The Bottom Of The Page – A Trick For Identifying Good Hymns

I remember when I was a boy how my mother received a small gift once from a friend.  It was a keychain.  On the keychain was a little electronic music box which played “Amazing Grace.”  My mom never used it, but hid the thing on top of our refrigerator where I would find it and play with it from time to time.  One day I finally asked her why she didn’t use it, and she carefully explained to me that Amazing Grace really wasn’t a very strong hymn (it mentions neither Jesus nor the cross), and there are better hymns for us to learn and love.  Obviously, our pastor had taught her that.  I was a bit confused but nevertheless took the lesson to heart.

Fellow BJS writer Pastor Mark Preus was my roommate in college.  He knew a lot about hymns growing up in a pastor’s family.  As roommates, we always went to church together every Sunday.  And it never failed, whenever we got home from church, if he wasn’t talking about the sermon, he was talking about the hymns.  As I learned quickly, not all hymns were equal in his book.  Some were fit for the choirs of heaven.  Others were better off not in the hymnal.  As for me, quite often I didn’t know the difference.  My good roommate taught me a lot about good hymns, but often I was still confused.  What was a good hymn?  What was a bad hymn?  I wanted to know.

Maybe you have had similar experiences with your pastor or in your congregation. Sometimes the hymns a pastor chooses are a source of conflict in the congregation. He’ll pick this hymn which nobody knows, won’t allow that song which everyone loves, and it all seems so picky and arbitrary.  Some bemoan that the pastor is out of touch with the desires of the people, or he is foisting his mere preferences on the congregation, preferences which aren’t any more valid than anyone else’s.  It can be confusing and hard.

The truth is that there are many criteria which pastors use when picking hymns, almost too many to count.  They consider the place of Jesus and the Trinity in the hymn.  They consider the quality of its teaching and whether the hymn is in agreement with Scripture.  They consider the clarity and specificity of Law and Gospel in the hymn.  They consider the season of the church year and the Scripture readings for the Sunday.  And certainly, they consider the congregation which they are serving.  They consider their people with their unique daily needs and challenges.  They consider their favorite hymns and their willingness and ability to be challenged with new things.  For pastors, learning these criteria takes much time and effort.  What’s more, good pastors are always fine-tuning their criteria as well, so it is understandable that it might be hard to keep up with your pastor sometimes when it comes to his hymn selection.

The good news is that there’s a neat little trick which can tell you whether or not you’re singing a quality hymn – look at the bottom of the page.  There you will see the author’s name and dates of his lifespan.  If the hymn’s author lived between about 1450 and about 1700, you’re probably looking at one of the finest hymns the Lutheran Church has to offer.  The old Lutheran hymns have beautiful tunes, sound teaching, and enduring relevance.  They are versatile hymns which appeal to men, women, and children alike.  Many of these hymns in the hymnal are written by our own Martin Luther and a Lutheran pastor named Paul Gerhardt.  If you see that name at the bottom of the page, you know you have a gem, as you do with most the hymns in our hymnal written in that time frame.  These hymns were written by specifically Lutheran men specifically for Lutheran congregations.

Certainly, there are hundreds of hymns in the hymnal which are written by men and women who lived outside that time frame.  Some are excellent, especially some of the old Latin hymns which predate the Reformation.  Some, not so much.  If you find a hymn written by someone who lived between 1700 and 1900, you’re probably looking at a Methodist or maybe Anglican hymn.  That maybe doesn’t make sense to us, Methodist hymns in a Lutheran hymnal?  I thought all the hymns were Lutheran!

Well, it’s true.  There are lots of Methodist hymns in our hymnal.  Some of the Methodist hymns are good, but now that I know this little trick I always find it just a little bit awkward to be singing Methodist hymns when I’m in a Lutheran church.  On the whole, they just don’t carry the same punch as the good old Lutheran hymns. You just don’t have the same good Law and Gospel, and the tunes just don’t seem as pretty either.

So next time you’re in church, try this little trick. Look at the bottom of the page in your hymnal, and take note of the dates you see.  It’s just a general rule. Sometimes there may be exceptions, but I have always found looking at the bottom of the page useful and interesting since I developed the habit.  It might happen that the good Reformation hymn you’re singing from Martin Luther isn’t your favorite, maybe not even close.  That’s okay.  Take a mental note.  Tell yourself that even if this isn’t your favorite hymn now, you can grow into it.  After all, the Christian life is one where we are always maturing, always learning better to receive our comfort and assurance from our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.  Our heritage of hymns as Lutherans is very helpful with this.  It’s not just helpful, but a joy worth passing on to our children.

Hopefully, after some time applying this little trick, you’ll be able to understand better the criteria your pastor uses when picking hymns for worship.  It is no child’s play, but a very important part of his calling as your pastor.  It would make him very happy the more supportive you can be.  Living in this world the devil causes all sorts of mischief with vulgar music.  Even in the church, we maybe haven’t been as pure as we always assumed ourselves to be.  The good news is that we are very blessed in the Lutheran church to have a treasury of hymns which is the best in the world. Let’s use it, and love it too.

About Pastor Ryan Loeslie

Rev. Ryan Loeslie is pastor of the Immanuel Lutheran Church of Dimock, South Dakota. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and Concordia Theological Seminary - Fort Wayne, having also studied at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Oberursel, Germany. From 2009 to 2017, he served as pastor of the Immanuel Lutheran Church of Merna, Nebraska. He enjoys his family, rural ministry, the Psalms, catechesis, Lutheran hymnody, and South Dakota pheasants. He and his wife Valerie live in Immanuel's beautiful country parsonage and are blessed to be raising three children.


The Bottom Of The Page – A Trick For Identifying Good Hymns — 34 Comments

  1. Well spoken! The compunction for any generation to contribute something of equal value can only lead to the weakening of, or loss of, a very beneficial heritage. These hymns are as contemporary as the word of God that neither withers not fades! If we would see such contributions again on the scale that we saw in the 16th and 17th centuries, we do best to learn the word of God as well as they did and stake as much on the pure gospel as they did. Singing these hymns is a good start! These hymns are tried and true not simply because they have lasted so long, but because they were written by Christians who experienced what was at stake and responded as guardians of our most precious treasure. Singing their hymns today still teaches us what’s at stake and also what a wonderful treasure we have in God’s word. Thank you for a very good little article!

  2. Thanks for your essay. It was very well done. I wish I had been able to express myself this way when I faced pushback for my hymn selection criteria when I was in the ministry. God bless!

  3. I mostly agree with you but I don’t think Lutherans have a lock on goods hymns. Also Lutheran hymns are notoriously hard to sing. We’re not all sopranos and if one doesn’t know the hymn well it’s sometimes hard to harmonize.

  4. Good article, Ryan. I’ve always thought: if you can’t sing a Lutheran hymn what’s the point in singing? Catharsis? I think a lot of the difficulty we have today with hymnody is a difference over the question of why we sing at all.

  5. Excellent article! Once again, the voices of popular opinion tend to disregard what’s really good, fitting, edifying, etc. I remember a now long-sainted person (not anywhere near my current calling) saying, “Pastor, a lot more people would be much happier with our hymns if we sang hymns like ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘How Great Thou Art’!” It was a constant exercise in frustration, especially for the people, as to “why can’t we sing those hymns in church!” (yes, I tried to tell them).

    People, listen to your pastor’s teaching and guidance, especially as you have a solid, confessional, liturgical pastor. He knows what he’s doing! Your church life will become much easier and much less stressful, but more important, much more edifying. Seriously.

    One technical point — in some of our contexts, we’d find this information near the top of the page, just under the first line (as in, TLH 😀 ).

    Again, excellent article. Very well said, and very much needed in our settings — congregations, schools, etc. Thanks much!

  6. @Sue McNare #3

    @Sue McNare #3

    You are right, but like anything else, singing those hymns can be learned. After years of using the simpler, C major first tune of “We All Believe in One True God” (TLH 251), we gave the A minor Latin Credo second tune a try, and it was hard for some at first, but with practice over time, it became much easier. Today, the congregation has little to no trouble singing it, and it’s well worth it.

  7. Lutheran hymns are often hard to sing in part because older settings are set higher. The reason for this was because back in the day people actually sang rather than just listening to professional entertainers. They sang and so their practiced voices were comfortable with a higher register. Especially with men, the less they sang the less they even could. Another reason they can be hard to sing is because they’re beautiful. Beauty is faceted and often complex. But beauty also invites willing gazes that enjoy getting to know the complex aspects that are so pleasing to behold. So with singing, the reason people think they’re too hard is in part because they have not found the beauty in the hymns and so have not bothered to peer into them long enough to enjoy singing them and learn them better. If the difficulty is daunting, it helps to realize the beauty even before you try to overcome the complexity. Read the words and see how much they teach from God. Then the exercise of investigating and embracing the beauty of the music becomes a work of love more than labor. It’s a theological issue no matter how it’s cut. Bear weaknesses, pastors. But don’t grow weary in inculcating the relationship between truth and beauty in good hynmnody.

    Great article, Pastor Loeslie! Thank you for your clear and kindly words.

  8. Rev. Loeslie, may I have permission reprint this article in a church newsletter with proper accreditation?

  9. Good article. Hymns designed to teach doctrine are valuable. Many of these also have Biblical poetical references which stretch your memory.

    Also check out the new hymns by LCMS writers in LSB. Some are written to fit the reading for the day. Some also have interesting melodies.

  10. @Sue McNare #3

    They can be at first blush, but if they’re worth singing the initial challenge is not too big an obstacle. “The Star Spangled Banner’ is notoriously hard to sing, and yet we encourage our children to learn it and assume they will with enough repetition. Tell your pastor to choose good, challenging hymns much more frequently so that everyone can learn them quickly! 🙂

  11. In addition to the author’s well stated points, I’d add that the resistance to using these hymns because they’re “difficult” results from mistaking the truly “difficult” for the simply “unfamiliar.” People conflate those two terms when it comes to hymnody.

    Very few hymns in the current crop of hymnals are technically difficult – either in range or rhythm.

    It boils down to patient and deliberative rollout of these “new” hymns to the congregation.

    Coordinate with the organist to introduce the tune via prelude a week or two in advance; use a cantor to sing the first stanza or two for the congregation to hear and model; use a hymn-of-the-month program to firm up the learning process through repetition.

    It won’t eliminate the complainers, but it may help soften the edge by reducing the unfamiliarity aspect from the whole process of teaching these solid texts.

  12. Every day I read ads that say “Just use this little trick”. I’m very wary of them!
    Can you find another term to describe looking at the source of a hymn?

    From Oxford English Dictionary:
    “trick: a cunning or skillful act or scheme intended to deceive or outwit someone.”

    You can find better or worse definitions; a “trick” at cards comes to mind as harmless, (unless the reader is against card playing). 😉

    Slang dictionaries? Well, maybe we don’t want to go there. 🙁
    Let’s just say the word “trick” is wide open to misunderstanding!

  13. @David Preus #4
    I’ve been advocating this for years. Lets have most of the service “spoken” and not confused with music. Reminds me of mindless chants of the RC church and mindless repetition as the heathen do.

  14. Those identifiers printed in small letters above or below the hymn page carry a huge amount of information in the least amount of space. What are the sources of the hymn text/texts? Does this text come from a biblical psalm? Did Luther take the text of a Latin psalm and paraphrase it into a German hymn? Did a nice lady, a hundred years ago, translate the hymn text into Anglican/English?
    Similar questions are asked about the hymn tune. When you say, who wrote that hymn, do you mean who wrote the text or who composed the tune? Luther composed hymn tunes that were reset from Gregorian chant tunes. Then the Synodical Conference (LCMS, WLS, ELS) commissioned new settings of hymn tunes for it’s 1941 hymnal. It’s a multilayered issue when we ask a question of a hymn. Often, the tune puts the words into our mind while the organist is still playing the hymn prelude. Often, a hymn text has been set to several different hymn tunes (if the meter fits). Which hymn tune is this version based upon, I wonder?
    And, it is true that our current day Lutheran hymnals are indeed an ecumenical union. Nothing is more amusing than someone being asked what their favorite Lutheran hymn is, responding with a very popular Methodist hymn. And the tunes of the Baptist altar call hymns burn through popular Christian culture like a prairie fire. How often have you heard a Lutheran organist riffing upon an altar call tune right during the distribution of a Lutheran sacrament. If you know your altar call tunes as well as most Americans do, it can be very diverting and very hard not to mentally wander off into the
    Garden. Come home dear sinner, come home.

  15. @john eberhart #13

    I’ve been advocating this for years. Lets have most of the service “spoken” and not confused with music. Reminds me of mindless chants of the RC church and mindless repetition as the heathen do.

    I should be surprised if that is what David meant.
    If the Pastor can’t carry a tune, have a spoken service.
    But if he can sing, have a beautiful one.

    (Whether it’s “mindless” depends on where your mind is, doesn’t it?)🙁

  16. @john eberhart #13

    Consider if you were told to stand for the National Anthem and a person went to the mic and spoke it. Not wrong, but very odd, not how it was meant to be; it was written to be sung. Likewise Psalms are written to be sung/chanted as God’s people have done for 1000s of years. Also the songs of heaven/Scriptures that we find in the Ordinaries of the Liturgy. The historical Liturgy is mostly written to be sung, obviously all the songs of Scripture but other parts as well; while not wrong to speak it. And too, mindless singing and repetition happens in every worship genre; even in the ever-changing contemporary genre as you mostly don’t have to think on the words just feel good about the music.

  17. Thanks for a great article. One thing that we pastors and seminarians can do is to use these great, Lutheran hymns as illustrations in our sermons. That way, folks can hear them spoken. They can be taught why they matter and how they proclaim Christ and Him crucified for our salvation.
    Also, in teaching folks to check out the bottom of the page, we can help our choir directors know who does great settings and arrangements. That way they can look for those same names when picking out two-part or four-part harmonic settings for their use as well. A couple churches where I’ve attended used great hymns as this article mentioned for congregational singing but left the choral selections to the birds in favor of something with less doctrinal punch.

  18. There have been times when I am singing a hymn in church, and suddenly I say to myself, “What is wrong with these words?” As this happened more and more often, I decided to go through the hymnal, one at a time, and look at the words. I am up to about the first 100 hymns, plus the 6 Pentecost hymns.
    269, 18th century, Stanza 5:
    Before the dawning day
    Let sin’s dark deeds be done
    The sinful self be put away
    The new self now put on.

    Is not this what happened to us in Baptism?

    340, 17th century, part of stanza 5:

    Redeemer, come and open wide
    My heart to Thee, here Lord abide!
    O enter with Thy grace divine,
    Thy face of mercy on me shine.

    Is not this what happened to us in Baptism?

    344, 18th century, part of stanza 2:

    And let us all our hearts prepare
    For Christ to come and enter there.

    Is this not what happened to us in Baptism?

    350, 18th century, stanza 2:

    Enter now my waiting heart,
    Glorious King and Lord most holy.
    Dwell in me and ne’er depart,
    Though I am but poor and lowly.
    Ah, what riches will be mine
    When Thou art my guest divine!

    Is this not what happened to us in Baptism?
    And we sing this every year, not believing that it actually happened when we sang it the previous year.

    Now to the Pentecost Hymns.

    498, 9th century, stanza 1:

    Come Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
    And make our hearts Your place of rest;
    Come with Your grace and heav’nly aid
    And fill the hearts which You have made.

    Is this not what happened to us in Baptism?

    500, 8th century, end of 1st stanza:

    … May we Your living temples be.

    Does Scripture not say that we are?

    501, 15th century, stanza 1:

    Come down, O love divine
    Seek Thou this soul of mine,
    And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing;
    O, Comforter, draw near;
    Within my heart appear,
    And kindle it,
    Thy holy flame bestowing.

    Is this not what happened to us in Baptism?

    Going through the hymn book, I also saw some astoundingly true and beautiful hymns. Among them are: 348, 353, 360, 362, 372, 504.

    I have gone through about 15% of the Lutheran Service Book.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  19. @T-rav #21

    That’s a great observation. As we were baptized once into the Name of Christ who died once for us, so in our Baptism we are killed and made alive each day. So, we are called by the apostle to put off our old selves and put on the new one. (Rom. 13:11-13, Eph. 4:24, Eph. 5:11-14. Yes, that all happened in our Baptism and because of it. So, our hymns are reflective of said Baptismal reality. The key is that we aren’t doing the doing. Those hymns quoted above are in no way synergistic, nor are they propping up our inner desire. Rather, in Christ and drowned in HIm, we are raised to desire that which He wills and accomplishes for our good.

  20. Having served mostly in mission congregations with the vast majority of the members NOT raised Lutheran, I considered introducing them to Lutheran worship, liturgy, and hymns a very important part of my ministry. The high point was when a member who was raised in a United Methodist parsonage and joined our congregation in his mid-50’s — before that he had been head elder at the local United Methodist Church — said after service one day regarding a decidedly “old Lutheran” hymn we had sung, “You know the WORDS in that hymn are really fantastic. It just tells the whole Gospel story. As we were signing it today, I decided right then I want THIS hymn sung at my funeral.”

    Some hints from one who has spent 30 years trying to get people to love Lutheran hymns like that:

    Take your time to patiently, deliberately introduce unfamiliar hymns over a period of years. If attempted too quickly it will backfire and “old Lutheran” hymns will get a bad reputation among your members, who will develop a disdain rather than love for them.

    Learn the art of programming, something I thankfully learned while serving as an assistant to our choir director in college, when I mistakenly suggested bunching all the more modern pieces together in my proposed concert program. Unfamiliar hymns should be balanced in a given service by more familiar hymns.

    If the tune is unfamiliar, these sturdy old Lutheran tunes make GREAT preludes, postludes, offertories, during Communion, etc. — probably better than what your organist is playing now. Give her a list of tunes you’d like her to use playing them OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN for those parts of the service. Give specific directions for a tune to be played OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN during the weeks before you will use that hymn for the first time. After hearing it in the “background” so often the people will then actually find it quite familiar.

    It is also great to have these newly introduced old Lutheran hymns first sung as choir anthems. Just the four-part harmonies in LSB and especially TLH work great for choirs — and the music is free! Best of all, that way the strongest singers in the congregation already know the hymn when the entire congregation eventually sings it. If the choir director is uncooperative or you don’t have a choir another option is to have them sung by soloists. Being in mission congregations I often just did this myself because there wasn’t a choir or other soloist.

    If the hymn has a large number of verses, that will automatically turn some people off who won’t even give it a fair hearing. So DIVIDE long hymns, something I do nearly every Sunday before and after the sermon. So often I find, without particularly planning it, that these verses form a perfect introduction before and summation after the sermon.

  21. Don’t have a LSB or TLH in front of me, but I do know the number of hymns by Martin Luther has decreased from TLH to LSB. Luther wrote maybe 45? hymns and I believe the number went from 6 or so to 3 included in each respective hymnal. Why not include them all? I’m sure the words are great!

  22. I’m at a large church that was known for holding the line on the use of good hymns. A few years ago, unfortunately a group of people were able to push the church into having a different service, fortunately not located in the sanctuary. The teaching that we get from Lutheran hymns is missing over there. How is this not withholding some of God’s Word from the congregants?

  23. More hymns, translations, and tunes by Martin Luther than any other single person are included in our hymnals:

    The Lutheran Hymnal: 80, 85, 95, 103, 104, 137, 195, 224, 231, 238, 247, 249, 251, 259, 260, 261, 262, 267, 287, 311, 313, 329, 387, 458, 500, 590

    Lutheran Service Book: 332, 358, 382, 406-407, 458, 497, 505, 556, 581, 607, 617, 627, 655, 656-657, 755, 766, 777-778, 768, 823-824, 938, 948, 954, 960

  24. @T-rav #21

    T-rav. Never, ever, in no place have I ever asserted that our sanctification is complete at Baptism. Becoming a member of the Kingdom of God, with all the benefits God bestows on His children, that process is complete with no “and” or “not yet.” The only thing that is yet to come is for us to receive our inheritance when we enter Paradise. The process of sanctification is a different matter and continues until life’s end. Unless you believe that the Holy Spirit dwells in each Christian fully from the moment of Baptism, you cannot expect any progress in sanctification. What if He is not around at a critical moment? How can you tell He is in you, unless you have God’s own assurance that He is in you forever? Which assurance we have abundantly in Scripture.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  25. Thanks for doing the research! 27 out of 42 is not bad at all. Now, if we could just get the first Lutheran hymn “Ein neues Leid wir heben an” included…

  26. @mbw #26

    I’m at a large church that was known for holding the line on the use of good hymns. A few years ago, unfortunately a group of people were able to push the church into having a different service, fortunately not located in the sanctuary. …

    That’s how they start.
    Pretty soon they’ll be asking for a service in church “during the SS hour”. And before you know it, they’ll have the late service time and the choir will sing vacuous nonsense at the traditional service (if you still have two) “because they don’t have enough practice time to learn two pieces so they’ll do the ‘praise’ anthem”. Good-bye, good hymns!

  27. A number of the hymns by Paul Gerhardt (mentioned in the article) are indeed among my favorites. LSB 596, however, gives me pause for several reasons, especially where it says:

    “You were before your day of birth
    Indeed from your conception,
    Condemned and lost with all the earth….”

    Scripture says:

    [God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world,
    that we should be holy and blameless before him.
    In love he predestined us for adoption as sons….”
    Eph. 1:4ff (ESV)

    Praise God, we came into the world already chosen and loved!

    I was before my day of birth
    — indeed, before conception,
    before God made and formed the earth —
    predestined for adoption!
    Though born into a fallen race,
    I came intended for God’s grace,
    my path to heaven set for me.

    And in that path baptism lay:
    God’s mercy demonstrated,
    with promise of the Spirit’s ray
    and life with Christ united.
    Fulfilling this identity
    is my endeavor, gratefully
    among God’s children counted!

  28. Those old hymns contain orthodox theology. Today we often ignore truth for political correctness. We need to love each other but not ignore sin. Just read the words to some of those hymns. Immortal, invisible God only wise ,There is a fountain or A mighty fortress is our God. They are reflections of God’s word! Thank you for the article. Let’s save those old hymns!

  29. @Rev. Kevin Vogts #27

    More hymns, translations, and tunes by Martin Luther than any other single person are included in our hymnals:

    How is it then, that the LSB index shows 27 hymns for Martin Luther, and for Stephen Starke, 32?
    Some of Starke’s stuff is pretty good; some of it was not worth displacing Luther. [And no matter what he says about “other people choosing them”, he was Chairman and had the veto.]

  30. @Carl H #31

    I think Gerhard is paraphrasing David, who said, “Behold I was shapen in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me…”

    And yet David looked for the Messiah and was saved by his faith.

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