Posted by: rcottrill | August 7, 2011

Some of the Best

Likely the hymns an individual considers “the best” are given that ranking for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they’re ones that are familiar, ones whose tune is catchy, ones learned in childhood, or ones that have been a special blessing over the years. But a couple of lists made more than a century ago may be of interest. How many of the songs on the list below would be on your own list of the best hymns?

A book called The Best Church Hymns was published in 1899 by the Presbyterian Board of Publication. It was compiled by Louis F. Benson, who was the editor of that denomination’s hymnal of 1895. Benson lists thirty-two hymns which appeared most often across 107 different American and British hym books of the late nineteenth century, spanning several denominations, and ranked from most frequent to least. (All were in at least 80% of the hymnals.) Some of these top ranking hymns are given in the list below.

Before Benson, in 1885, James King published An Account of the 325 Standard Hymns of the Highest Merit According to the Verdict of the Whole Anglican Church. It is striking to see the number of his top ranking hymns that also appeared in Benson’s list. (The Anglican ranking for hymns on the list is given in brackets.)

These lists come from around the same time, but the perspective of the two men is different. One is an American, the other British. One has given us an inter-denominational list, the other has focused on the Anglican Church. And yet there is a great deal of correspondence. These are certainly among the finest hymns in the English language. Though I’d likely include a few more–songs such as How Firm a Foundation, The Spacious Firmament, or Be Still, My Soul, could be included. But those on the list are definitely some of the best.

To see if the hymns are still being included in our hymnals, I checked four sample non-denominational books, spanning a number of years: the Worship and Service Hymnal (1957), Great Hymns of the Faith (1968), The Celebration Hymnal (1997), and Rejoice Hymns (2011). All the following are found in at least one book, most are in all four.

Rock of Ages (4)
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (10)
Jesus, Lover of My Soul (8)
All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night (1)
Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken
Sun of My Soul (9)
Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun (6)
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (2)
Abide with Me (5)
How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds (15)
Nearer, My God, to Thee
From Greenland’s Icy Mountains
O God, Our Help in Ages Past (19)
Jerusalem the Golden (7)
Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending (3)
Jesus Shall Reign Wher’er the Sun (40)
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken (31)
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name(46)
O Worship the King (32)
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today (37)
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
Just as I Am, Without One Plea
God Moves in a Mysterious Way (49)
Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee
Children of the Heavenly King
Holy, Holy, Holy (11)


  1. In the Hymnology classes and seminars that I teach, I present a list of 50 hymns that everyone should know. Here are the top 10 from that list:

    1. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” by Isaac Watts. The greatest hymn in the English language.
    2. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” words/music by Martin Luther. Based on Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength.”
    3. “Holy, Holy, Holy,” by Reginald Heber. The holiness of God; the Trinity. Tune: NICAEA, after the Council of Nicaea.
    4. “And Can it Be,” by Charles Wesley (5 stanzas). The Deity of Christ; the Incarnation; Christ’s death for us.
    5. “To God Be the Glory,” by Fanny Crosby. The Person and Work of Christ. “And give Him the glory. . .”
    6. “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” by Thomas O. Chisholm. From Lamentations 3:22-23. “It is of the Lord’s mercies. . .”
    7. “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart,” by George Croly (5 stanzas). The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit.
    8. “It Is Well With My Soul,” by Horatio G. Spafford. Important story behind this hymn. “Even so . . .”
    9. “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” words/music by Haldor Lillenas. The Person and Work of Christ. Complementary men’s and women’s parts; very uplifting when sung well.
    10. “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” by Edward Perronet. 3 tunes. Most frequently sung: CORONATION, then DIADEM. MILES LANE is more popular in England.

    • Definitely a good start. I’m afraid I’d have trouble sticking with just ten, but these are definitely good ones. For a seminar I led one time I prepared a hand-out called “Great Hymns Not Found in Some Hymn Books–That Should Be!” It introduced the folks to a number of great hymns little known and thus rarely used. Anything we can do to expand the awareness of congregations to more of our rich heritage is all to the good.

      • I would love to see that handout . . .


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