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January 29, 2018

A History of Hymns and Hymn Stories from James Quinn, SJ


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"Then, after singing a hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives.” —Matthew 26:30

Hymns have been present in our religion for more than 1,500 years. From ancient Greek and Latin hymns to modern hymns written in the 19th and 20th centuries in dozens of different languages, hymns are part of the way we worship and praise our Lord.

What is a hymn and where does a hymn text come from?

Singing hymns and psalms is a frequent resource for worship and teaching the word of Christ. Psalms have been used since the beginning of Judaism—singing psalms at the Temple and now at synagogues—they are considered an important and memorable interval during both Jewish and Catholic celebrations. While lyrics for psalms typically come from the rearrangement of words in metrical form to give a certain number of syllables per line, hymns are generally composed by musicians or hymnodists and tend to honor saints; be seasonally themed or venerate the Church, the Holy Scripture or Catholic practices.

According to hymnologists, the necessary elements of a hymn include: 1) praise to God (as opposed to anthems that praise a country), 2) singing (words that are spoken or recited are considered a poem of worship) and 3) a congregation (thanks to the invention of printing, which allowed hymnals to be copied and shared).

As centuries pass, it is clear that the role of music in our spiritual life is not only important for its power of engaging a deeper connection, for instance, with gospel songs, hymns, psalms, spiritual songs and all forms of worship music, but also for its traditions and historical heritage such as the stories behind the words and music we often sing.

Some of the world’s greatest hymns

When you ask devotees to mention their favorite hymns, many will likely name some of the following: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” “Happiness Is The Lord” and "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name,” which has even transcended as the "National Anthem of Christendom.” Robert Morgan, best-selling writer with more than 35 books in print, captured hundreds of hymns, or as he calls them “miniature Bible studies that lead us effortlessly to worship, testimony, exhortation, prayer, and praise” in the book Then Sings My Soul.

Some hymns have become references that describe the musical culture of a country, such is the case of the Irish “Be Thou My Vision” or the Swedish "How Great Thou Art.” Even one of the most popular Christmas carols "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a hymn written in the 18th century.

Other beloved hymns include: “God Will Take Care of You,” “Living for Jesus,” "The Old Rugged Cross” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Of course, no list of hymns is complete without John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” or Fanny Crosby’s "Blessed Assurance.”

Who is James Quinn, SJ, author of hymns, and what was his inspiration?

Widely recognized by many in the liturgical community as one of the most prolific hymn writers of all time, Scottish Jesuit Father Quinn was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1919 and was educated at St. Aloysius' College in Glasgow and Glasgow University. His first hymn collection, New Hymns for All Seasons, was published in 1969, and Praise for All Seasons, which contained texts drawn from some of his earlier works, was published in 1994. In 2017, after becoming sole publisher and licensing agent, OCP published Hymns for All Seasons, the first-ever complete edition of Fr. Quinn's hymn texts.

Fr. Quinn worked for decades to make the theology of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) accessible and easily sung by worshipers. He cleverly wrote paraphrases of psalms and Scriptures or English translations of Marian prayers to the number of beats in the lines of existing melodies. Many of his texts, set to traditional hymn tunes, as well as new music by composers like Michael Joncas and Paul Inwood, appear in the English-language hymnals of nearly every Christian denomination around the world. In 1998, the Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians praised “Father Quinn's ability to articulate the orthodox aspects of Christianity in new and fresh ways.”

After publishing more than 200 texts during his lifetime, Fr. Quinn died in Edinburgh in 2010.

Ten of Fr. Quinn’s most well-known hymns:

  • Veni, Creator Spiritus - One of the most used hymns in the Catholic Church, this is mostly sung during Vespers, Pentecost, dedication of a church, confirmation, Holy Orders and whenever the Holy Spirit is invoked.
  • Angel Voices, Richly Blending
  • Christ Be Beside Me - This hymn is usually sung to the tune of MORNING HAS BROKEN.
  • Come, Christ's Beloved - This setting by Martin Foster is often sung in cathedrals as a Communion song.
  • Day Is Done - Popular among Catholics and Protestants alike, this hymn was published in 1969 and set to a well-known folk melody, the Welsh tune, AR HYD Y NOS.
  • [Now at the] Daylight's Ending - Steve Angrisano arranged a beautiful contemporary setting for this night prayer hymn on his collection High Above Our Way.
  • Forth in the Peace of Christ We Go - A sending forth text appropriate for Christ the King, priesthood, Church, mission, Christ as Servant-King or Word of God, this Luke Rosen arrangement should be sung and played with joy and determination, reflecting how we are to go out into the world for and with Christ).
  • [O Sacred Heart,] For All Once Broken This hymn is ideal for Communion.
  • Take and Eat
  • This Day God Gives Me (a hymn used during Ordinary Time for morning prayer usually sung to the tune of MORNING HAS BROKEN, set to the traditional Gaelic melody BUNESSAN.)

These hymns are among some of the most popular titles in OCP’s missal and hymnal programs and have stood the test of time, making our story of hymns unimaginable without Fr. Quinn’s devotion, work and faith.