Best hymns of all time

We take a look through the hymnbooks to name our favourite Christian hymns and music from over the centuries

Best hymns of all time
Published: March 30, 2022 at 4:42 pm

As we explore elsewhere on this site, religious hymns have been sung since at least the Ancient Greek era and have been a core part of Christian worship since its earliest centuries. Very occasionally, a hymn's words and music are written by the same person, but more often, one person's text is set to another's melody. But what are the greatest hymns of them all?

Advertisement

Here, we suggest our favourite combinations of fine words and equally magnificent music…

6 best hymns of all time

Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer

Chosen by Prince William and Catherine Middleton to begin their wedding in April 2011, few hymns set such an uplifting tone as this Welsh masterpiece – and few are as enjoyable to sing as. Usually accompanying the words by Welsh Methodist William Williams (1717-1791) is John Hughes’s magnificent ‘Cwm Rhondda’ tune from 1905, named after the valley in South Wales. To many, however, the hymn is better known as ‘Bread of Heaven’, due to those famous repeated words in the first verse. After this, the following ‘Feed me till I want no more’ traditionally divides the congregation between those who stick with the high note in the tune and those who prefer to dip down to sing the upwardly accompanying ‘Want no moooooore!’ with appropriate gusto. The choice is yours.

'Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer' is also a popular rugby song for the Welsh fans, and is considered Wales's second national anthem (behind ‘’Land of My Fathers’).

Jerusalem

Another deserved favourite at weddings, and a regular at patriotic sing-alongs such as the Last Night of the Proms, Jerusalem is also something of an enigma. What exactly was William Blake referring to in his 1804 poem? Was ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ really eulogising England, or did the ‘dark Satanic mills’ imply a more ominous vision of the future? Hubert Parry wrote his famous tune for it in 1916, at which point another layer of controversy was added – when the Gloucestershire composer was reluctant for it to be used to support of the patriotic Fight for Right campaign (for which it had been commissioned), it was taken up instead by the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Unusually, Parry’s setting has a four-bar intro on the organ before each verse, at which point everyone joins in together in glorious, boisterous unison. The word 'belter' springs to mind.

Be Thou My Vision

Next, we head over to Ireland. The words to this uniquely evocative hymn are traditionally said to be the handiwork of Saint Dalían, an Irish poet who spread the word in the north of the country before meeting a sticky end at the hands of pirates in the early seventh century. They may well date from later than that, however. They are commonly sung to the folk-derived hymn tune ‘Slane’ which, named after a village in County Meath, is first found in Patrick Joyce’s Old Irish Folk Music and Songs in 1909. ‘Be Thou My Vision’ doesn’t have the beautiful chant-like phrases of 'Slane' all to itself, however – the tune is also used for the hymn ‘Lord of all hopefulness’.

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind

Long before he penned Jerusalem, Hubert Parry also wrote an oratorio called Judith, which relates the gruesome story of the eponymous Old Testament heroine and, despite its gory subject matter, features a rather lovely aria in which Queen Meshullemeth tells the children about how their ancestors arrived in Israel. Little could Parry have known that, six years after his death in 1918, the aria’s tune would be taken by George Gilbert Stocks, a music teacher at Repton School in Derbyshire, and adapted to fit ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, a hymn whose words were originally found in the poem The brewing of Soma by the US quaker John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92) – to get the ‘Repton’ tune to work, however, the last line of each verse needs to be repeated. And it's that last line that provides the real magic of this hymn when, in the final verse, we follow the climax of ‘earthquake, wind, and fire’ by descending to a hush for the ‘still, small voice of calm’.

We named 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind' one of the best hymns for funerals

Amazing Grace

Few hymns tell such a personal story as Amazing Grace. Its author John Newton (1725-1807) was a former slave trader who had converted to Christianity after surviving a shipwreck off County Donegal and later went on to become a committed abolitionist – the words ‘That sav’d a wretch like me!’ could be seen to refer to both his physical escape and his spiritual conversion. Traditionally sung to the tune ‘New Britain’, a pentatonic (i.e. can be played on just the black notes on a piano) melody originating from American folk music, its immense popularity has spread well beyond the church, and famous recordings have been made of it by the likes of Elvis Presley, soprano Jessye Norman and Johnny Cash.

The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended

Even the great Ralph Vaughan Williams didn’t do everything right. For some reason, the eminent British composer and hymn editor loathed ‘St Clement’, Clement Cotteril Scholefield’s gorgeously arching tune for the hymn ‘The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended’, whose words were written by the Reverend John Ellerton in 1870. Sorry, Ralph, but millions of us would beg to differ, especially when it is sung so movingly at the funeral or memorial of a loved one – though specifically an evening hymn, its words naturally lend it to this other purpose. As well as the viewers of the BBC’s Songs of Praise, who voted it third in the programme’s poll of favourite hymns in 2005, other fans include Queen Victoria, who included it in her diamond jubilee service in 1897, and Rick Wakeman, who featured the tune on his 1973 album The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Advertisement

You can find the lyrics to some of your favourite hymns here

Authors

Jeremy PoundDeputy Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.

Sponsored content