What Hymns Reveal About Christian Evangelicalism

… and perhaps about American Catholics.

Evangelical historian Mark Noll:

Diligent preaching, an incredible organizational energy, and learned theology have gone into the creation of modern evangelicalism. But nothing so profoundly defined the faith of evangelicalism as its hymnody: what evangelicals have been is what we have sung. Perhaps because it so obviously is a creature of the Bible’s salvific themes, the hymnody of evangelicalism defined a religion that was clearer, purer, better balanced, and more sharply focused than much evangelical practice.

Another music heads-up from a reader, check out this 1999 article “We Are What We Sing” from Christianity Today. Our friends at Intentional Disciples might have come commentary to add. I’ll offer a few brief excerpts from the article with my own thoughts. Then feel free to chime in via combox.

If you doubt the weight of Charles Wesley’s contribution to the emergence of modern evangelicalism, ask yourself how many of the words of Edwards, Whitefield, or John Wesley you can quote, and then reflect on how much of Charles Wesley is stored away, not only in your brain, but in your heart:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the new-born King; …

Jesus, Lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly, …

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down, …

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free; …

One might well ask what it means that many millions of Catholics also have these texts as signposts in their spiritual landscape. It might be one thing to point to a parish’s repertoire of any modern composer, but Wesley’s texts have stood the test of time in many Christian communities.

Speaking of my own nation, my neighbor Catholics are Americans, too. Undeniable is the fact that our American identification is part of what we bring to worship. I don’t know how Charles Wesley is received outside North America, but he certainly has “arrived” for American Catholics, who have identified with these hymn texts as much as with any other single composer on the field today.

Noll pulls together the commonalities of Black and White, American historical eras, evangelical theologies, and other factors to suggest a substantive unity of vision:


Driving that vision was a peculiarly evangelical understanding of the Trinity. The holiness of God provided occasion for worship, but even more a standard that revealed human sinfulness, guilt, and need for a Savior. At the heart of the evangelical hymnody was Jesus Christ, whose love offered to sinners mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God. In this Savior redeemed sinners found new life in the Holy Spirit, as well as encouragement to endure the brokenness, relieve the pain, and bind up the wounds of a world that the great evangelical hymn writers almost always depicted in strikingly realistic terms.

As a product of an organic musical development stretching back to the middle of the eighteenth century, we can admire this unity. With our disparate sources, instrument wars, and composer-of-the-month mentality, can we Catholics claim anything like this in our own hymnals? Does the Catholic musical tradition stand as a workable alternative?

Read the rest of the article then come back with your thoughts on how Evangelical hymnody is part of the Cahtolic experience–and how that might be a good thing for us.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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One Response to What Hymns Reveal About Christian Evangelicalism

  1. Pingback: “Lost in Wonder, love and praise” « Catholic Sensibility

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