Christian Hymnody: History and Emotion

One of the great benefits of a Christian hymnal is that it pulls together the very best of Christian hymnody from across centuries, even millennia. Most music doesn’t have much of a shelf life. Just consider pop music (Christian or secular). The vast majority of what you hear today will be completely forgotten in a year or two. This has always been the case. Most music doesn’t have staying power. But a hymnal preserves the best music in Church history.

When we look at the dates in the hymnal, we can also see that the focus of Christian hymnody has changed quite drastically. There’s a soft dividing line around 1750 (this also happens to be the year J.S. Bach died). Before 1750, most Christian hymnody focused on the objective truths of who God is and what he has done. After 1750 there is a progressive shift toward the subjective. Biblical content decreased, there was less of an emphasis on the work of God, and greater emphasis was placed on our inner feelings. Historically, this reached a climax in the 20th century. Much so-called “Christian” music had very little, if any, biblical content. It became increasingly difficult to find a song that would tell the Christian story. It became mere emotionalism with no basis for those emotions. I think (and I hope I’m right) that Christian music is starting to regain more of an emphasis on the objective once again. Without the objective truths of who Jesus is and what he has done to save us, we really have no reason to praise. Without specific Christian content, a song or hymn cannot rightly be called “Christian.”

But that isn’t to say that our music must be only objective. Christian life and worship without emotion is flat. God created us, emotions and all. One of the great historical examples that blends both is the Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). Notice that he died before our artificial dividing mark of 1750, but his hymnody is filled with emotion. However, and this is most critical, that emotion is always based on the objective truth of God’s work. If you have a hymnal at home, look up his hymns. We use the Ambassador Hymnal, but any Lutheran hymnal should work for this exercise. Look through his hymns and see how he speaks of the heart’s attitude toward God. There is joy, thanks, and praise. But notice how the emotional response is always based on the work of Christ. And he speaks of the work of Christ both universally and personally. It is for the world, and it is for you and me. I’ll give you one example, his Advent hymn, “O How Shall I Receive Thee” (Ambassador Hymnal, #3):

O how shall I receive Thee,
How greet Thee, Lord, aright?
All nations long to see Thee,
My Hope, my heart’s delight!
O kindle, Lord most holy,
Thy lamp within my breast, 
To do in spirit lowly
All that may please Thee best.

Thy Zion palms is strewing,
And branches fresh and fair; 
My heart, its powers renewing,
An anthem shall prepare.
My soul puts off her sadness
Thy glories to proclaim; 
With all her strength and gladness
She fain would serve thy Name.

Love caused Thine incarnation,
Love brought Thee down to me;
Thy thirst for my salvation
Procured my liberty.
O love beyond all telling
That led Thee to embrace, 
In love all love excelling,
Our lost and fallen race.

Rejoice then, ye sad-hearted,
Who sit in deepest gloom, 
Who mourn over joys departed
And tremble at your doom,
He who alone can cheer you
Is standing at the door; 
He brings his pity near you,
And bids you weep no more.

Notice both the universal and the personal. Notice all the emotive language, but notice how it is based in the historical fact of Christ’s incarnation. Gerhardt speaks of Christ coming to us (that’s what the word “advent” means). He comes for the world, and he comes for the individual. This brings great joy to us. We have great joy as Christians, and the source of this joy is Christ’s work on our behalf. He is the Savior of the world, and he is the Savior of each individual believer. As we enter into the season of Advent, remember that Christ came for the world, and you are part of that world.

The peace of Christ be with you all,

Pastor Dan

P.s., Sometimes old hymnody can seem inaccessible to us at first because the language is a bit archaic. Here’s a little help: “Thee” and “ye” both mean “you.” “Thy” and “thine” both mean “your.” There’s a whole lot more, but that should help with this hymn.