now that you sing Psalms of your own invention, ye may sing by yourselves!”

It was a teen-aged Isaac Watts (1674-1748) who finally turned the tide in this debate. He argued that if churches sang only the psalms of the Bible, they were missing the great truths of the New Testament, about the life of Christ, His death and resurrection, as well as other crucial subjects. Finally, his father, a deacon in their church, told him to go ahead and see what he could do. With that, Watts began turning out a hymn a week for years. Through his life, he wrote about 600 of them! It is for his valuable contribution to sacred music that Watts is known as the Father of English Hymnody.

Bottom line: “Psalms” are the Psalms of the Bible. And perhaps, for our purposes, we could broaden the category to include any portion of Scripture set to music.

2) Hymns and Spiritual Songs
The distinction between hymns and spiritual songs is less clear. It has been suggested that the hymns may have been congregational numbers and the spiritual songs were solos, but that is not a widely held view.

Look again at Colossians 3:16. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

Notice the phrases I’ve put in italics. Most likely, what we have with these two classifications is the difference between “to the Lord” songs and “one another” songs. Selections that are called hymns are more particularly addressed to the Lord Himself, in praise or prayer. Spiritual songs (now commonly referred to as gospel songs) are songs of teaching and testimony in which we address one another.

Some examples may help to make it clearer.

  • Hymns: My Jesus, I Love Thee (talking to the Lord); How Great Thou Art; Great Is Thy Faithfulness.
  • Gospel Songs (or Spiritual Songs): What a Friend We Have in Jesus; All the Way My Saviour Leads Me; Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus (meaning, Let’s you and I do that).

Often there’s not a hard and fast division. Some songs do both. For example, the hymn Praise the Saviour, Ye Who Know Him is clearly addressing our fellow-Christians. But a later stanza of the hymn turns to the Lord with a prayer, “Keep us, Lord, O keep us cleaving / To Thyself and still believing.”

In the nineteenth century, gospel songs were also commonly called Sunday School songs. An early pioneer in this style of hymnody was William Bradbury (1816-1868), who provided tunes for songs such as He Leadeth Me, and Sweet Hour of Prayer. These “Sunday School songs” had a strong evangelistic emphasis, and taught basic truths of Christian experience. They were often simpler in vocabulary, making them accessible to all, including children.  But it is not right for purists such as Louis Benson to disdain them as unworthy. Their endurance speaks to the place they have found in the hearts of many believers. We need both, hymns and gospel (or spiritual) songs, just as the Scripture says.

Determining the exact terminology to be used–hymns or gospel songs–is not that important. In fact, the word hymn is commonly used for both. Many times, when we call a piece of music a hymn we simply mean it is a sacred song. In this blog, the term hymn will be used frequently in that generic sense. But even if we don’t classify each song in its technically correct category, there is an important point to be made here.

With some of our songs we talk to God, and with others we talk to one another. And there should be some kind of balance of both types in our singing. Remember, the Lord is present when we meet in His name (Matt. 18:20). Shouldn’t we speak to Him? How would you like friends and family to throw a party in your honour, and then spend the evening talking to one another and never talk to you! Let’s make use of the best of both.


  1. Singing the Scriptures became reality for me during my time with Operation Mobilization in India during the late 1960’s. My team mates and I, and the villagers had no hymn books in rural areas, but we did have our Bibles. So for many public gatherings, or private times, we would turn to passages like Psalm 35 or 100, and simply raise our voices together in worship, following the words. Sometimes we would link hymns this way, one after the other. I can still sing them almost 40 years later.

    I have found that putting Scripture in my mind in any way has helped me block many negative thoughts that want to crowd in and upset my heart. Singing as an act of my will, rather than just when I feel like it, also changes things in my life. As I choose to sing, I start to feel better. My spirit is lifted, and somehow situations change for good.

    An English woman on our team in India couldn’t stand me and told me so when we arrived in Bombay for the first year. So, we met every morning at 6am for months out on the balcony to try to resolve our ‘difficulties’. We sang together the Hymns of the faith from her Church of England hymnal. Those words touched me deeply, and saved me when I became desperate to leave that mass of millions but couldn’t. The words reflected my life at that moment, even though they had been written hundreds of year before. She and I never became friends, but in time we learned that singing together can bring healing in relationships.

    I wonder if anyone else has ever learned that? What one sings really matters. Words in hymns and songs continue to uplift and encourage me today.

    • Thanks for the personal insights Norma. It’s wonderful how the songs of the faith stick in our minds to bless us again and again. I’ve conducted services in nursing homes and suddenly heard Alzheimer patients, otherwise “out of it,” join in the singing of a hymn. Music seems to unlock the door of memory as few things can. I trust my few thoughts on our hymns, day by day, will be a continuing blessing.

  2. Norma and Bob,

    I enjoyed the added “flavour” of your comments along with the tea of my morning break.

    Mealtimes in our home were followed by “doing the dishes”. Many a moment was spent singing at the job. We learned “parts” early. There is no doubt the musical harmonies also interchanged with interpersonal harmonies; along with easing any indigestion.

    Later, our own children have done the same; joined in periodically by adult voices “wanting in” on the pleasureful occasion.

    • This is a lost “art”–is that the right word? Family or a group of friends singing together in the home.

      Over the years, it has not been unusual for us to have friends over, or be in the home of others, pull out some hymn books, and sing. The first time I ever tried singing a solo it was at such a gathering. And I can still remember coming home from some meeting to find my wife and son doing the dishes, singing from memory Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in two-part harmony. (Jim was about 10 or 11 at the time!)

      Singing the hymns of the faith is an edifying activity in itself. And singing together in small gatherings can strengthen the bonds of family love and friendship. (As an added bonus, it would greatly improve congregational singing in our churches!)

      Sadly, few seem to have the time to do such a thing today. Or is it a lack of interest, or wrong priorities that’re the problem? Whatever the case, how much they are missing! Where has it gone? Is there any hope of bringing the practice back? I’d love to hear some ideas on that.

  3. Well, Robert, you’ve done it again! “Done what?”, you may be asking… You’ve once again brought light-of-day clarity to many who believe that all “sacred music” = “a hymn”. I especially appreciate your use of the phrases from Colossians 3:16 (one of the great “3:16″s in the Bible, by the way… ~ a “rabbit-trail” for another posting!): “to one another”, and “to the Lord”.

    Also, THANKS for mentioning that little-known tidbit about Isaac Watts’ dad’s encouragement to his son to write some new hymns! What a wonderful thing, indeed, were hymn-loving parents to encourage their sons & daughters ~ or for grandparents, their grandchildren ~ to write new *hymns* — (and herein I again digress, for your article on the Five Characteristics of a Good Hymn is excellent, too!). What a GIFT for future generations present-day parents & grandparents can make, even now, by thus encouraging their musical children and grandchildren! Yet — it would be a wise parent, a wise grandparent, who recognizes that *before making such a suggestion* (i.e., of the type that Isaac Watts’ father made to his son), that adult might well consider the theology of that young person.

    THANKS, too, for mentioning that, though great hymns ARE replete with good doctrine, our primary source of doctrine is not to be that of our hymnbook, but rather, that of Scripture! (Okay, I lied! This is a paraphrase of what you wrote, but I think I’ve represented you accurately.)

    One other quick point… About a year and a half ago a good friend of mine who also loves the old hymns — and who is a great people-person — suggested that we begin a monthly “hymn sing”. So on a Saturday evening about 6:30 we meet at someone’s house (nb: this is not a “church” thing, though anyone from the church is more than welcome to attend, with no “invitation” needed), the host(s) usually fetch 20 or so hymnbooks (unused, from their “parking place” in a back room at the church), and we sing for about an hour. At that point, we take a 10-15 minute break for snacks/treats (the hosts generally offer coffee/hot water for tea, paper napkins, plastic forks/spoons if needed). Following our “break”, we return to sing for another 30 minutes or so (longer, depending on how late people can stay, the hosts’ wishes, and the accompanist’s willingness). Those who need to be home earlier can bid farewell during the “break”, should they wish, and still be home by 8 p.m.-ish.

    Oh! I meant to say that generally the host sends out an “everyone” e-mail (to interested parties) about 3-4 weeks prior to the suggested date, reminding people of the time, location, and to bring a snack/treat if they like (but bringing a treat/snack is by no means a requirement!).

    It’s a wonderful time of fellowship, encouragement, and it’s especially wonderful to see younger children who are eagerly learning these hymns, singing with all of their hearts!

    FYI: Not having a piano/keyboard is not an excuse for not hosting (at least in our case), since my 88-key keyboard “travels”, and people are very kind about assisting in loading it into my car.

    Blessings & continuing encouragements to you & all readers here! — Grace

    • Well! You’ve covered a lot of ground there. Thanks for the encouraging words.

      A couple of things caught my eye. One was your mention of grandparents. The influence of these folks (my wife and I included) on grandchildren can be significant. And since it is more likely that Grandpa and Grandma are more familiar with our traditional hymns, they can encourage the young people to give them a second look.

      The other thing was the hymn sings in homes. That takes me back about 50 years or so. The first time I sang a solo was in one such gathering. And depending on who you have attending, I don’t think accompaniment is necessarily…e-r-r-r…necessary! It’s a wonderful thing to harmonize together. Easier to hear the other parts and do that without an instrument.

  4. Robert, I absolutely LOVE a cappella singing, too! Yet… in our monthly hymn sings we have not too many males willing/able to sing (T or B) parts, so… After reading your reply, however, it did occur to me to ask a friend who attends (who is a wonderful horn ~ i.e., French Horn ~ player) if perhaps for 4 or 5 of the better-known hymns, she might be willing to play either the bass or tenor line. (Of course, a ‘cello would be better, for blending with the voices, but a well-played horn might be just what we need! All without “drowning out” the voices…) — Grace

  5. This is realy inspiring. God bless you all.


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