Then Sings My Soul Book 3: The Story of Our Songs: Drawing Strength from the Great Hymns of Our Faith
by Robert Morgan
“Teach Me Some Melodious Sonnet” Biblical Hymns
About a year into our marriage, Katrina told me she might be pregnant. There were no home tests in those days, and it took awhile to get definitive answers from the doctor. He suggested we come back for the results in a few days. For reasons I can’t remember, Katrina didn’t accompany me on the return trip to the doctor’s office; I went to hear the news by myself. Yes, the nurse said, we were expecting. Yes, we were going to be parents.
Though excited by the prospects, I drove home in a state of nerves. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have health insurance. I had no idea how to supportmy family. We had been trying to find a church to pastor, but had been turned down a dozen times. How would we get by? Absently I switched onthe car radio and heard these words suddenly wafting through the speakers:
Be not dismayed whate’er betide,
God will take care of you!
Beneath His wings of love abide,
God will take care of you!
God will take care of you,
Through every day o’er all the way;
He will take care of you;
God will take care of you.
Civilla Martin wrote that hymn at the beginning of the twentieth century (as well as the words to “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”). She died four years before I was born; but her song lived on to calm my spirits on that springtime day in 1977. Listening to the words of that hymn, I knew everything would be fine.
Have you ever had a similar experience? When in the grip of nervous tension, nothing soothes the soul like the words and melody of one of our beloved hymns. Many such testimonies from around the world fill my filing cabinets, sent in response to the first two volumes of Then Sings My Soul. Nothing can do for us what hymns can, for there’s a part of our spirits that only responds to God’s truth in musical form. Psalm 92:1–4 exhorts us:
It is good to say, “Thank you” to the Lord, to sing praises to the God who is above all gods. Every morning tell him, “Thank you for your kindness,” and every evening rejoice in all his faithfulness. Sing his praises, accompanied by music from the harp and lute and lyre. You have done so much for me, O Lord. No wonder I am glad! I sing for joy. (TLB)
As I wrote in my book of hymn devotions, Near to the Heart of God: “Hymns are distillations of the richest truths of God, versified, emotionalized, set to music, and released in the mind and from the mouth. They’re miniature Bible studies that lead us effortlessly to worship, testimony, exhortation, prayer, and praise. They’re bursts of devotional richness with rhyme and rhythm. They clear our minds, soothe ournerves, verbalize our worship, summarize our faith, and sing our great Redeemer’s praise.”1
The eminent church historian Philip Schaff wrote, “The hymn is a popular spiritual song, presenting a healthful Christian sentiment in a noble, simple, and universally intelligible form, and adapted to be read and sung with edification by the whole congregation of the faithful. . . . They resound in all pious hearts, and have, like the daily rising sun and
the yearly returning spring, an indestructible freshness and power. . . . Next to the Holy Scripture, a good hymn-book is the richest fountainof edification.”
Once upon a time, English-speaking Christians owned their own hymnals just as most believers today own their own Bibles. In the 1700s and 1800s, these were small volumes without musical notes, giving stanzas of hymn texts in tiny print. I have quite a few of these little tan volumes in my possession, bound in leather, pages brittle. Worshippers carried these undersized hymnbooks to church each Sunday, then took them home and sang from them in personal or family devotions the rest of the week. Hymnals were, as someone put it, the ordinary person’s systematic theology books— their Bibles in one hand; their hymnals in the other.
For us today, hymns are portable units of praise, capable of being sung in the heart and with the voice, as needed by the soul, seven days a week. In the words of the apostle Paul: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
Our appreciation for Christian music skyrockets when we understand the heritage of our hymnody. Studying the annals of our hymnals is like sinking a shaft through the layers of church history until we come to the very core of praise in biblical truth and in biblical times.
In the prior two volumes of Then Sings My Soul, I’ve told the stories of hymns without providing much historical context. In this final volume, I want to devote a few pages to sharing in simple fashion the overarching history of worship and praise from biblical times to our own. Think of it as standing on a scenic overlook and viewing a panorama of praise that stretches back nearly four thousand years and that extends forward to the very throne of God in heaven.
I’m convinced that ordinary, pew-sitting, churchgoing Christians likeme need to understand the history of our hymnody. Rather than a chore, it’s an enthralling study, acquainting us with thousands of years of rich legacies, brave heroes, and astounding stories of the faith being passed down by Spirit-filled witnesses from one era to the next. We’re largely unaware of our heritage, of the valor and victories of the great cloud of witnesses who have preceded us. But without knowing the heritage of our past, we’ll leave no legacy for the future.
I believe the history of the church is encoded in her hymns, and the story of Christianity is enfolded in its songs. If you know the hymns of the ages, you’ll know the history of the church. If we lose the hymns, we’ll lose a priceless legacy; and we’ll be the first generation of Christians to ever do so. Every other generation of believers has added its songs to the hymnal without discarding the contributions of earlier eras.
There are some great advantages to the modern technologies that allow us to project words to giant screens. We do it in our church and it enables us to sing tapestries of songs and hymns, both ancient and modern, without having to stop and turn to different pages in a book. But there are some disadvantages too. Without holding these old hymns in our hands, we’re more likely to forget them. Without flipping through the pages of a hymnal, we’re apt to forget its contents.
I think we need to teach, emphasize, and celebrate hymns in our public gatherings; and I’m also an advocate for keeping a hymnbook by our devotional materials for daily singing and personal use. Just today during my morning devotions, I found a much-needed prayer in the stanzas of that old hymn that says, “Breathe on me, breathe on me, Holy Spirit, breathe on me. / Take Thou my heart, cleanse every part. Holy Spirit, breathe on me.”
A good hymn combines prayer with praise, keen theology with vivid imagery, and the majesty of God with our daily needs.
And to think—there are thousands of hymns ripe for rediscovery, and that’s what this book aims to do. Then Sings My Soul Book 3 isn’t designed to provide an in-depth or academic approach to the history of hymnody. Instead, I’d like to tell a generalized (yes, and oversimplified) story to help you better understand and appreciate the wonderful heritage of our hymnal. The hymnbook is one of the richest treasure troves we have for biographical, theological, historical, and personal enrichment.
For our purposes, I’m going to divide the story of Western hymnody into seven segments:
Gospel Songs and American Hymns
Contemporary Praise and Worship Music
Charles Wesley exclaimed: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise!” You may not have a thousand tongues, but you do have thousands of hymns and thousands of years of hymn stories. As we turn the page to get started, why not take a moment to pray:
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above,
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.