Plato once said, “Music is… wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” God has created music similar to certain extravagant parts of creation, like the redwoods and the turquoise Mediterranean waters and the northern lights: it begs us to stop everything and pay attention.
And when truly excellent music angles our attention heavenward? It changes you. And when enough lovers of God collectively listen to the words and the music—it can cause a shift in the Body, the Church. It changes us.
There are many, many hymns in thousands of languages throughout the history of the Church (all of which began first as poetry). But there are a few select hymns that have stood the test of time and are with us today because they have changed us as a Body. Their birth shifted our collective trajectory for the better.
Here are some of the greatest hymns to have changed the Church. I’ve included certain versions I love, plus a final playlist at the end.
(Note: I am a native English speaker, so my list of faves falls in that category—but there are countless hymns full of truth in languages all over the world.)
1. Be Thou My Vision
This humble prayer began as a medieval Celtic poem in the eighth century, but it wasn’t translated into English and put to music until 1905, by Mary Byrne.
2. All Creatures of Our God and King
St. Francis of Assisi was known as a lover of nature and animals, and he also loved music. He wrote over 60 hymns, including this one in 1225 reflecting his compassion for creation. It caused the Church to stop and recognize the power and significance of nature, and not just human nature.
Thomas Ken was born in 1637 and orphaned soon after. Raised by his sister and her husband, he became an Oxford scholar and eventually became chaplain to members of royalty before becoming a bishop in the Anglican church. He wrote a manual of prayers in 1674, including a three-verse one simply named Morning Hymn. The doxology (which is simply a combination of two Greek words to mean ‘word of glory’) as we know today is the final verse of this poem, and it’s often sung without music.
4. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Robert Robinson was a rather difficult, headstrong boy, so when he turned 14 in 1749, his mother sent him to London for an apprenticeship (his dad died several years prior). He got in to even more trouble in London, and when he was 17, went with some of his friends to a meeting to make fun of Christians where George Whitfield would be preaching. It moved him deeply, and began his search for God where he finally became a Christian three years later.
He became a pastor, and at age 23, he wrote this poem to accompany one of his sermons, its words full of admittance to his own fleshly nature compared to God’s divine. It was set to music in 1813.
5. Amazing Grace
Considered a folk hymn, it was first published in 1779 but originally written for a New Year’s Day sermon in 1773 by John Newton, an English poet. Its focus is on the redemption found only in Jesus—a simple but profound truth during a lot of Church division.
The song actually wasn’t too popular until the American 2nd Great Awakening in the early 19th century, and it then became widely known as an African American spiritual.
6. Just As I Am
When poet Charlotte Elliott was at a dinner party in the early 19th century, an elderly man asked her if she was a Christian. She considered his question inappropriate, but later asked him what he meant. Charlotte eventually decided to follow Christ after talking with him, and wrote Just As I Am in 1835 soon after, remembering his words that she could come to Jesus “just as she was.”
This later became a popular song during Billy Graham’s crusades in the 20th century.
7. Holy, Holy, Holy
Reginald Heber’s widow found the words to his poem written in private (we’re not sure when), but it was years later, in 1861, when a publisher found it and asked John Dykes to compose the music. He wrote it in 30 minutes and first named it Nicea, in honor of the First Council of Nicea in 325, the first effort to attain consensus in the Church.
8. Before The Throne
Charitie Lees Smith was the daughter of an Irish pastor and his wife, and in 1863, at age 22, she wrote a poem called The Advocate to accompany one of his sermons. She continued to write other poems and eventually had them published in 1867 in a book titled Within The Veil.
Almost every line of her poem is taken directly from different parts of Scripture, making it rich with theology—useful for sermons. We’re unsure when its name was changed and music was written for accompaniment.
9. It Is Well
Abolitionist activist Horatio Spafford had a nice life in the Chicago suburbs with his wife and five children and always welcomed guests in their home. Then in 1870, his 4-year-old died of scarlet fever, and in 1871 the Great Chicago Fire destroyed most of his investments (which were in Chicago real estate).
In 1873, the family wanted to sail to Europe for much-needed time away from their tragedy and to help in a revival, but on the day of departure, Horatio had a last-minute business emergency. He sent the family on ahead and planned to follow on another ship in a few days. But their ship was struck by another ship and sank in 12 minutes—the remainder of his four children died and only his wife was saved and brought to England. He immediately set sail to be with his wife, and as his ship passed the place where his daughters drowned, he penned It Is Well, and music was composed to accompany it in 1876.
10. How Great Thou Art
Carl Bobert, a Swede, was walking home from church and listening to the church’s bells in 1885. A sudden, awe-inspiring storm gripped his attention, and then just as suddenly as it arrived, it subsided to a calm. After watching this display of nature, he went home and penned this poem. He published it in 1886, then it was matched to a Swedish folk tune in 1888, and then translated in to German in 1907, Russian in 1912, and finally English in 1925.
11. Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Thomas Chisolm spent most of his life sick, but in a rare bout of health, he went on a missions trip. While traveling, he corresponded with William Runyan, a good friend of his, and they often exchanged poems they had written. Runyan found this poem of Thomas’ so moving that he composed music to accompany it, publishing it in 1923. It wasn’t noticed until several years later by a Moody Bible Institute professor, who requested it be sung in their chapel services.
There are many, many more hymns (heck, I didn’t even touch any of the 6,000 hymns written by Charles Wesley!). They are poetry of our history, and I think it’s important to keep teaching these words and melodies to the next generation, so that we can keep these doctrinally-rich hymns in the Church.
Here’s the playlist, so that you can pipe each of these hymns throughout your home or in your ears today. They’ll help keep your focus heavenward.
Which hymn is your all-time favorite?
Bev Duncan @ Walking Well With God says
I grew up singing all these hymns as a girl and it’s amazing how many of the words and melodies have stuck with me. I loved your peak behind the scenes on how each of the hymns came to be. I have probably sung the Doxology thousands of times, but never knew just what Doxology meant. Just goes to show you are never too old to learn. Though I worship with more contemporary music now, you are right that these hymns are our heritage. I would have to say my soul resonates the most with “Just As I Am”. I am so thankful that I can come to my God, just as I am, and He calls me His child. Thanks for a wonderful post!
Tsh Oxenreider says
Glad you liked this little walk down memory lane, Bev!
Can’t wait til it gets later so I can play them!!!!!
Kerith Stull says
Great choices! Have you ever seen the book “Then Sings My Soul”? It has the history of 150 hymns. Really inspiring stories in there that will give you a whole new appreciation of the hymns! Check it out!
Tsh Oxenreider says
I haven’t, but that sounds PERFECTION. Thanks for that tip. Will check it out!
Marla Taviano says
There are 2 volumes. I bought them for my grandma a few years ago (she played the piano, LOVES music, especially hymns), and they were her favorite gift ever.
I have those too! Actually, I think there are 3 volumes plus a special holiday volume. I was given some of them and have enjoyed reading them as part of my quiet time this summer.
….and for the good Southern Baptist blood pumping through my veins — A Mighty Fortress!!
Tsh Oxenreider says
I almost included that one! Honestly, there were about 7 I had to delete so this post didn’t get too long… that’s an amazing one, yes.
Tell us which ones! Or post a sequel 🙂
Lisa-Jo @lisajobaker says
This. Is. SO. Awesome.
Tsh Oxenreider says
Just yesterday I made a new playlist of hymns. I just felt like, as much as I love my contemporary worship music, that I needed to hear the words of the Gospel over and over again. I would have to say that Rock of Ages is at the top of my list. The line that says “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling and the reminder that I can hide myself in Christ brings rest and comfort to me. Others I have on my list that aren’t on yours include: There Is A Fountain, Fairest Lord Jesus, This Is My Father’s World, and Blessed Assurance. All of yours are on mine, except for one. I love how the Holy Spirit speaks truth to us through these songs as we live our lives all around the world in so many different circumstances of life.
Tsh Oxenreider says
Those are great ones, too!
Lori Harris says
I love this post- and I LOVE the playlist. Be Thou My Vision and Come Thous Fount are my faves. thank you!
In Quiet Places says
Amazing Grace will always be my favorite, and I love the hymns of Fanny J. Crosby. And so many others…
Thank you SOOO much for this beautiful compilation! I pressed play immediately! Peace overtook my soul right away…
Tsh Oxenreider says
Amazing Grace still moves me to tears when I hear it. Praise God He knows how to move us and speak to our hearts And souls. Amen.
Donna Brown says
I grew up in the Methodist church and my mother instilled a love of music in my heart and mind . My favorites are: It Is Well With My Soul, Blessed Assurance and Great is Thy Faithfulness. Thanks for this great post.
Susan Stilwell says
Oh wow, Tsh – GREAT list! My all-time fave, and I’m telling everybody to be sure to sing it at my funeral because I can’t think of a better way to go out:
Jesus Paid It All.
One of my all-time favorites is “He Lives.” Our minister (he has moved away now) used to give his Easter sermon and towards the end as he was preaching the piano would start quietly playing the tune. Then he would belt it out and I would bawl. Every.Single.Time. “He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today. He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way. He lives, He lives, salvation to impart. You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!” Goosebumps!
Jamie Rohrbaugh says
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is my all-time favorite. When I was single and oh-so-lonely, every time I needed a hug from Papa God about my future husband, I would hear “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” playing on the radio, or in church, or somewhere else. It became His love letter to me; His way of telling me “I know you’re lonely, but I’ve got it under control. I will be faithful to you.” In 2006, when I married the love of my life, my bridesmaids walked down the aisle to a congregational singing of that song. “Thou changest not; Thy compassions, they fail not! As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.”
Alysa (InspiredRD) says
Wow, how interesting to learn the stories behind the hymns. I believe this will make them even more powerful (and make me choke up even more) when I sing them.
Alli Worthington says
Doxology from Gungor is my favorite. Love it!
I heard all the words to these hymns in my head as I read the titles, I didn’t even need to listen to them. I had such an overwhelming sense of the presence of the Lord it just blew me away. What a level of intimacy these authors had with the Lord and their expression of that is still touching hearts hundreds of years later! Wow! Thank you!
All-time favourite hymn? Definitely “Great is Thy Faithfulness”. “Before the Throne” and “To God be the Glory” would make up my top 3.
Joanne Peterson says
These are beautiful! I would add Crown Him With Many Crowns, and And Can It Be That I Should Gain? Actually, too many to list here.
I grew up Roman Catholic, and they also have some powerful hymns, All Hail the Power of Jesus Name, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, This is My Father’s World, We Sing the Greatness of Our God, etc.
Even though I am no longer a practicing Roman Catholic since becoming born again, I still think of these songs, and also think of the songs associated with the church calendar that are only sung during these seasons.
Thank you Tsh,
Tsh Oxenreider says
I know those songs well, and I wasn’t raised Catholic… let’s just say they’re ALL our songs. 🙂 That’s what I love about so many hymns; how they unify us.
Some of those songs were ones I needed to delete to keep this post not 18 pages long. Perhaps I’ll need to create a follow-up playlist and post…
Love all of these, especially Be Thou My Vision. Check out the new version by Rend Collective. One of my favorites is My Hope is Built On Nothing Less. So much great theology in these old hymns. Thanks for the article!
“It Is Well” will always have a special place in my heart. The Sunday after our former pastor resigned amid a huge scandal one of our church overseers stood at the pulpit and led the congregation in this song. A profound moment.
Diana L says
My favourite hymn…too many to count. it depends on the season I am walking through. Will your Anchor hold reminds me of my mother, Ride on Ride on in Majesty, Day is Dying in the West, I Heard the Voice of Jesus say, In Christ Alone…
Having grown up in a Christian home with a very Baptist mom – music was a part of every day life. I have sung them, learned to sight read by going page by page through the church hymnal. They constantly jump to mind as I journey through this life.
Powerful teachers of scripture and God’s truth, I cherish well written hymnody – new and old.
I have so many favorites. Beautiful Savior, Borning Cry, Softly and Tenderly, and What a Friend We Have in Jesus (top favorite at this moment).
I love our traditional Lutheran church with organ and hymns every Sunday. These aren’t the songs of my youth, as I was raised an Atheist, but these hymns hold such truth, such wonder! Love this list — How Great Thou Art is amazing!
Tsh Oxenreider says
I love you have an organ and traditional hymns in your church.
I’ve had Page CXVI’s Hymns albums on repeat for about 4 months now. I love that my kids are learning all these beautiful words that I did in church!
Tsh Oxenreider says
Forgot about them! Yes, they make such great music; thanks for the reminder.
Mary Jo Williams says
I have enjoyed this so much but I am having difficulty getting some of the songs to play. I am new to this and not techno savvy. Thank you.
I am unable to listen to any of the songs – none of the links play. It opens to an error page.
The old rugged cross .
Julie Sunne says
Powerful hymns. Lovely! Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the list but I couldn’t listen unfortunately because I don’t do Facebook. However, these can all be found on the internet. Beautiful hymns. We still sing many of them in church even today.
Tsh Oxenreider says
They’re not with Facebook, they’re with Spotify. Do you have an account there?
Nancy Ruegg says
As a history and trivia lover, I greatly appreciated this post. Most surprising was how long ago “Be Thou My Vision” was written, and the number of hymns St. Francis wrote. But what delighted my heart even more is the long roster of comments from younger readers who appreciate the old hymns. You explained so well, Tsh, why they’re worth passing down to future generations: they are the poetry of our history and are doctrinally-rich.
P.S. Two more favorites: To God Be the Glory and Wonderful Grace of Jesus.
Donna @ MoreThanHungry says
LOVE the list! My very favorite is How Great Thou Art for a bunch of reasons. Not the least of which is hearing my precious Grandmother belt it out even though her voice wasn’t a choir-worthy one. It sounded like heaven to me.
Tracy in NJ says
Love love LOVE the old hymns! Pick ONE favorite? Impossible!!!Truly…Stand in agreement with most of yours. Praise to the Lord the Almighty …All Praise to Thee for Thou O King Divine… Abide With Me…Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know…Crown Him with Many Crowns…All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name-either version-one better than the next…And Can it Be That I Should Gain…could go on and on. These songs make my heart sing and help me come into the presence of God whenever I do!
I LOVE contemporary Christian music. I need it; I listen to it daily. It speaks to me and leads me closer to God. However, THANK you for taking me back to my roots, to my childhood church with my parents sitting next to me, and hearing in my memory my mother singing “Because He Lives”. Thanks for this blessing today! Robin
Steve Bohannon says
All great hymns, and most of them are precious to me however, one glaring omission, Fanny J. Crosby’s Bessed Assurance!
I learn something new every day!! I’d never heard of Spotify but we have to buy the app. But I’m sure these hymns are on YouTube anyway!! I giggle because I’m telling my husband of this list and he googles it and (in) courage pops up and we compare and your list is different!! Did you put up two lists?!!
I love your list. Holy, Holy, Holy is my favorite. It makes me think of going to visit church with my Grandma and Grandpa and we sang that which I later found out was sung weekly in the Norwegian Lutheran Churches in middle America (in English!). My husband sang Come Thou Fount at my Dad and my sister’s services as my Mom requested. The hymn moves me. I have a traumatic brain injury now and the Holy Spirit brings all things to mind and for me it is many hymns. My injury is to my part of brain to control emotion and understanding. So I will weep, and often I sing hymns and the words flow and I am helped. God is good. Oh wow!! He got the 30 day free trial and so we are listening to Be Thou My Vision!!! We like it!!!
Tsh Oxenreider says
You can just get the free version of Spotify, FYI. 😉 Glad you like it!
Mindy Hopman says
I was not raised in church, since I was raised in a Jewish home, so I love reading the history behind the hymns. Your playlist is beautiful. Thank you.
Thank you for making such a wonderful list! Love learning the history behind these songs as well. Never be able to sing them the same way again. Thank you again!
Great list! We have very similar taste in music. I’ve enjoyed listening to your playlist today. Thanks for sharing this.
Love this list! We get up early to make it to our church’s early “traditional” service where we sit with our three kids and bring down the average age of the congregation significantly! It can be so hard to get us all there at 8:15, but when I hear the music I know it’s worth it. A great book of hymns for kids is Hymns for a Kid’s Heart. There is also a Christmas volume.
Tsh Oxenreider says
I have the Christmas one, but I’ve been thinking about getting the other one, too. It really is so important to teach these songs to our kids, isn’t it?
Oh how I miss hearing hymns. These are the songs I grew up with, and like other commenters, heard them all in my head from just reading the title. As a teenager I can remember hating them and wishing we could sing more modern music – my teenage self got her wish, unfortunately, but it’s no longer what I want. I would love to find a church where hymns are still sung. I’m sure they exist but I have yet to find them.
Dr Mari says
Love Be Thou My Vision and so many others. Also, In Christ Alone. That’s probably my all-time favorite. Thanks for a wonderful article. Blessings!
The sufjan Stevens song is awesome. Fun post, reminds me how fun it is to belt out a song in church. I can’t stand it when I’m at a Mass where no one sings (I’m Catholic). It seems to happen often : /
Tsh Oxenreider says
Sufjan is the BEST. 🙂
Beth Williams says
Loved this post. I truly love music and most of these resonate with me. I have even done sign language to Amazing Grace and this version of How Great Thou Art. Love love love the pictures also. I am a huge fan of this type of music and beautiful mountain scenery. Being in nature just brings me back to God and His magnificence.
Loved learning the story behind these songs also. Will share with my pastor’s wife and others.
Kristin S says
What a great list. I totally agree!
Yes! I love all of these, and all of those mentioned in the comments too. Hymns are such a great source of encouragement throughout the day, and I’m thankful to have many learned by memory! Another of my favorites is Day by Day–the author of that text had similar life circumstances to Spafford. Both are so full of truth and blessing.
I just have to beg to differ with one small phrase you used…the doxology is often sung without *accompaniment*, not without *music* 🙂 (Unless you meant it’s often sung without picking up the hymnal to read the printed music?) A capella singing (just voices, no instruments–as I’m sure you know) is definitely still music (and some would argue the best kind!)
Off to listen to your playlist, since I’m home with a sick kiddo this morning! Thankful to be able to access great music even if we can’t attend church on occasion 🙂
Richella Parham says
This is a playlist of favorites. Thank you so much for compiling it!
One of my great joys in life is serving in a very young church–i.e., a church that’s just a few years old and is full of young people. One of our great strengths is our music, partly because we have many talented musicians as members, and partly because of the richness of the songs we sing. While we sing many contemporary songs, a great many of our congregational songs are hymns. For me, there are few joys greater than singing hymns with people of all ages. Senior saints don’t need to look at the lyrics; young people marvel at the richness of the words and wonder why they haven’t sung the hymns before. I love introducing these favorite hymns to young people hungry for songs rich in theological truths and singing them lustily with those for whom they are old friends. 🙂
Maria @ Bloom says
It is amazing that I grew up in the Catholic church and was so rebelled against going to church in general that I never really learned any hymns. It wasn’t until I started going to my new church that I turned to the comfort of old hymns. My favorite is AMAXING. It always shakes me to the core. And my second favorite is COME THOU FOUNT OF EVERY BLESSING. It is so uplifting and beautiful. I first listen to it when watching the Love Comes Softly movie and immediately I had to find it. Thank you for this post!
This is such a timely post for me because I just bought 2 books on hymns yesterday. One is just lyrics of popular hymns and the other is a book with the “backstories” on many hymns (who wrote them and why, etc). I really enjoy meditating on the words, they’re so rich and they feed me. One of my favorite hymns is “It is Well with My Soul.” Thanks for your wonderful post.
Oh wow! I just listening to How Great Thou Art by Martina. I have goosebumps – she can SING! Somehow, the country twang is perfect for that song. It makes me think of listening to my grandfather’s tapes of Elvis singing old hymns while we drove across the west in his RV during several summers (which was one of the best things he did for me as a kid: giving us the chance to travel). Thanks for sharing.
Eva Van Strijp says
Be Thou My Vision is my all-time favourite hymn! I’ve been looking for a great playlist for the upcoming birth of our 5th baby – this will be perfect. Thanks Tsh 🙂
Favourite Hymns?….hmmmm…so many, including the ones mentioned above. There is one that always seems to touch the right heart spot, written many moons ago by a lover of Jesus; Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153):
1. Jesus! the very thought of Thee 2. No voice can sing, no heart can frame,
With sweetness fills the breast; Nor can the memory find,
But sweeter far Thy face to see A sweeter sound than Thy blest name,
and in They presence rest. O Saviour of mankind.
3. O hope of every contrite heart, 4. But what to those who find? Ah! this
O joy of all the meek, nor tongue nor pen can show;
To those who ask how kind Thou art, The love of Jesus, what it is,
How good to those who seek. None but his loved ones know.
5. Jesus our present joy art Thou,
As Though our prize wilt be;
In Thee be all our glory now,
As through eternity.
Thanks Tsh for sharing about these amazing hymns. These hymns and so many others show us what a treasure we have in the songs of the church. I just hope people can discover these and see their relevance for today as well as use it for inspiration for new songs to be written.
I can’t began to pick and choose…they all have a message for me.. I once was lost, but now I am found, Great is thy faithfulness. So, for me it is hard to say.
Greetings from Wordwise Hymns. Great to meet another hymn-lover, as are most of the over 350,000 who have visited my blog. You’ve chosen some fine hymns for your list. My own problem is that, having studied our English hymnody for over 40 years, I have too many favourites to list! God bless.
Dr Jacob C E says
Thanks for a very educating post.
My wife and I, both surgeons, find hymns very relaxing especially during tough times.
I love “Lord I hope this day is good” – written by Dr Ida Scudder.Americam missionary who founded the Christian medical college, Vellore, Tamilnadu in South India.