The Shocking Truth About Famous Hymn Writers

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

1822 Edition of Isaac Watts Hymnal along with CD cover of Sojourn's Over The Grave: The Hymns of Isaac Watts, Volume OneSomething about the human condition makes us revere the famous and the infamous more than is warranted — especially if they’re long dead. We Americans don’t like it when killjoys point out that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson may not have walked on water. And we Christians blush when reminded of some of the not-so-holy things Moses, David and Peter did.

We church music guys — especially since the advent of the modern hymns movement — have come to think of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Anne Steel, and other hymnists as an almost inhumanly good collective of writers, whose every lyrical phrase was more sublime than the preceding one.

I do think, like many others, that the 18th and early 19th century was a “golden age” for English congregational church music.

But here’s some cold water in the face:

  • Isaac Watts wrote 750 hymns, most forgotten by time. While there are hidden gems, many of them are nothing special.
  • Charles Wesley wrote 6500 hymns. Many of them only made sense after his brother, friends or later hymnal committees reined his genius in, calmed his exuberance down and whittled his excesses away. And others were beyond repair.
  • Anne Steel wrote 144 hymns and 34 metrical psalms, some of which border on schmaltz.

What’s more, some of the best hymn writers in the English hymn tradition wrote nationalistic hymns that were closer in sentiment to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The U.S.A.” than to “When I Survey The Wond’rous Cross.” In many of Watts’s metrical psalms, he substituted references to Judah for references to Great Britain (for more on this, see John Hull). And here is a selection from his version of Psalm 60, which he marked for use “On A Day Of Humiliation For Disappointments In War.”

Great Britain shakes beneath thy Stroke,
And dreads thy threatening Hand;
O heal the Island Thou hast broke,
Confirm the wav’ring Land …

Our Troops shall gain a wide Reknown
By thine assisting Hand;
‘Tis God that treads the Mighty down,
And makes the Feeble stand.

As Mars Hill Worship Pastor Joel Brown said in a recent interview with me,

I think in a many cases hymns are forgotten because they’re so forgettable. Even today there’s such a small ratio of great songs versus number of songs written, which makes it easy to imagine that history acts as a refinery for allowing the best hymns to rise to the surface and be handed down through generations. The Church will probably still be singing “Amazing Grace” in 100 years, but they’ll also be singing “How Great Thou Art” and “In Christ Alone.” Only a slim few will make it.

What Is The Point Of All This?

I have two points, both of which are important for worship pastors and songwriters to remember:

1. Don’t just jump (or remain) on a hymns bandwagon. Think critically about all the songs with which you lead God’s people in worship. Whether the name on the lyric sheet is John Newton or Chris Tomlin, recognize they’re only human. Some of their work will be better than others, and some of their work will be more fitting for your particular context than others.

2. Songwriters, don’t give up and don’t despair when you write a song that doesn’t turn out well. On the other hand, don’t be conceited enough to think that everything you touch turns to gold. If even the best hymn writers in time wrote song after song that didn’t “make it,” then you should regard this fact as a huge weight, lifted from your shoulders. You have freedom to fail and grace to try again.


Chris Culver April 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Excellent. Thank you. There is value in the collective wisdom of the Church. The Church has done a remarkable job of sorting through the material of Wesley and Watts and retaining what has value. I believe she will do the same with current worship songs. In the meantime, as you said, we you must think critically, pray for wisdom and discernment, and exegete both Scripture and congregation.

Rich Tuttle April 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm

great post and a good reminder.

Another thing we should remember if ever we begin to compare modern songwriters with Watts, Wesley, Newton, etc is that these guys weren’t writing songs with a unique tune to match it like most songwriters today. They were writing in strict metres so that their hymns would be versatile. Write a song in common metre and you could choose from a thousand tunes. Newton never heard “Amazing Grace” sung the way we sing it.

Also, many of these guys were pastors. What many of us would consider an ‘awful’ song, was in fact a song directly aimed at their own congregation. And in Newton’s case, most of his hymnwriting came about through serious study of Scripture for his preaching. The hymn was the result of his study. So an ‘awful’ song to our ears (or eyes) was probably the perfect song at the time of composition. When we view those ‘awful’ songs in that light, hopefully that will encourage/inspire us to start writing for our own congregations.

Bobby Gilles April 9, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Thanks guys!

Rich, great point about hymn tunes and about local context. I think worship songwriters should primarily write for their local church. If it’s well done, often it will also be a song that can bless the larger Church, too. But not necessarily — and that’s okay.

Gary Comer April 10, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Did you ever open the Lutheran Hymnal? The Lutheran Service Book?
Did you ever hear of Martin Luther? Catherine Winkworth? Bach? Look in these hymnals for some great hymms. Most are Scripture put to music. These don’t get lost. Modern day songs written about one’s self or modern thoughts don’t last. The LSB is a good teaching tool with all the liturgy and psalms included.

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