In 1861 a hymnal was published in England that would set the standard for all hymnals to follow: Hymns Ancient and Modern. This significant hymnal was produced as a part of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, a movement that wished to address both stagnant piety among more formal churches on the one hand, and on the other hand a tendency toward casual irreverence among growing evangelical movements influenced by revivalism and Victorian sentimentalism.
Hymns Ancient and Modern (HAM) became the benchmark for all subsequent hymnals for several reasons. First, the editors gave careful consideration to the text/tune marriages within. Previously, very fine hymn texts often fell to disuse due to the terrible tunes with which they were associated. HAM contained text/tune combinations still commonly used today, such as “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” with WINCHESTER OLD and “When Morning Gilds the Skies with LAUDES DOMINI.
Second, while most previous hymnals had little if any organization to the order of hymns, HAM was organized theologically and liturgically, categorizing hymns based on their purpose and use within the liturgy and broadly in the church year.
Third, desiring to recover some of what they considered lost in the worship tradition of the church, they translated the best of early and medieval Greek and Latin hymns into English, bringing some of the oldest hymns still sung today into use. They also translated several excellent German Lutheran hymns into English as well. This made HAM a truly “catholic” hymnal, drawing its collection from the best of all Christian traditions. Hymns translated from Greek, Latin, and German into English for the first time in HAM include “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “The Day of Resurrection,” “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” “Now Thank We All Our God,” and “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”
Fourth, although the hymnal editors objected to much of what they considered unhealthy sentimentalism in recently composed Victorian and evangelical revival hymns, they made a point to include what they considered the best of even those hymns. What we still sting today from the Victorian tradition results primarily from those hymns and tunes included in HAM like “Abide with Me” with EVENTIDE, “The Church’s One Foundation” with AURELIA, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” with EWING, and “Angels from the Realms of Glory” with REGENT SQUARE.
Fifth, HAM gathered the best of “modern” hymns, including “Holy, Holy, Holy” by Reginald Heber, with NICAEA by John Dykes, and “Crown Him with Many Crowns” by Matthew Bridges, with DIADEMATA by George Elvey. The editors’ goal was to sing newer hymns that matched the quality, both in text and tune, of ancient ones.
Finally, what made HAM both influential and successful was its restraint. While previous hymnals often contained hundreds and hundreds of hymns (the Congregational Hymn Book of 1855 had 1,281 texts!)—far more than any congregation could sing, the first edition of HAM included only 273. The editors were not trying to market their hymnal to the broadest possible audience, choosing songs diverse churches were already singing; rather, they chose what they considered to be the absolute best texts and tunes as prescriptive for churches to sing. And it worked, as evidenced by the fact that many of the hymns they chose to include are still sung today; devout Christians will sing genuinely good hymns even if they are not originally familiar to them.
Hymns to the Living God—a new Hymns Ancient and Modern
As early as 2008, Ryan Martin and I, along with several others of our Religious Affections crew, began dreaming about a new hymnal. We had the same goal as the editors of HAM—rather than a descriptive hymnal that simply reflected what various churches were already singing, or a market-driven hymnal intended to appeal to the largest possible audience, we wanted to collect what we believe to be the best available hymns in the English language. We also had similar concerns as editors of HAM—we considered much of what has been written in the last 100 years and that has become the dominant song of evangelical churches to be weak compared to the rich heritage of the past, and so we wanted to create a collection that would model the best hymns, both ancient and modern.
In 2015 we finally began in earnest to move forward with the project, and after two years of intense labor, we published Hymns to the Living God in the fall of 2017.
If I have to be honest, I did not think anyone would buy the hymnal—that really wasn’t our purpose. However, by God’s grace, we sold the first 1,000 copies within a few short months and have had to do a second printing. To my knowledge, at least six churches have adopted this as their primary hymnal, with a few more using it as a supplement.
I truly believe Hymns to the Living God is an heir to Hymns Ancient and Modern in each of the key areas mentioned above. Like HAM, we gave careful attention to text/tune marriages, attempting to “resurrect” some texts that had fallen out of use due to poor tunes or whose commonly used tunes we considered to be weak or sentimental. Examples include “Rock of Ages” with REDHEAD, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” with ESSLINGEN, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” with MELITA, “Before the Throne of God Above” with JERUSALEM (which Ryan Martin adapted for this purpose), and “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” with JESU, BONE PASTOR.
Second, we carefully organized the hymns according to their usefulness in a liturgy that reenacts our covenantal relationship with God through Christ, beginning with God’s revelation of himself and our adoration of him, leading to a recognition of our guilt and need for repentance and faith, then the solution to our need found in Jesus Christ’s coming, life, death, and resurrection, followed by the Holy Spirit’s work to bring us to Salvation, after which we hear God’s Word, Submit ourselves to him, bring our Prayers before him, and experience Communion with him and with his Church. The hymnal concludes with songs of Commission, Comfort, and Benediction.
Third, we attempted to recover many older excellent older hymns from the Christian heritage that are rarely sung any more by most evangelicals. Drawing from a wide variety of Christian traditions, including early Greek and Latin, Lutheran, Genevan, German Pietist, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Victorian hymns, Oxford movement, and more, we made certain to include hymns like “The God of Abraham Praise” (LEONI), “God Himself Is with Us” (ARNSBERG), “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright” (PUER NOBIS), “Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee” (AUS TIEFER NOT), “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (PICARDY), “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (DIVINUM MYSTERIUM), “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” (O MEIN JESU, ICH MUSS STERBEN), “Ah, Holy Jesus” (HERZLIEBSTER JESU), “My God I Love Thee” (KINGSFOLD), “Jesus, Still Lead On” (SEELENBRAUTIGAM), “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” (ABERYSTWYTH), “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” (JESU, MEINE FREUDE), and “O Gladsome Light” (NUNC DIMITTIS). Also, we deliberately included as many psalm versification and paraphrases as possible, noting such clearly in the hymnal.
Fourth, although we consider much of what came out of the nineteenth-century “gospel song” movement to be trite, sentimental, and ill-fitted to reverent Christian worship, like the editors of HAM did with Victorian hymns, we included several of what we think are fine songs from the gospel song tradition. These include “‘Man of Sorrows,’ What a Name” (Philip P. Bliss), “Great Is Thy Faithfulness (Thomas Chisholm), ORTONVILLE (Thomas Hastings), “It Is Well with My Soul” (Spafford/Bliss), “Like a River Glorious” (Havergal/Mountain), and BEACH SPRING (Sacred Harp).
Fifth, we included what we consider the best modern hymns we could find, including “Give Praise to God” and “Come to the Waters” by James Montgomery Boice with SOLI DEO and WATER OF LFIE by Paul S. Jones, “Lord, We Bow Before Your Glory” by Eric J. Alexander with KIMARSONEVY by Paul S. Jones, RYBURN by Norman Cocker (with Paul Gerhardt’s “Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me”), SASHA by Joan J. Pinkston (with Isaac Watts’s “How Sad Our State“), LOVE UNKNOWN (with Samuel Crossman’s “My Song Is Love Unknown“), “Priest and Victim, Jesus Dies” by Margaret Clarkston with RABUN by Brian Pinner, “Praises for Thy Glorious Grace” by Mark Minnick with MT. CALVARY by Joan J. Pinkston, and “Credo” by David Oestreich with OESTREICH by Josh Bauder (commissioned specifically for this hymnal).
Finally, we deliberately restrained the number of hymns we included. No church sings more than 200 different hymns in a given year (and often far fewer). Since our goal was not mass appeal but rather inclusion of the best, we included 294 hymn texts with 252 tunes.
We are truly thankful for those who have found benefit from using Hymns to the Living God, and it is our prayer that it continues to direct people’s hearts and minds toward knowing and loving God rightly.