Posted by: rcottrill | September 17, 2010

What Makes a Hymn Popular?

I was asked recently what makes a particular hymn popular, and causes it to continue being used over many years. Good question!

It’s been estimated that about a million hymns have been written over the 2,000 years of the Christian era. Most hymnals contain somewhere between 500 and 800 of these. Does this mean that what we have now are the best of those million songs? No, not at all. Our hymn books contain some songs of lesser merit, and have missed some wonderful gems from the past. That’s one thing that makes the work I do so interesting. I’m always discovering little known hymns that deserve to be reintroduced to the church.

Over the years, many factors have contributed to the development of our present hymnals, and to the list of traditional hymns and gospel songs that are most common among them.

1) One factor is certainly the recognition of quality on the part of the Christian community. Many hymns continue to be published and used because of their rich poetic imagery, and/or their clarity in expressing biblical doctrine (e.g, Abide with Me, or Be Still, My Soul). We can also sense in many of them a testimony that rings true. There’s an awareness that the authors speak out of a personal experience with the Lord (e.g. It Is Well with My Soul, He Giveth More Grace, or More Love to Thee).

2) We must not ignore the importance of the tunes. Hymns are poetry, but poetry that is designed to be sung–or at least is suitable to be set to music. And if the melodies are singable, or “catchy,” the song may become popular, even if it is inferior in other ways. This is especially true of gospel songs (what were known in the nineteenth century as “Sunday School songs”). When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder benefits from its bright, peppy tune.

3) In the providence of God, a hymn may become an established favourite because of the circumstances surrounding its birth, or its subsequent use.

a) For example, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God became almost the battle hymn of the Protestant Reformation, being written by its central figure, Martin Luther. The Church’s One Foundation was written to counteract doctrinal error rampant in its day.

b) Seemingly “chance” comments have often led to the creation of a hymn. Lowell Mason was about to publish a hymn book in 1832, when he met Ray Palmer on the street and asked if he knew of any songs that might be included. The latter pulled a piece of paper out of his wallet that contained a poem he’d written some time before. That poem became our hymn My Faith Looks Up to Thee.

b) The Old Rugged Cross came along in the early 20th century, just as radio was becoming a public phenomenon. It became for a time the most popular song on radio. Amazing Grace was virtually unknown for 200 years–until it was recorded by pop singer Judy Collins in 1970 and appeared on the secular Hit Parade.

c) The involvement of many Christians in great evangelistic crusades also figures in this–of Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham. Songs that were used over and over in these huge gatherings were carried back into local churches. (How Great Thou Art came to public attention that way, as did Fanny Crosby’s To God Be the Glory. The latter was little used in America until the Billy Graham team introduced it in Britain, and later brought it back home.)

4) I suppose name recognition has something to do with it as well. If you have been blessed by a song of Fanny Crosby’s, or John Peterson’s, you may be more likely to seek out other songs by the same writer. And certainly in the modern era advertising has aided this, along with sound recordings and videos.

5) It is also true that usually hymns learned in childhood tend to stay with us, and remain favourites. This is one reason parents should take care to teach the great hymns of the faith to their children, and explain their meaning. Churches need to have a part in this too. It is possible (and extremely beneficial) to introduce hymns in the children’s departments of Sunday School, Children’s Church, or week-day club programs.

6) Editoral decisions also come into it. Publishers want to sell hymn books. Though they may be Christians who also see their work as a ministry, they would not be in business very long if no one purchased their books. Editors must make many decisions as to which songs to put in a new hymnal. Of course they will include hymns and gospel songs that have become established favourites over the years. But what about newer songs. There, it gets tricky. They must make their best guess as to what will catch on. Sometimes they’re right. But many times these songs are found in one book, and then are dropped and rarely seen again.

All of these factors, and more, enter into it. And it’s not an exact science. As noted at the beginning, great hymns of the past can be forgotten for years until someone calls attention to them once more. Perhaps you can have a part in bringing a hymn to the attention of your own church, where it may go on to become a favourite.


  1. Wow! What a fantastic treatment of this subject! Thank you for your thoughtful consideration. Isn’t it amazing that there are so many wonderful, powerful hymns and so many yet to be written. Will we ever tire of singing new songs to our Lord? Of course not!

    • Thanks for your encouragement. And I would add that old songs can become “new,” when they become an expression of a fresh experience with God.

  2. […] Hymns – What Makes a Hymn Popular?- A good summary of why certain hymns become […]


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