Hymn: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Debbie Notari
Hymns are songs of tribute and praise to gods, and many of these songs have encouraged and impacted people throughout the generations. In this lesson, we'll discuss a few examples of famous hymns and the stories behind them.

What are Hymns?

Amazing Grace Notation

Hymns are songs of praise, generally to a god or deity, though a hymn may praise an entity, such as a person or nation. The term 'hymn' originates from the Greek word 'hymnos,' which means 'songs of praise.'

Certainly, hymns may be found in many religions, but hymns in the English language are generally Christian, both in origin and focus. In fact, the New Testament specifically instructs early Christians to speak 'to one another in psalms, hymns and songs of the spirit' (Ephesians 5:19). Early hymn writers focused on verses like these as they wrote inspiring lyrics.

Crafting Hymns

As you examine the structure of well-known hymns, you may notice that there are distinct patterns. Generally, a hymn is divided into main verses, or stanzas, followed by a chorus. Stanzas are repetitive, often beginning with the same or similar words and phrases. This helps singers memorize vocal patterns and lyrics; since hymns are sung by people of all levels of musical talent, the repetition aids in both learning the lyrics and producing a stronger choral effect.

Famous Examples

Many hymns were written out of pain and hardship. One of the most famous hymns is 'Amazing Grace,' and it is often sung or played at funerals or other solemn events. An interesting fact to know is that John Newton, a former slave trader, wrote this hymn. After coming closer to God, John Newton turned from slave trading to preaching, writing hymns, and advocating abolitionism in Great Britain. When he penned the words, 'Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me,' he truly saw himself as a redeemed man, delivering the message that if God could save one who had lived such a reckless and cruel life, then God could save anyone.

Another outstanding hymn, 'It is Well With my Soul,' was written by Chicago lawyer Horatio Spafford in the 1870s and was born out of sorrow and difficulty. Spafford had recently lost a son and had much of his real estate investments destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. Soon afterward, he decided to take a trip to England with his wife and four daughters, but sent them ahead on the ship SS Ville Du Havre, which, to his horror, collided with another ship while at sea, killing all four of his daughters. Only his wife survived. He travelled to the spot where the accident occurred and penned the following words:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is difficult to understand how a man who had lost so much could surrender his pain to God in the face of such difficult loss. Yet, that hymn has comforted many others who have experienced difficulties throughout the centuries.

Fanny C.

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