“The 50 Greatest Hymns, A-Be S”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Worship

“ABIDE WITH ME”  The title and theme of this hymn come from Luke 24:29 in the KJV, which reads in part, “But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”  The author, Henry F. Lyte, takes this literal appeal (the two disciples were offering Jesus hospitality for the night) and transforms it into a prayer for Jesus’ presence through the metaphorical darknesses of our lives:  change, temptation, and even death.  The tune, EVENTIDE, is a masterpiece of Victorian hymnody.  It’s more difficult than most of what we sing, but it suits the mood of the lyrics perfectly. 

“ALL HAIL THE POWER OF JESUS’ NAME”  Like many hymns, this one is based on the description of Jesus in Revelation 19:12 as a monarch wearing many crowns, which symbolizes His unlimited authority.  It invites various groups to acknowledge that authority. 

"All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" sees wider use than similar hymns, such as “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (which is arguably better lyrically), because of the tune.  CORONATION is easier to sing, uses some unusual harmony, has a great tenor line, and evokes Baroque-era absolute monarchy.  I’m a little surprised that hymnal editors, who love to attribute great hymns to great people on the basis of scant evidence, haven’t credited the tune to Handel instead of its actual composer, Oliver Holden.

“ALL PEOPLE THAT ON EARTH DO DWELL”  If worshipers have been singing it since 1560, it’s probably pretty good!  The lyrics are a paraphrase of Psalm 100, and it’s easily one of the top three paraphrases in our repertoire.  It’s much less clunky than psalm paraphrases usually are because the author took a very short psalm and stretched out the content to make for smoother writing. 

The tune, OLD 100TH, is even older than the lyrics.  Like many older tunes, it relies on harmony rather than rhythm to add interest, changing chords on nearly every beat.  Such tunes can be difficult to sing, but this one isn’t because of the slow tempo at which it is sung and the skill with which the harmony was written.  The good “tune math” makes it sound majestic.

“AMAZING GRACE”  This is one of those rare birds, a hymn with a mediocre tune that is sung because the lyrics are so good.  The tune, NEW BRITAIN, is an import from the Sacred Harp tradition, and it works much better with Sacred Harp-style harmony (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Sacred Harp version, you can take a listen here:  However, for a hymn about God’s amazing grace, NEW BRITAIN with common-practice harmony simply doesn’t sound very amazing.

The lyrics, though, are amazing.  Despite being 250 years old, they are as simple, direct, and clear as if they were written yesterday.  If I had to guess, the inspiration for the hymn came from Luke 15:32, and “I once was lost but now am found” was the first line John Newton wrote.  Anyone familiar with his life story understands immediately why he would have identified with the prodigal son, and his celebration of the grace that he believed God had extended to him is one in which we all can share.

“BE STILL, MY SOUL” is the masterwork of that gifted translator of German Lutheran hymns into English, Jane Borthwick.  The German original, Katherine von Schlegel’s “Stille, Mein Wille” is quite a bit different in meter, rhythm, and tone.  Borthwick’s translation is more thoughtful and philosophical.  As a hymn for reflection in times of sorrow, “Be Still, My Soul” is unsurpassed.

The tune to which we sing it, FINLANDIA, is much later than the text.  It originally was an orchestral tone poem by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.  Its classical genesis is evident in its ultra-boring alto line and ultra-hard bass line.  I’m always slightly surprised when I come out on the right note on “remain”!  Good tune math helps here too.  Singing FINLANDIA congregationally is difficult but doable, and the tune is so beautiful that it’s worth doing.