Posted by: rcottrill | September 3, 2010

Today in 590 – Gregory I Became Pope

Sometimes called Gregory the Great, this man expanded the influence of the papal see, and his rule marked the beginning of the era of the Roman Church which would last for about a thousand years, until the Reformation. (This period also roughly corresponds to what we know as the Middle Ages.) An able administrator, Gregory was the first bishop of Rome to assume broad political powers. He involved himself in politics, appointing heads of cities, negotiating treaties, mustering troops when he felt they were needed.

In his Dialogues, Gregory wrote about the early saints, telling fantastic tales about their miraculous powers–accounts that went far beyond Scripture. He promoted the veneration of body parts, clothing, and other relics of these departed individuals. He taught that the Lord’s Supper is not simply a memorial ceremony, but that it actually repeats and carries on the work of Calvary. He believed in purgatory, and taught that masses should be said for the aid of the dead.

Gregory is credited with originating or popularizing the form of church music now called Gregorian Chants (or plainsong chants), though he did not write all of them himself. These simple songs, with their long drawn-out phrases, still evoke a sense of calm reverence. They contrast markedly with the secular music of the time. Not all of them would be acceptable doctrinally to Bible-believing Christians, but many would. For example there is:

Christus factus est pro nobis obediens
usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis.

Christ became obedient for us unto death,
even to the death, death on the cross.

Apart from the unbiblical doctrines he espoused, the most harmful thing Gregory did was to take singing away from the congregation, turning it over to the clergy and trained singers. He made no provision for gathered believers to participate in this way, and they became mere spectators of the music. It took the Reformation to restore this important element of worship and fellowship to the people.

On the musical side of things, the hymn tune Hamburg (often used with When I Survey the Wondrous Cross) was adapted by Lowell Mason from a Gregorian Chant. And Gregory’s words for a chant called Rex Christe, factor omnium, were translated from Latin by Ray Palmer in 1858, and turned into a congregational hymn that begins:

O Christ, our King, Creator, Lord,
Saviour of all who trust Thy Word,
To them who seek Thee ever near,
Now to our praises bend Thine ear.

Praise the Lord for the gift of song! And praise the Lord we can unite in song as a fellowship of believers. “Sing praise to the Lord, You saints of His, and give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name” (Ps. 30:4). “Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, and His praise in the assembly of saints” (Ps. 149:1). “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” (Col. 3:16).

(2) Caedmon’s Hymn (Data Missing)
Suppose we were to look for the very first hymn in the English languange. For a formal expression of praise, we can go no further back than the work of a shepherd named Caedmon, in Northumbria (England).

Ruins of Whitby Abbey

Caedmon lived around the end of the 7th century. (The generally accepted date of his death is AD 680.) His poetry, written in Old English is unreadable today, except by scholars. But the words of Caedmon’s Hymn deserve recognition, all the same, because this is the first example of English literature of any kind for which we know the author.

Until quite late in life, Caedmon showed no musical ability. Sometimes, this became an embarrassment. At times of feasting, a harp would be passed around the company of those gathered, with each person invited to play and sing a song. When his turn approached, Caedmon would make a hasty exit, embarrassed and humiliated because he had nothing to offer.

But on one such evening, he went to the stable (for which he was responsible), where he lay down and fell asleep. It is reported–whether fact or fancy–that he dreamed that night of an angelic visitor who asked him to sing. “What must I sing?” Caedmon asked, in his dream. “Sing about the beginning of created things,” was the response.

When he awoke, it is said the shepherd found himself able to compose a hymn praising the God of creation. It was to be the first of many offerings from his pen. The Abbess Hilda, of nearby Whitby Abbey, recognized his gifts, and invited him to join the community as a lay-brother. He spent the remainder of his life there, writing poems about events in biblical history. Today, a monument near the ruins of the abbey praises him as “The Father of English Sacred Song.” Caedmon’s Hymn begins:

Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard,
Meotodes meahte and his modgeþanc.

Strange though it may seem, that is an early form of the English language! (English has changed enormously over 13 centuries!) If you would like to hear how the original sounded, you can hear the hymn read here. And below is a rough updating of the text.

Now we must praise the Keeper of heaven’s kingdom,
The power of the Creator, and His intention,
The work of the Father of glory,
How for each of the wonders
The eternal Lord established a beginning.
He first shaped for the sons of men
Heaven as a roof, the holy Maker;
Then the inhabited world mankind’s Guardian,
The eternal Lord, made afterwards,
Solid ground for men, the All-powerful created.

Though difficult to translate smoothly, this hymn expresses a number of key biblical truths. It recognizes the existence of God, His eternality, and His role as Creator (cf. Ps. 90:2; Heb. 11:3). It lauds His power, and owns His sovereign lordship (cf. Dan. 4:34-35). It recognizes His wisdom, and His gracious provision for the human family (cf. Ps. 145:9; Matt. 5:45).


  1. Christus Factus Est pro Nobis (Christ acted, or worked on our behalf.)

    Ouch! That isn’t what it means. At a guess, you asked someone to translate Christus factus est pro nobis without telling them that there were more words in the sentence!

    It actually continues obediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem in cruce, and it’s the Latin version of Philippians 2:8-9. I’m sure you realise now that your translation isn’t correct.

    • My apologies. I did study Latin–about 50 years ago. Much of it long forgotten. Thanks for catching that. I’ll change it.

      “Christ became obedient for us unto death,
      even to the death, death on the cross.” (How’s that?)

  2. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber Hymnal […]


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