Monday, December 26, 2022

Loyal Lutheran Listeners Love Christmas Carols

On Friday, @IssuesEtc repeated their annual listener poll of favorite Christmas hymns and carols. Here I analyze in detail how the 20 songs selected map onto #Lutheran (and #Anglican) hymnody, as well as how this relates to the availability of recordings (a topic I discussed this month for Advent hymns).

The December 23 show demonstrated the skill of the show’s host, Pastor Todd Wilken, who soon begins his 25th year behind the microphone. He expertly merged 41 votes (from phone calls, email, Tweets and Facebook comments) for these pieces. But more generally, this episode is a masterful use of the radio (or MP3-delayed podcast) format, with brief (and mostly interesting) listener suggestions interspersed with playing recordings of the crowd favorites.

The Nominees

Formally entitled “What Is Your Favorite Christmas Hymn, and Why?” Friday’s two-hour show played 20 musical pieces. I looked each one up on Hymnary: Hymnary’s total of hymnals using the hymn (listed below) includes alternate translations. 

In alphabetical order (with the start times indicated), these 20 pieces were:

  1. “All my heart this night rejoices” [01:26:40]: translated from “Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen” by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676); 267 hymnals. 

  2. “Angels we have heard on high” [00:39:10]: translated from “Les Anges dans nos Campagnes”, an 18th century French carol; 213 hymnals. Performed by Solo Deo Cantorum.

  3. “Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light” [00:52:40]: by Johann Rist (1607-1667); 55 hymnals. Performed by Robert Shaw Chamber Singers.

  4. “For unto us a child is born” [01:13:55]: by G.F. Händel (1685-1759).  Performed by Bach Collegium Japan.

  5. “From heaven above to earth I come” [00:58:30]: translated from “Vom himmel hoch” by Martin Luther (1483-1546); 147 hymnals. 

  6. “God rest ye merry gentlemen” [01:29:50]:, an 18th century English carol; 116 hymnals. Performed by King's College Choir.

  7. “Hark the herald angels sing” [00:17:20]: by Charles Wesley (1707-1788); 1350 hymnals. Performed by King's College Choir.

  8. “Joy to the world” [00:02:35]: by Isaac Watts (1674-1748); 1814 hymnals. Performed by John Rutter & Cambridge Singers.

  9. “Let our gladness have no end” [00:24:50]: translated from “Narodil se Kristus Pán”, 15th century Bohemian carol; 10 hymnals. Performed by Children's Choirs of St. Paul Lutheran Church (Fort Wayne).

  10. “Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming” [01:36:20]: translated from “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”, 16th century German carol; 106 hymnals. Performed by LPR Choir.

  11. “O come, all ye faithful” [01:05:25]: translated from “Adeste Fidelis” by James Frances Wade (1711-1786); 924 hymnals. Performed by King's College Choir.

  12. “O Holy Night” [00:21:50]: translated from “Cantique de Noël” by Placide Cappeau (1808-1877); 45 hymnals. Performed by Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

  13. “O how Joyfully” [01:33:40]: translated from “O du Fröhliche” by Johann Daniel Falk (1728-1826); 129 hymnals. Performed by Kapelle of Concordia University Chicago.

  14. “O Jesus Christ, thy manager is” [00:47:55]: translated from “O Jesu Christ, Dein Kripplein Ist” by Paul Gerhardt; 7 hymnals. 

  15. “Of the father's love begotten” [00:31:50]: translated from “Corde natus ex Parentis” by Prudentius (348-405+); 218 hymnals. Performed by Cantorei of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne.

  16. “Praise God the Lord ye sons of men” [00:06:15]: translated from “Lobt Gott Ihr Christen” by Nikolaus Herman (c.1500-1561); 115 hymnals. Performed by LPR Choir.

  17. “Silent Night” [01:18:25]: translated from “Stille Nacht” by Joseph Mohr (1792-1848); 749 hymnals. Performed by Musica Sacra.

  18. “What child is this” [00:44:45]: by W. Chatterton Dix (1837-1898); 197 hymnals. Performed by Richard Proulx & The Cathedral Singers.

  19. “What sweeter music” [01:44:15]: by Robert Herrick (1591-1674).  Performed by John Rutter & Cambridge Singers.

  20. “Where shepherds lately knelt” [00:10:30]: by Jaroslav Vajda (1919-2008); 9 hymnals. 

Note that two are not actually hymns (and don’t appear in hymnals). One is “For until us a child is born,” the 12th movement from Part I (the Advent section) of Händel’s. The other is “What sweeter music,” a carol written by John Rutter (based on a 16th century poem) for the 1987 King’s College Cambridge Lessons & Carols service.

Of the 18 hymns, 7 were originally in German — perhaps not surprising for a radio show serving the main Lutheran denomination established by German immigrants to the U.S. Meanwhile, 2 were from French and 2 from Latin — all four of these are popular American carols, as are two of the German ones.


Some performers were announced, while in other cases Shazam identified the recording for me.

Not surprisingly, six familiar pieces were performed by professional caliber English choirs: King’s College Cambridge (3), John Rutter and his Cambridge Singers (2) and Richard Proulx and The Cathedral Singers (1). Four came from similar caliber American choirs, with one each by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Musica Sacra, Robert Shaw Chamber Singers and Solo Deo Gloria Cantroum, and one Japanese group (Bach Collegium Japan).

Five of the German Lutheran hymns were credited to US Lutheran performers, including elite choirs from Concordia Chicago and the Fort Wayne seminary. Three German hymns and one 20th century LCMS hymn were uncredited, but some sounded like the LPR Choir (credited with two performances).

Singing these Hymns at Christmas

To see how much these hymns could be sung by congregations — and to judge how “Lutheran” these hymns are — I looked at the latest hymnal of the largest U.S. Lutheran jurisdictions:

  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006)
  • Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod: Lutheran Service Book (2006)
  • Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod: Christian Worship (1993)
  • Evangelical Lutheran Synod: Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (1996)

For Anglican comparison, also searched the latest Church of England hymnal used in most English choral recordings (New English Hymnal), The Episcopal Church hymnal also used by ACNA parishes (Hymnal 1982), and the main hymnal of Continuing Anglicans (Hymnal 1940). (Note I am ignoring variations in tunes and text, which were a big deal for Advent hymns I examined earlier).

1 All my heart this night rejoices 32 545   273 360 37 115
2 Angels we have heard on high 42 96   289 368 63 116
3 Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light 25 91     378 44  
5 From heaven above to earth I come       268 358 38 123 & 124
6 God rest ye merry gentlemen 40 105         126
7 Hark the herald angels sing 27 87 26 270 380 61 125
8 Joy to the world 775 100   267 387 62 138
9 Let our gladness have no end       291 381    
10 Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming 17 81   272 359    
11 O come, all ye faithful 12 93 30 283 379 55 133
14 O Jesus Christ, thy manager is         372 40 161
15 Of the Father's love begotten 20 82 33 295 384 35 181
16 Praise God the Lord ye sons of men             148
17 Silent Night 33 111 34   363   140
18 What child is this 36 115 40 296 37067 145
20 Where shepherds lately knelt         369 54  

No surprise that the Händel (#4) and Rutter (#19) choral pieces were not in hymnals, and only a small surprise that “O Holy Night” (#12) is not.

The big surprise was the absence of two German Lutheran hymns in the German hymnal: “O du Fröhliche” (#13) was not in any current hymnal, while “Lobt Gott Ihr Christen” (#16) was only in the hymnal of the (historically Norwegian) ELS (although both tunes were used elsewhere in recent Lutheran hymnals). Also, the hymn by 17th century Lutheran Pastor Jacob Rist (#3) with its Bach harmonization seems more popular among Episcopalians than Lutherans.

The Winner: a Favorite for 16 Centuries

Thirteen of the hymns were nominated by only one caller (or correspondent), including such perennial favorites such as “Angels we have heard on high” and “Silent night.” Three received two votes; those with more were

  • 3 votes: ”Joy to the world” and “O come, all the faithful”
  • 5 votes: “Hark the herald angels sing”

Most of the reasons for the votes were either because of what the text teaches, or strong personal memories or sentiments associated with the hymn.

With 11 votes, the landslide winner was “Of the Father’s love begotten,” a 4th century hymn by Prudentius that I blogged about in 2008 (based on an Issues Etc. discussion of the hymn by a LCMS seminary Professor Arthur Just) and 2010. Of course, I’m particularly excited because the hymn was introduced into the English-language repertoire by John Mason Neale, the great hymn translator of the 19th century.

What was particularly interesting were many of the comments by those who wrote to nominate the hymn. I tried to transcribe all 11 comments, but here are some excerpts:

  • Elaine: “because of the transcendent beauty of the music and the lyrics”
  • Joshua: “text and tune are beautiful, and a long part of the church’s history”
  • Janet: “because I have always loved ancient melodies and texts”
  • David: “it’s been sung by Christians since the fourth century”
  • Jennifer: “the simplicity of the plainchant makes you focus on the fabulous lyrics which take you from the beginning of time to the end, full of the gospel message combined that with the age of the hymn and I love thinking about all the saints before who have sung the same words”
  • Brandon: “I love the beautiful simplicity of that ancient hymn. It’s a joy to hear or sing — with or without accompaniment — yet the majesty of the lyrics can still awe.  And given its age I like how by singing it, the church unites across time and space in language to honor the birth of our savior.”

To me, this is the epitome of the argument for what I call “timeless hymns” and this hymn’s place at the front of the panoply of such hymns.

I realize that those who call and nominate a hymn are not a cross-section of a parish or denomination. Still, I think it suggests that the arguments that we have to dumb down worship to reach Christian worshippers are giving up much too easily.


  • Joint Commission on the Revision of the Hymnal, The Hymnal 1940 Companion, 3rd ed. (New York: Church Pension Fund, 1951).
  • Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrot, The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)
  • Joel W. West, “Singing Together for the Advent of our Lord,” North American Anglican, December 22, 2022, URL:

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Praise songs without pentinence

In the past, I’ve expressed my skepticism about Christian Contemporary Music. But as I keep running into (intelligent and capable) CCM advocates, it’s clear I need to identify more theoretical and empirical evidence supporting these concerns. 

This month, Terry Mattingly of GetReligion highlighted a study of CCM texts by Prof. Michael J. Rhodes, a Baptist Old Testament professor in New Zealand. (Strangely, the original story and Twitter tweets are from last September).

The story was about how Rhodes looked at the lyrics of the first 25 songs in the CCLI Top 100 worship songs. He contrasted the themes of the top 25 praise songs to those of the 150 psalms of the historic psalter. Here are a few highlights from Rhodes’ Sept. 30 column in Christianity Today:
  • “There is only one passing mention of the word justice in the Top 25. …
  • “There are zero references to the poor or poverty in the Top 25. …
  • “The widow, refugee, and oppressed are completely absent from the Top 25. …
  • “References to enemies are rare in the Top 25.”
And his final point:
Maybe most devastatingly, in the Top 25, not a single question is ever posed to God. When we sing the Top 25, we don’t ask God anything. By contrast, prick the Psalter and it bleeds with the cries of the oppressed, pleading for God to act.
So without assessing the pros and cons of Rhodes’ argument, his premise is indisputable: the themes of 2500-3000 years of Judeo-Christian worship are the gold standard, and today’s praise hymns don’t measure up to that standard.

Penitential Hymns

To be fair, the typical Christmas, Easter or Trinitytide hymns tend to be upbeat as well.

Still, when considering the psalms, I spotted what I thought an even more striking omission: no mention of the pentience, repentance and confession by King David and others throughout the psalms, repeated by worshippers across the centuries. The first and last verses of this hymn — sung by Episcopalians at Lent — seems an appropriate example of what such pentinence might look like:
With broken heart and contrite sigh
A trembling sinner, Lord, I cry:
Thy pardoning grace is rich and free
O God, be merciful to me.

And when, redeemed from sin and hell,
With all the ransomed throng I dwell,
My raptured song shall ever be,
God has been merciful to me.
Authored in 1852 by English Baptist preacher Cornelius Elven, for Episcopalians it has been sung regularly since it was first published in The Hymnal of 1874.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Hymns for Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day is an unusual holiday in the BCP — not part of the liturgical calendar, but with more theological significance than the other “National Days” (as my favorite hymnal terms them).

I previously wrote a 1500-word article for North American Anglican entitled “Hymns ‘of’ Thanksgiving and ‘for’ Thanksgiving.” Since people can read it there, let me summarize a few ideas here.

First, despite the origins of the holiday with the 17th century Pilgrims, the US ECUSA prayer book ignored the holiday until it got its own collect and readings in the 1928 BCP — and was also mentioned in the 1979 and 2019 prayer books. In the 1928, it has a substitute for the Venite that is derived from Psalm 147; this has four chants in Hymnal 1940 (684-687) although I think using the Venite plainchant (612) would be more realistic.

In the article, I identified eight hymns from the three current American hymnals — Hymnal 1940, Hymnal 1982 and Magnify the Lord (aka Book of Common Praise 2017) —as well as the US (1916) and English antecedents (TEH, A&M). From this, I recommended three hymns as suitable for a November harvest-themed festival:

  • Come, ye thankful people, come” sung to St. George’s Windsor (H40: 137; H82: 290; MTL: 203) was universally popular since its 1861 publication in Hymns Ancient and Modern.
  • We plow the fields and scatter” sung to Claudius (H40: 138; H82: 291; MTL: 204) also dates to 1861.
  • For the beauty of the earth” (H40: 296; H82: 416; MTL: 206,207) originated with The English Hymnal (1906), but there is little agreement on the tune.

All three of these appear in more than 400 hymnals, and thus may be known to Christians from other backgrounds. But for an ecumenical hymn that will be widely known, I’d recommend the Catherine Winkworth translations of two German hymns:

The runners up are the Presbyterian “Praise to God, immortal praise,” the Dutch “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” and the Anglican “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”

Together, these eight hymns cover both concepts of Thanksgiving — the November U.S. holiday or general gratitude to our divine creator.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

"My Way" as Highway to Hell?

Among the most theological of C.S. Lewis' books is The Great Divorce. Lewis uses the writer George MacDonald — who he considered “his master” — to explain how so many people end up in Hell.

The Great Divorce was the subject of one of four talks by Peter Kreeft last week at the Anglican Way Institute. Kreeft, a prolific author and Catholic philosophy professor at Boston College, noted that one passage of the book is more quoted than any other:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”
Kreeft considered this an apt summary of a doctrine of free will and salvation — as (during Q&A) did Fr. Lawrence Bausch, the outgoing head of Forward in Faith North America. In the end, this is just another manifestation of Pride, the first of the Seven Deadly Sins formalized in the 6th century by Pope Gregory.

The Pastoral Dilemma of Funeral Hymns

Hearing this summary of The Great Divorce suggested a potential pastoral problem. Sure enough: when I looked up the latest funeral hymn survey by a U.K. chain of funeral homes, this is what I found:
Based on the data and insights of our Funeral Directors and Funeral Arrangers, who conduct up to 100,000 funerals a year, we can reveal that our 2019 chart winner is... ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra.

The Sinatra song was tops not only in the 2019 survey, but also in 2016 and 2012. (It was briefly dislodged by “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” in the 2014 survey).

The problem is that, as Kreeft summarized, “Every time we choose ‘my will be done’ instead of ‘thy will be done,’ we choose hell.” In case people missed his point, Kreeft termed the Sinatra favorite as “the song people sing going into hell”. (While “My Way” has been the overall leader for most of the past decade, “Highway to Hell” was #5 on the Rock chart in 2016).

It’s a little too late to convert the heart of the deceased once he/she is in a pine box. So discussing funeral hymns seems like a catechetical opportunity for pre-need planning — at least for those who still want a church ceremony.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Cambridge Choral Christmas in Covidtide

As (almost) every year since 1918, the King‘s College Choir (@ChoirOfKingsCam) today sang its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. As with last year, it was led by Daniel Hyde, the seventh KCC Director of Music since the broadcasts began in 1928. Thanks to the current pandemic, it was broadcast via tape delay rather than live with a congregation.

Hyde stepped in last fall to lead the choir in the 2019 service. In 2020, with a full year to prepare (albeit during the season of Covidtide), Hyde clearly put his mark on the choir and the beloved Christmas Eve service. He added two carols that (according to the cross-reference) were not sung at the service in the past 40 years or so
  • As I sat on a Sunny Bank, a folk carol variant of “I saw Three Ships” arranged by Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987)
  • Still, Still, Still, arranged by Bob Chilcott (1955-)
As seems to be KCC custom, Hyde used his own descant, in this case for the Poston carol. Overall, my daughter and I heard four pieces with descants:
  1. Once in Royal David’s City, with the familiar Stephen Cleobury descant
  2. While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night, in an arrangement (and thus presumably descant) credited to KCC professor (and vice provost) Nicholas Marston (c. 1960-)
  3. O Come all ye Faithful, with the KCC signature double-descant in the final two verses. The program implies they are by Christopher Robinson (1936-) and David Hill (1957-). These were the descants teased (from the separate TV broadcast) in a 38 second clip on the official Twitter account
  4. Hark the Herald Angels Sing, with the familiar Philip Ledger descant
At least three carols appeared to be new arrangements: “O Come all ye Faithful”, “Away in a Manger” and “The Holly and the Ivy”. Hyde also brought back three arrangements that ( implies) were last sung during Ledger’s tour at the helm (1974-1981): “Of the Father’s Heart Begotten,” “A Maiden Most Gentle,” and “The Shepherd’s Cradle Song”.

Of course, the choir sang familiar pieces as well:
  • Three date to the original service: Once in Royal, O Come, and Hark the Herald Angels. 
  • Others were sung last year, notably Vaughan Williams’ “This is the Truth” and Sussex Carol (“On Christmas Night all Christians Sing”)
  • Others were sung for the 2018 centennial: 
    • “Adam lay Ybounden,” arranged by former KCC leader Boris Ord (1929-39, 1946-56)
    • “In the Bleak Midwinter,” the Rosetti poem with melody and harmony by former leader Harold Darke (1940-45)
    • “In dulci jubilo,” translated and arranged by Robert de Pearsall
The recording is available online, or repeated on BBC 3 at 1300 GMT Christmas Day (0800 EST, 0500 PST). For once, the choir can listen with their family.