For centuries, people have been using music and the arts in their reflection on faith and God, even feeling God’s presence as they sing praises. The history of Christian praise poetry and hymns (from the Greek word “hymnos”) is as old as the religion itself.
Christian poetry can be any poetic form that cites the Bible or provides allegory – a literary device that uses symbolism and imagery to convey concepts and ideas. The poems may contain themes and scripture references.
Early poetic works are as old as the Christian faith, as evidenced by a poem that appears in the New Testament. During the emergence of Christianity in late antiquity, some Christian poems had allusions to pagan deities due to the influence of these early religions.
In the 7th century, Christian missionaries taught the Anglo-Saxons to write, and later on, the English would write their literature and poems. Christian themes appeared in heroic poetry of early English literature, such as in Beowulf. The religious poems of the Anglo-Saxons were mainly crafted by two Christian monks, Caedmon and Cynewulf.
The epic poem The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is considered one of the greatest works written in the Italian language.
Modern Christian poems contain references, teachings and themes, either explicitly stated or implicitly conveyed. Notable poets include T.S. Elliot, John Milton, John Donne, Robert Lowell and William Blake.
Hymns are formal songs that are sung to God and are intended to emphasize the words. Praise or worship songs, on the other hand, are not traditional songs and are accompanied by musical instruments. Hymns have been in existent for centuries, while praise songs were introduced only in the 1960s.
Devotional singing was a part of worship for the people of Israel. Moses and the Israelites sang to the Lord when they escaped Egypt (Exodus 15). The New Testament tells us that Jesus and his disciples sung hymns (Matthew 26:30), and that early Christians would sing spiritual songs when they would gather (1 Corinthians 14:26-14:26) or as a part of individual expressions of faith (Ephesians 5:19-5:19). Hymns are different from (albeit modeled on) the Psalms, yet the Psalms suggest that people would raise their voices in song for God, whether for praise or lament.
Other than these passages, no hymns were recorded from the first three centuries of the Christian Church, and the passages revealed no sign of using musical instruments.
The earliest hymns to have been recorded are dated to the 4th and 5th centuries, many of which are still sung in Christian churches today.
The tradition of unaccompanied worship music continued until the 10th or 12th century when Western Christians introduced the organ in formal church service. By the 15th century, the Western Roman Catholic Church accepted organ music as part of the liturgy.
More congregations of today sing hymns in unison and with musical accompaniment. Some Christian groups exclude the use of instruments, citing that the New Testament doesn’t suggest the use of instruments.