Songwriters Tell Their Stories: Kids in costume introduce a service of songs

Several well-known hymn writers “reappeared” recently for one hour in Bloomington, Minnesota. They were our guests at a hymn festival that was planned to build appreciation for the hymnody of the church among our children—and adults. The service was inspired by an article by Hal Hopson in The Chorister (Summer 1998), the journal of the Choristers Guild.

The Calvary Junior Choir and the Northfield (Minnesota) Junior Choir, both directed by Kathy Engle, with the Angelica Cantati Prep Choir directed by Rita Doctor, formed a massed choir of nearly one hundred children’s voices. They learned two anthems, but mostly they learned and memorized hymns—eight of them in all. Each hymn was sung with an appropriate stylistic accompaniment: tolling handbells on “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” guitar on “Amazing Grace,” Orff instruments on “Go Now in Peace,” organ on “A Mighty Fortress,” gospel piano on “Blessed Assurance,” unaccompanied singing on Genevan Psalm 98.

To introduce each hymn, the costumed hymn writer told his or her story and the story of how the hymn came to life. It was very moving to sing the hymns with new understanding following the hymn writer’s introduction.

Everyone enjoyed the service, saying that the hymns sung that night would never be the same again. The most rewarding aspect, however, was to see how excited the children were about learning and singing hymns. They can’t wait to learn eight new hymns next year and meet eight more hymn writers!


Organ Prelude: “A Suite of Gospel-Hymn Preludes,” Wilbur Held

Call to Worship: “Break Forth into Singing,” Eugene Butler

Opening Hymn of Praise: “When in Our Music God Is Glorified” PsH 512, PH 264, RL 508, TWC 403

God’s Greeting

Opening Prayer (concluded by everyone praying our Lord’s Prayer together)

Dear God,

Let the Amen sound from your people again. Gladly we praise you forever.

May the songs on our lips spring from our hearts, may they remind us that you are a God of love, and that no sin or failure is beyond your forgiveness.

May our songs remind us that you are a God of beauty and holiness. Thank you for poets, composers, singers, and instrumentalists who join your creativity to bring to life your goodness through word and music.

May our songs remind us that you are the God of all the afflicted. Therefore we remember the faithful who, having made music on this earth, now sing your praises in heaven.

May our songs remind us that you are the God of all people. Therefore we remember those whose lives are difficult because of injustice, bigotry, poverty, illness, or sorrow.

May our songs remind us that you are worthy of all our praise. May we leave this place of worship with a new resolve to honor whatever things are honorable, excellent, and worthy of praise—whatever things are lovely, gracious, and beautiful.

Hear us, O God, as we gather up our prayers and praises in the words which our Lord Himself taught us:

Our Father, which art in heaven. . . .

Greetings from Bishop Ambrose of Milan (see box p. 36)


Good evening. It is my pleasure to be the first hymn writer to speak as we begin our hymn festival this evening.

In the very early church—the church described in the New Testament book of Acts—Christians gathered together to break bread and sing psalms. Soon Christians started writing their own psalms or hymns to comfort each other through times of persecution and theological controversy.

When I was bishop of Milan in the fourth century, the church had a huge disagreement over Christ. Some people, called Arians, denied that Jesus was the Christ. The Arians formed an army and tried to overtake my cathedral in Milan.

When they heard the army coming, some of my office staff came and got me. I quickly gathered everyone inside the cathedral, and we started to sing. The Arians were so overwhelmed by our beautiful singing that they stood silent and one by one walked away.

One of the hymns we sang that day was “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” Actually, a friend of mine, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, helped me write it. Ever since that day we sang “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” I have been known as the person who established hymn singing in Christian churches.

At my cathedral we had no organ so we sang our texts to unison, plainsong melodies. I’d like for us to sing my hymn that way tonight.

Hymn: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” PsH 342, PH 309, RL 190, TH 162, TWC 145

Greetings from Martin Luther (see box p. 37)


Hello. My name is Martin Luther. When I nailed my ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517, I started the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation was about many things. One of them had to do with singing. The church of my time needed hymn texts that the common people understood and tunes that were singable.

I enjoyed singing in the finest choirs during my seminary training. But in the Roman Catholic church, only the priests and monks and choirs were allowed to sing. I felt that it was crucial for the entire congregation to sing. So I challenged poets and musicians alike to create words and texts that all people could learn. We also took tunes that people were singing and whistling in the streets and on their jobs. I even tried my hand at writing hymn texts and tunes.

My most popular and probably best-known hymn is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the “battle hymn” of the Reformation. I was inspired to write this text after reading Psalm 46. We’re going to sing that hymn now. We’ll all sing stanzas 1-2; the organ only will “sing” stanza 3; and we’ll all conclude by singing stanza 4.

Remember, my goal was to write hymns that everyone—young and old alike—could sing with fervor and gusto. Let my words and music point to God, the giver of every good and perfect gift.

Hymn: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”

Stanzas 1-2: All, in unison

Stanza 3: Organ alone, portraying the text “and though this world with devils filled.”

Stanza 4: All, in harmony

Greetings from John Calvin (see box p. 37)


Good evening. My name is John Calvin. Like my friend Martin Luther, I lived and worked at the time of the Protestant Reformation. I wrote my interpretations and summary of Christian doctrine in a book entitled The Institutes of the Christian Religion—eighty chapters in all!

But I would take issue with some of your hymn-writer friends that are with us tonight. I believe that the only texts worthy of being sung to God in public worship are those from the Bible. That’s why in my church in Geneva we sang only the Psalms—the hymnbook in the middle of the Bible.

And I object to most all of the tunes and music used here tonight. They’re too fancy and energetic. In my church, we used tunes that were simple and easily learned. Sure, we used the best musicians and poets to set the words of the Bible to music, but I am concerned that the music should never become greater than the text itself.

Let me show you what I mean. Turn in your books to [PsH 98]. Here is the 98th Psalm as I had Merot and Bourgeouis publish it. Notice there’s no meter. The notes only cover the range of an octave, and the note values are either long or short. That’s it. The music has a simple majesty so that we can focus on the text of Holy Scripture—the words of Psalm 98.

There is one point on which I do agree with my esteemed friend and colleague Martin Luther. I too feel that the entire congregation should be involved in singing the Psalms. If this congregation is like mine in Geneva, most of you can’t read and are too poor to own your own Psalters even if you could read the text and music!

So this is what I did. We had a gifted soloist from the congregation sing each line of the psalm. Then the congregation simply repeated what the soloist sang. And of course we did not use the organ—that most graven, monstrous instrument that only detracts us from the text. So let’s do it that way today: let’s sing with joy Psalm 98.

Psalm: “Sing, Sing a New Song to the Lord God” PsH 98

Greetings from John Work (see box this page)


Good evening. My name is John Wesley Work the Third. I was born in 1872 in Nashville, Tennessee, and I lived there my entire life.

Although I spent most of my life working as a musician, I became known for my work with African-American spirituals. You see, I am a direct descendant of an ex-slave. When I was a boy, my dad and grandpa told me stories of their slavery years. They sang their songs to me, and later, when I was older, I was one of the first to write those songs down in music and on paper.

One of the most famous spirituals is “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Using the typical call-and-response pattern of spirituals, this song is a simple retelling of the birth story of Jesus found in Luke 2.

I invite you to join me and my family in singing this great spiritual with gusto and great volume—and yes, with soul!

Hymn: “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” PsH 356, PH 29, RL 224, SFL 131, TH 224, TWC 151

Greetings from Fanny Crosby (see box this page)


Good evening, y’all. My name is Fanny Crosby, and I’ve been blind since I was six years old. Maybe that’s why the sounds of church have always been especially important to me—particularly the hymn singing of the congregation. How I used to love the summertime revival meetings where we’d sing all my favorite gospel songs!

In fact, I love gospel songs so much that I’ve written over eight thousand hymn texts! You may recognize some of them: “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Rescue the Perishing,”and the hymn we’re going to sing together today, “Blessed Assurance.”

I want to tell you a funny story about how this hymn came to be. One day I was siting on the veranda, sunning myself, when my friend Phoebe Palmer Knapp just happened to stroll by. (Phoebe and her husband founded the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and went to my church. They were extremely wealthy.) Well, she was strolling up the walk, just humming a charming little tune. I turned my head and asked her, “Phoebe, what’s that you’re humming?” She said she had just made it up as she was walking over to pay me a visit. It went like this: [Hum e-d-c-g-g-f-g-a-g].

Phoebe said to me, “Fanny, do you like it?” I said, “Yes, I do.” And Phoebe said, “Well, what does that tune say to you?” I smiled ear to ear and said, “Why Phoebe, that tune says “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine.” And at that very moment this new gospel song was born. Let’s stand and sing it with the energy of the crowd at a southern revival!

Hymn: “Blessed Assurance” PsH 490, PH 341, RL 453, TH 693, TWC 514

Greetings from Robert Lowry (see box p. 39)


Good even’n. I was born in 1826 in Philadelphia, and my name is Robert Lowry. Two things were important to me in life: preachin’ and sing’n. One of my most popular hymns is “Shall We Gather at the River.” Let me tell you ’bout it.

One hot, hot day I was sittin’ in New York. It was 1864, I reckon. The Civil War was happen’n. To make matters worse, an epidemic was sweeping through the city. When one of my best friends died a’ that disease, I just had ta’ get out of that place.

As I was a-packin’ to head out, family and friends kept on askin’ me, “So, are we going to meet again?” I reckon I didn’t have an answer just then.

Well, I got out of the city—it was still hot as blazes—and the first thing I did was found me a river to cool off in. Sittin’ there in that beautiful river, bein’ refreshed by the water, it hit me. I remembered the book of Revelation and the apostle John. And just sittin’ there in that water the words came to me. I wish I could have sung this hymn to the friends I left in New York City. I would have told them: “Yes! We’ll gather at the river. That beautiful, beautiful river; gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God!”

Hymn: “Shall We Gather at the River?” TWC 687

Greetings from John Newton (see box p. 39)


Good evening. My name is John Newton and, though I hate to say it myself, I wrote the most popular hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.”

But before we sing that hymn together, I need to tell you something about my life—something I’m not too proud to share with you. I was born in London in 1725—about the same time all the ruckus was starting up over here in the New Colonies. I had a Christian mother and a father who was a sea captain. My mom died when I was seven, so I went to work with my father on the ship. I got into trouble many times. And when I was old enough, I went to work for myself on a ship, trading slaves. I’d go to Africa and bring them back to England.

But one stormy night in 1748 my life changed. I was thrown overboard by a violent storm. There, in the middle of the ocean, struggling to live and not drown, I knew things just had to change. I can’t tell you exactly why, but something—someone—spoke to me. After I was rescued from the water, things started happening. I went home and fell in love with a wonderful Christian woman, Mary Catlett, and then someone gave me a copy of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. I gave up the slave trade and the same week heard a preacher who turned my life around: Charles Wesley. I was so moved by his preaching and the reading I was doing that I decided to follow Christ and I entered the ministry. Yes, me!

This hymn is my profession of faith. It’s my story. It’s how God’s grace can rescue all of us from sin—even though we aren’t deserving of this grace. God’s grace, shown to a blind sinner like me, was nothing short of amazing.

Hymn: “Amazing Grace” PsH 462, PH 280, RL 456, SFL 209, TH 460, TWC 502


Closing Hymn of Praise: “All Praise to You, My God, This Night” PsH 441, PH 542, RL 77, SFL 78, TH 409, TWC 361

Closing Blessing

We thank you, God, for hymn writers who make their lives songs to God through the sharing of their varied gifts and talents. As we sing hymns both old and new, help us to let the words remind us of the commitment of our lives to Jesus Christ. Let the melodies and harmonies call us to renew our lives in service to you. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Choral Response: “Go Now In Peace” PsH 317, SFL 79

Organ Postlude: “God of Grace and Glory,” Paul Manz

Randall D. Engle ( is pastor of North Hills Christian Reformed Church, Troy, Michigan.

Reformed Worship 54 © December 1999, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.