Victorian Hymns

Before the Victorian age,  singing in Anglican churches was performed by 'West Gallery Musicians'. In rural churches they performed anthems, accompanied by a variety of instruments, while in towns organs were used.  The sung and said parts of the services were divorced and hymn books were unknown. Gallery Musicians, who performed in inns, were criticised for their lack of reverence; amusing accounts of misbehaviour are found in Hardy and George Eliot.  For 100 years before the Victorian age non-conformist congregations had sung hymns which flowed from the pens of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley who is thought to have written more than 6500.

Early in the 19th Century attempts were made by Church of England clergymen to introduce hymn singing in order to improve singing in services, notably F.W. Faber, William How, Frederick Oakley and John Ellerton, all hymn writers. Choirs in robes and surplices were introduced and the use of organs became universal by the end of the Century. Over 1200 hymn books, and an estimated 400,000 hymns, were produced between 1837 and 1901. By far the most influential collection was Hymns Ancient and Modern (First Edition 1860).

Many Victorian hymns sprang from the literary mainstream, written by professional authors such as Anne and Emily Bronte, Charles Kingsley, Walter Scott, Kipling and Tennyson but most of those which are still in frequent use were produced by Church of England clergy who became professional hymn writers. They include H.F. Lytle of Praise my soul, the King of Heaven (A&M New Standard 192), H.H. Mailman Ride on, ride on, in majesty (61), F.W. Faber There's a wideness in God's mercy (251), H. Alford Come ye thankful people, come (289), J. Ellerton The day Thou gavest (16). Others, notably J.M. Neale O come, O come, Emmanuel (49), E. Caswell Now my tongue, the mystery telling (383),  Catherine Winkworth Now thank we all our God (205) and Jane Campbell WE plough the fields and scatter (290) made numerous translations from Latin and German. There were many female Victorian hymn writers, including Frances Havergal Take my life and let it be (249), Caroline Noel At the name of Jesus (148) and, most notable of all, Cecile Alexander Once in Royal David's City (46), There is a green hill (137). Although not poetic masterpieces, they express their thoughts in a profound and meaningful way, often inspired by the circumstances in which they found themselves, including serious illness or deep sorrow.

Victorian hymns have recently suffered criticism for militarism, xenophobia and 'political incorrectness'. Inevitably, many have fallen by the wayside for those reasons but such criticism is not always justified.  Baring-Gould's Onward Christian soldiers (333), for example, refers only to "marching as to war", the use of military language being metaphorical, reflecting numerous Biblical references. Mrs. Alexander's All things bright and beautiful (116) has survived despite its famous "Rich man in his castle, poor man at his gate" lines long omitted from modern hymn books. Another criticism is the preoccupation with death, now almost taboo. John Ruskin wrote: "In my own parish church last Sunday, the congregation sang, in great glee and contentment, a hymn which declared their extreme eagerness to die, but if in the course of the tune the smallest bit of plaster had fallen from the ceiling, implying any degree of instability in the rafters thereof, they would have scuttled out as fast as they could." It needs to be remembered that for Victorians of all classes death, not least for children, was central to their social conditions. Most such hymns are now out of use but not Kelly's We sing the praise of Him who died (138). Social change is not a strong feature but is seen in Hemsley's Thy Kingdom come, O God (177) and Scott-Holland's Judge eternal, throned in splendour (Songs of Praise 552).

Pleas for good behaviour on the part of children are frequent, notably Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as He and (in my favourite end of term prep school hymn) Lord dismiss us with Thy blessing (Songs of Praise 333).

Other, less criticised, themes include: portrayal of Heaven in Neale's Jerusalem the golden (184); Christian pilgrimage in Neale's O happy band of pilgrims (208); reward and rest for those who have fought the good fight in Bonar's I heard the voice of Jesus say (247); and the beauty of the world in Pierpoint's For the beauty of the earth (104).

A frequent contemporary criticism was that hymns were excessively sentimental and effeminate, not ‘manly' nor suitable for people in their daily struggles, vide the Church Times 1897 which called for the dropping of hymns beginning with a capital I as being too subjective (cf Bonar above) and went on to complain of Newman's Lead, kindly light (215) as unsuitable for a congregation: "Largely composed of robust young men and maidens and rosy-faced children".

Many hymns owe their popularity to the tunes with which they are associated, many of which were written by specialist composers such as: John Dykes (21 tunes in the current A&M New Standard); Henry Gauntlett (11); S.S. Wesley (9). Dykes composed Praise to the Holiest in the height; Holy, Holy, Holy; and Ride on, ride on in Majesty whilst Gauntlett composed Once in Royal David's City and Jesus lives, thy terrors now. Arthur Sullivan, much better known for light opera, produced around 90 hymn tunes of which only 4 appear in A&M New Standard but they are among the most well known of hymn tunes, including Onward, Christian soldiers, It came upon the midnight clear and Alleluia, Alleluia, hearts to heaven and voices raise.

Victorian hymns had a unique popularity as they were sung regularly at public meetings, political gatherings, trade union rallies and for recreational purposes in private homes and even public houses. They were interwoven into Victorian social life (whereas today's hymns are confined to Church) and many have remained popular, vide a recent BBC poll in which 8 of the top 10 were Victorian: 1. Dear Lord and Father of mankind; 2. The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended; 4. Abide with me; 5. Guide me, O thou Great Jehovah.

RT/KC x/06