We all love listening to hymns. They are the songs we grew up with inside a church or at a devout family member’s house. They help enrich worship services whether it is Catholic, Protestant, or Evangelical churches. They are what makes any kind of service more meditative, thoughtful, and fruitful to the soul.
So, what exactly is a hymn?
The hymn is also called a song of praise coming from the Greek word hymnos. These are poetic, religious words sung in order to express praise and gratefulness to God as well as celebrating everything that is God. While some are spoken, these words are mostly sung because it is the belief that the Lord is meant to be praised. In the Catholic tradition, via St. Augustine, they believe that singing hymns is a form of prayer not done once, but twice. In other words, as you are singing you are also praying with a rhythm and your voice.
Now that I know what a hymn is, what makes a good hymn?
Depending on who you talk to, the definition of a good hymn can range from person to person. It can even range from church to church depending on who the pastor, denomination or music director is and how they perceive or perform it. So, when talking about a good hymn, it really depends on your point of view and how you hear it.
However, Reformed Worship.com went a step further and created a basic list of what a good hymn “should be”.
They are as follows:
- God-centered not man-centered.
- Follow doctrines and theology based on the Bible.
- Have words that are simple yet reverent, beautiful, and simple.
- Are mature in how they sound as well as the words they say.
- Have a simple poetic theme.
- Can touch the heart so it can open more spiritually.
This sets us up nicely for the hymns listed below why they go above and beyond just a “good hymn”.
Some of the best hymns of all time — at least 20
The following is a personally chosen list of hymns that were chosen based on articles discussing the best hymns of all time, based on their frequency mentioned and how often one can and will hear it. Most sources researched crossed all denominations and genres of music. While more could be mentioned, it can be the start to a lively conversation on the topic.
This is the song that as soon as the first note hits or the first line is sung, you know it. Some people praise, some cry, and some just feel the raw emotions of the song. The history of this song goes back to 1779. John Newton its writer, wanted to express how he felt, but not in just a sermon. As with any good songwriter, he wanted to show more than what his congregation could understand. So how did this hymn become so famous? Thank many American Methodist churches who discovered it and started singing it in the 19th century. From that time forward it has become the most well-known English language hymn the world over.
How Great Thou Art
One cannot watch a Billy Graham Crusade or attend a funeral somewhere without this being heard at some point in the program. Its depth, poetry, and emotions run deep to all that sing it. So how did this song end up so famous? It was all thanks to a Swedish poem written by Carl Boberg called O Great God via a translation to German and then a Russian translation from German. The words were inspired by just a simple walk through a storm that came as quickly as it went with church bells ringing in the background. As you can imagine, the images are so striking that anyone who is a poet, or a songwriter completely understands the motive.
When the Saints Go Marching In
I know that seems kind of weird to think of this as a hymn, but it is. It is actually a traditional black spiritual that originated as hymn but then went mainstream. Even more interesting, it is one of the most up-tempo songs that you’ll hear at a funeral, especially in New Orleans. Thanks to the great trumpeter Louis Armstrong back in 1938, this song was not only a hit when her performed it but is a common staple at any jazz or orchestral concert. It’s also a great story of redemption and salvation that anyone can sing along to.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
This is another African American spiritual that started out as a song related to slavery to a highlight song in musicals like Showboat and famous singers like Johnny Cash. It even has been heard in at English Rugby matches. There are some theories as to the origin of this song ranging from it’s creation on the infamous “Trail of Tears” to a coded song giving directions to the Underground Railroad where African slaves could escape. While there are many theories as to how this song started to where it is sung today, we can all agree its a class tune that provides meaning to anyone who sings it.
Morning Has Broken
This is a song usually sung at Easter time, funerals, or children’s services, It’s beautiful melody feels like a churchy pop song than an actual church hymn. Coincidentally, singer Cat Stevens recorded and released the song in the 1970s, making it one of his biggest hits. The original writer was an English author named Eleanor Farjeon back in the 1930s. She was already a credited children’s author and poet who wanted to write a simple song with a happy tune. And indeed it is a happy, joyful tune.
Abide With Me
You might not know this song by name, but once you hear the melody it will click. Henry Francis Lyte, the writer of this piece wrote this song as he was fighting tuberculosis. As with most hymns such as this one, lyrics can often come from deep life experiences such as illness, poverty and other suffering. In fact, looking at the biographies of most musicians and songwriters, they have stated that some of their best work was done in their lowest moments. This song is no exception.
The Lord is My Shepard
This song is usually heard at a funeral, especially a Catholic one as a responsorial psalm. Obviously, looking at the title, this hymn is based on Psalm 23, one of the most well-known psalms of all time. No one really knows who really composed this song. However, what is known is that it was included a book called the Scottish Psalter with lyrics added later on by an unknown Scottish minister. As you read more about these hymns and others, you will find many situations like this. Circling back to this tune, if you are a fan of Psalm 23, you will be a fan of this song.
On Eagle’s Wings
This hymn composed by Michael Joncas is a tear-jerker. It is often one of the most go-to songs for a funeral service. Granted, no everyone likes it. In fact, some find the song too overdone, too tearjerking and just doesn’t have the right vibe to be sung at a funeral. On the other hand, there is the crowds of people that absolutely LOVE this song. They could listen to it and play it this on repeat if they wanted to. Which camp are you in with this song?
Many singers ranging from Luciano Pavarotti to Andre Bocelli have made this song a true classic. Written in 1825, this actual prayer was not called Ave Maria but Ellen’s Third Song. It is a prayer to Mary, the Virgin Mother. If you cry or have a memory of someone connected to it, the song has done what it needs to do. You don’t really have to be Christian to enjoy and appreciate it. Usually during the meditation at a Catholic service, this song is usually sung by someone the family chooses. It is one song that has not aged over the years and continues to touch the hearts and minds of the listener.
Great is They Faithfulness
This hymn is sung in a lot of churches, especially during the Easter season. It’s very powerful and meant to be sung with gusto. But some artists have covered this song to create a quieter tone with it. However, if you want to get the full impact of this song, you must attend a big Protestant church to get the full effect. In addition, it is a song that if you are a believer, will make you feel proud to be one.
What a Friend we Have in Jesus
This is a very classic hymn sung in all kinds of churches. It was written by an Irish Christian back in the 1800s. The Anglican churches took a hold of this song and made it a part of their own . They still sing it today in their churches and have inspired other denominations to do so. If you hear it, it is a very uplifting song and a good way to start the service.
I Saw the Light
This classic Southern Gospel tune, was written by legendary country singer Hank Williams. It’s surprising considering that Hank was not known for spiritual tunes but infamous for writing sad, sappy drinking songs. When he wrote this tune he said that his mother inspired him. One day when Hank was not well from a drinking binge one night, she drove him home and saw this light beacon in the distance indicating that she was close to home. When she woke up her son, she told him that and thus a song was born. An interesting story by a very interesting songwriter.
Rock of Ages
This hymn has made many top hymns list of all time. It is about a song of one’s true deep faith that we feel when we connect to our spiritual roots or want that reassurance. The words themselves are extremely meditative. It is also one of those songs that when you hear that tune or melody, you just know that’s the right song for the right time.
Old Rugged Cross
This hymn made the list for various reasons. First, it has become a tune associated with the Billy Graham Crusades and Billy Graham himself. Secondly, it is said to be one of the ultimate Southern Gospel tunes of all time. Any choir or group that has sung this song brings it to life in a worship service. As with many Gospel songs, this one tends and does bring out the emotions.
Can The Circle Be Unbroken?
This well-known gospel song has been sung bye various artists including the popular rock group The Doors as well as many religious country artists. Almost every gospel service ranging from televangelist programs and beyond have it on their song list. Why? Because of that strong connection to God and the importance of universal connection. Thus, the circle in the title.
All Creatures of Our God and King
This hymn was chosen because it is sung in most denominations. If you do a little research, it can be found in at least 200 hymnals. While it is a traditional Easter hymn, it can grown into a common hymn. It’s very melodic honoring the universe that God creates.
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
This hymn is another iconic traditional African American spiritual of all time. It was first published in 1927 and has been covered by numerous artists both Christian and non-Christian alike.. One will hear this in children’s performances or have it sung by children’s choirs. Everyone can sing along to it. It’s a song about all of us and who are are as God’s creation.
Soon and Very Soon
Along with the traditional gospel church, Catholic churches have adopted this hymn into their hymnals. Depending on who the singer or choir director is, this song can various nuances. It is often sung at the end of a service and put on funeral song suggestions. The funeral aspect would make sense since the great Andrae Crouch writes about going to see “the King” once we pass on.
His Eye on the Sparrow
The Bible verse that inspires this tune comes from the Book of Matthew Chapter 6. Just like most of the songs on the list, many artists have covered this song, particularly black gospel artists who have made it a top 1o hit, especially on the Gospel charts. Artists that have covered this song include Diana Ross, The Winans Family and Marvin Gaye. It is a very emotional song and one that is sure to bring a tear to one’s eye.
Oh, Happy Day
Over the years, this harmonious song has become a sing-along staple. It was sung and performed in the movie Sister Act 2. It is heard in most any revival or praise church service. You will more than likely hear this song at a Baptism or Easter season. You might even see this song performed by a choir as one of the staple songs to end the night or as a finale.
While many sources like to number their songs, sometimes not numbering them is better. This is because what we feel is the best hymn or the top songs varies from person to person. This article is meant to open the door to fun and lively discussions about hymns and their importance in religious services and otherwise. Perhaps after reading this, you have thought of a song not listed here. If that’s the case, that’s ok. Maybe you can make a video, blog, or make a post asking about their top favorite hymns.