Posted by: rcottrill | August 20, 2012

Caedmon’s Hymn

Words: Caedmon (b. date unknown; d. circa 680)
Music: (unknown)

Links:
Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal (none)

The purpose of this blog is to discuss the background and meaning of the traditional hymns and gospel songs of the church, ones found in commonly used hymn books of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. That being so, it is slightly out of character to include a hymn that is not found in any of our modern hymnals and which is not, to my knowledge, even sung today. However, Caedmon’s Hymn is worthy of being an exception because of its historical importance.

The story of how a humble cowherd became a prolific hymn writer is recorded by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, completed in AD 731. He provides us with the only extant record of Caedmon’s life. To read a bit more of what we know about him, see the Wordwise Hymns link.

Though it neither looks nor sounds at all like modern English, this hymn is considered by scholars to be the first hymn in the English language for which we know the author. (In fact, it’s the first example of Anglo-Saxon poetry of any kind that has survived.) It was written some time after AD 657. The copy above is from AD 737, and thus comes to us from less than a century after the original was created.

In John Parker’s beautiful volume about English hymns, Abide with Me (New Leaf Press, 2009), he includes a chapter about Caedmon called “Hymns of a Shy Shepherd.” There are pictures in colour of the ruins of Whitby Abbey, where Caedmon lived and worked for the latter part of his life. On the accompanying CD you can hear this hymn recited in both its original version, and a modern translation.

Caedmon’s Hymn praises God for His creative work. The form in which the hymn was written does not lend itself easily to a modern metrical version, but there have been a number of translations made. The one below is by Albert S. Cook.

Now must we hymn the Master of heaven,
The might of the Maker, the deeds of the Father,
The thought of His heart. He, Lord everlasting,
Established of old the source of all wonders:
Creator all-holy, He hung the bright heaven,
A roof high upreared, o’er the children of men;
The King of mankind then created for mortals
The world in its beauty, the earth spread beneath them,
He, Lord everlasting, omnipotent God.

This simple but biblical hymn predates the time of Isaac Watts, sometimes called the “Father of English Hymnody,” by a thousand years! But it stands alone. The above song of praise is the only one that we have from that early time. However, Bede recorded how Caedmon went on to write songs on many other biblical subjects. He says:

[Caedmon] sang first about the creation of the world and about the origin of mankind and all of the history of Genesis–that is the first book of Moses, and afterwards about the exodus of the Israeli people from the land of Egypt and their entry into the promised land; and about many other stories of the holy writ of the books of the canon; and about Christ’s incarnation, and about his suffering and about his ascension into the heavens; and about the coming of the Holy Ghost, and of the lore of the apostles; and after about the day of impending judgment, and about the terror of the torturing punishment, and about the sweetness of the heavenly kingdom, he wrought many songs. And so also many others he made about divine mercy and judgment. In all of them he eagerly sought to pull men away from love of sin and criminal deeds, and to love and to zealously awake to (the doing) of good deeds.

The stream that began here widened to become a flood, from Watts, Wesley and many more. But the twin purposes of worship and instruction that Caedmon espoused have remained. We need to know more of God and His Word, and we need a means to express to one another what we believe, “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16). Thank the Lord for all whom He has gifted to provide sacred songs for the church.

Questions:
1) Simple though it is, what are some important truths expressed in Caedmon’s Hymn?

2) Can you suggest a number of reasons why believers should praise the Lord?

Links:
Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal (none)


Responses

  1. […] from that defining purpose once in awhile, to include songs of historical significance (e.g. Caedmon’s Hymn), or choruses that have a connection with hymn writers known for other work (e.g. Al Smith’s For […]


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