Posted by: rcottrill | December 30, 2009

Historical Hymn Issues

Over the centuries there have been a number of issues confronting the church with regard to sacred music. Sometimes these have aroused contention and rancour. But even when this has not happened, local congregations have needed to decide on what their policy will be. Here are several of the issues involved.

Issue #1 – The Use of Instruments
Nothing is said of musical instruments being used in the worship of the New Testament church. In fact, the early church fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Chrysostum, Ambrose, and Augustine) strongly opposed the use of instruments in sacred singing. This is in spite of the fact that extensive use was made of instrumental music in the Jewish temple (I Chron. 25:6-7, etc.) and we are told the heavenly courts will resound with music accompanied by “harps” (Rev. 5:8; 14:2; 15:2-3).

Israel had been more or less a homogeneous cultural unit, with some consensus as to the meaning of its music. The church, made up of many nations, is quite different. After Pentecost, believers had to be concerned with how their practices were being received and understood by a diversity of cultural groups. Since there is nothing in the New Testament that forbids the use of instruments in Christian worship, it is likely that in those times instrumental music had, for many, a strong association with pagan worship, or sensual activities that Christians wanted to avoid. In The Ministry of Music (p. 50), Ken Osbeck states that “instrumental music was associated with boisterous Roman paganism.”

Currently, most churches do not have a problem with instrumental music, if it appropriately and effectively supports congregational singing. But we must still be cautious of the danger of seeking to entertain, rather than edify, and of the possibility of secular associations tainting our music.

Issue #2 – Congregational Singing
Pope Gregory I (540-604) disapproved of congregational singing. In his time, much of the music of the church was turned over to the priests. As well, the formal liturgy of the “Mass” took shape. Attending church involved more observation than participation in singing God’s praises. There is some beautiful church music from the Middle Ages, but it was largely written for trained choirs, not the congregation. It took the Reformation to restore hymn singing to the people. This is an avenue of fellowship the people of God should carefully guard.

Issue #3 – Non-biblical Lyrics
One of the prominent arguments of an earlier time–along with whether to use musical instruments or not–was over what should be sung. Some said only Scripture should be sung by God’s people. Others said that newer songs could be used as well. (This debate actually continued off and on for over a thousand years.) To show how seriously this was taken, consider what happened to the bishop of Antioch, in 260 A.D. He was hauled into court, accused of “suppressing the chanting of psalms.” His defence was that he only meant to forbid the singing of new songs. On that basis, he was acquitted!

Isaac Watts, known as “the father of English hymnody,” finally convinced the church of his day that it was appropriate to introduce new hymns not directly taken from the Word of God. Since his day, thousands of wonderful hymns and gospel songs have been written, songs that have greatly blessed the church.

Issue #4 – The Use of Secular Tunes
In the early 1800’s, another controversy surfaced which has never been entirely resolved. A man named Joshua Leavitt published a hymnal in which the words were set to well-known secular melodies of the day. This is not the first or last time this was done. A number of hymn tunes we use are taken from secular sources. (Far fewer than some would contend, but most hymnals do contain a few.)

There is nothing inherently wrong with doing that. But one danger we must guard against is using tunes which are associated in people’s minds with lyrics or activities that dishonour God. In the words of one critic, Leavitt’s tunes were “current love songs, vulgar melodies of the street, the circus and the ballroom.” It was to combat this perceived drift into secularism that Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings published several new hymn books for church use, with tunes that had been written specifically for use with hymns.

Issue #5. The Place of Traditional Hymns Today
I’ve been a pastor, and a church musician, for about 40 years. But in recent years I’ve observed a disturbing trend–the abandonment of the hymn book. It’s either left to gather dust in the pew. Or taken away altogether, replaced with songs projected on the wall. Mostly a multitude of simple choruses.

Well, something else was written on a wall, many centuries ago: “You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Dan. 5:27).  I just wonder if those words won’t be written one day about the modern church. Some of the newer songs are fine, of course. And they’d work if they were occasionally included in a service. But there are churches sing them exclusively–and repetitiously.

Among the reasons given for the change, we are told that hymns are so old fashioned, and out of date we can’t understand them. But most hymns are understandable with a bit of explanation. Maybe the lack of understanding comes from a lack of spiritual insight–or from a lack of proper education. Don’t capitulate, educate! We still study authors like William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens. Why not study the work of our hymn writers? Truth is never out of date!

I don’t know what the practice of your church is, but I beg you not to discard the hymn book! It’s so important to our Christian faith. We need to preserve the wonderful heritage of sacred music that’s been developed by the church, over 2,000 years. And that means not abandoning the old songs. They’re a part of our history. They’ve comforted and challenged the saints for generations. Used with care, they can do so again.


  1. “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is very appropriate for end of year/beginning of year.

    “Be Thou our Guide while life shall last, and our Eternal Home.”

    On the “Historical Hymn Issues,” I agree completely with all of your conclusions. I would add, though, that children can learn hymns very easily, because the poetry is so good. Well-written poetry that has meter and rhyme (which is what most hymns are) is easily memorized. Young children may not understand all the words, but as they grow and mature, their understanding will grow.

    • I agree about the ability of children to memorize. They are like sponges in that regard. And yes, this should include hymns, as well as Scripture. (Parents need to be involved in teaching both.) And we do need to explain what is learned as much as possible, though undoubtedly more understanding will come with the passing years.

  2. A P.S. to yesterday’s comment: I really enjoyed the video clips. I have never heard of John Hong, and I’d like to hear more of his playing. does not list any CDs by him. Do you know of any?

    • No, sorry. I’d never heard of him before. Maybe the CD’s are yet to come!

  3. […] HISTORICAL ISSUES. Over the centuries, there have been various points of debate regarding sacred music. Whatever personal convictions we have, these differences have affected the music we use to this day. Here are five historical issues to consider. […]


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