Across the world, millions of Christians sing hundreds of hymns in their church every Sunday. Singing is such an integral part of worship. The church has a massive collection of songs, but some stand out above the rest. Some classics have captured the attention of Christians for generations.
When we learn the stories behind our favorite hymns, they come to life in a new way. History adds context and meaning so that we can understand and relate to the hymns in a profound fashion. These stories will spark emotion and passion the next time you sing them.
This would not be a complete list without one of the most well-known hymns in the world. "Amazing Grace" was created by John Newton in 1779. The author of the hymn described himself as the "wretch" in the song. He was a slave trader, rebel, blasphemer, and all-around immoral man. He was as far from grace as anyone could ever be and lived a life full of hardship. God was able to get his attention after Newton's slave ship was nearly wrecked in a thunderstorm. As the vessel was taking on water and the crew was crying, Newton fell to his knees and started pleading for God's forgiveness. God's grace saved Newton. Newton became a pastor in Olney, England, where he wrote the song. Today, the song still inspires the world and is sung in churches everywhere.
"How Great Thou Art"
This song was written in 1885 by Carl Gustav Boberg, a 26-year-old pastor from Sweden. Boberg was said to have been caught in a thunderstorm after church one Sunday afternoon. From his place in the mountains, Boberg could see the storm rolling in and noticed the immense power and force it had. Once the storm passed, Boberg observed a beautiful big rainbow cover the valley, over the meadows and grain fields. It took his breath away. He wrote the song "O Store Gud," which was then translated into German, Russian, and English. A stanza in the song was picked up in 1949 by an English missionary named Stuart K. Hine and changed to what we know today. Millions now sing the song of Christians in dozens of languages across the world.
"What a Friend We Have in Jesus"
Joseph Scriven, a young Irishman, completed his college education in 1844. He returned home to marry his sweetheart. He came home to find his bride-to-be tragically lying dead after falling off her horse. Later on, Scriven moved to Canada and fell in love again. Unfortunately, for the second time, his bride-to-be hit a horrible fate. She became ill and died weeks before their marriage.
Scriven wrote a poem to his mother in Ireland to describe the tragedy he had faced. He spoke of how his deep friendship with Jesus, which he had cultivated through prayer, helped him get through the loss of his two loved ones. Instead of believing God was punishing him, Scriven thought God was his rock. The poem was published anonymously under the title "Pray Without Ceasing". Later in 1868, attorney Charles Converse set the text to music and changed the name to what we know it as today.
"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"
Isaac Watts devoted much of his life to writing, including essays, sermons, and hymns, despite his frail health. He is considered the father of English hymnody crafting songs like the Christmas carol "Joy to the World". As a teen, Watts was concerned with the crude lyrics that most English-speaking congregations used to praise God. Watts was challenged by his father to create something better, so he began to write hymns. At first, he wrote new versions of Bible verses in the book of Psalms. Then in 1707, Watts wrote, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," which reflected his personal feelings. This writing style was considered controversial at the time, but the song became so popular and had a significant impact on the church. Theologian Matthew Arnold came to call it the greatest hymn in the English language.
"Wherever He Leads, I'll Go"
Two friends, R.S. Jones and B.B. McKinney, were having lunch at an Alabama Sunday school conference in 1936. Jones had just returned from Brazil, where he was a missionary. Jones was heartbroken, because just days before he found out that health issues would keep him from returning to the country to do God's work. McKinney, a hymn writer, asked Jones what he was going to do. Jones replied, "Wherever He leads, I'll go". This statement was so powerful that McKinney penned the classic hymn that afternoon, and later that night performed it after Jones had preached in the church. Since then, the song has been such in many worship services. We might know where God will lead us, but we can trust He knows what He is doing.
The hymns we know and love have much deeper meanings behind them. Knowing the history of these songs makes them that much more meaningful each time we sing them. We can honor God's hand in creating these beautiful tunes.