The Most Popular Hymns and the Stories Behind Them

The Most Popular Hymns and the Stories Behind Them


Across the world, millions of Christians raise their voices in song to praise the Lord. Singing is a natural part of worship, for music and poetry are powerful channels of communication and emotion. Among the thousands of songs, hymns hold a special meaning in the Christian faith. Many hymns that we still sing today have existed for hundreds of years. They not only reflect the gospel and our devotion, they also connect us to the Christians of old.

Here is a list of the most popular hymns that have touched the Christian world because of their timeless appeal.

  1. Amazing Grace – John Newton, England (1779)


Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Amazing Grace was written by a man who lived his life as a “wretch”, until one fateful event that turned his life around. As a young boy, John Newton’s dream was to sail the high seas, and by age 11, he had realized that dream and spent the next 20 years as a mariner. He didn’t manage to smoothly sail through life over that span, however. He grew up living the ways of the wicked – he deserted his ship, tortured slaves and was even jailed.

His heart turned to God’s saving grace during a catastrophic voyage. In 1748, a violent storm was about to break Newton’s ship and send the entire crew to the bottom when Newton, fearing for his life, started to pray. He prayed earnestly, even though he had a pang of doubt that the Lord would bring mercy to a wretch like him. Suddenly, God answered his prayers and the storm miraculously faded.

In 1755, he gave up seafaring and studied Greek and Hebrew in preparation for religious study. He served the Church as an Anglican priest in 1764. This was when he composed “Amazing Grace,” a direct reflection of his experience of God’s saving grace.

  1. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God – Martin Luther, Germany (c. 1528)

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

This is famous among Lutherans and Protestants. Written by Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God has been referred to as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” due to its intended motivational message for the Reformers, which were facing a heated battle against the established church of the time.

The hymn was written in 1529 when Luther’s Christian movement faced mounting opposition. During times of struggle and suffering, Luther would often turn to Psalm 46 to find comfort in the passage, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

A song Luther titled Ein feste burg ist unswer Gott (“A sure stronghold our God is He”) was then modeled from the Psalm. The translation by Frederick Hedge changed this title to A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.

After being composed, the hymn almost immediately became popular, with the people of the Reformation singing it constantly in the streets.

Some arguments about the music’s origin state that J.S. Bach should be credited instead. However, Bach was born more than a hundred years after Ein feste burg ist unswer Gott was popularized, making it apparent that Luther originally made the composition.

  1. Christ the Lord Is Risen Today – Charles Wesley, England (1739)

Christ, the Lord, is risen today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth, reply, Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Lo! the Sun’s eclipse is over, Alleluia!
Lo! He sets in blood no more, Alleluia!

An English leader for the Methodist movement, Wesley was one of the most prolific English poets, having written more than 6,000 hymns.

Christ the Lord Is Risen Today appeared in the collection Hymns and Sacred Songs by Charles and John Wesley (his brother), although majority of the hymn was penned by Charles.

The hymn is a resurrection song and is still used as processional music for Easter Sunday. It was written by Charles to use it at the first church service of the Wesley Chapel in London. The chapel was converted from an iron foundry and was renamed the Foundry Meeting House.

  1. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – Charles Wesley, England (1739)

Hark! The Herald Angels sing,
Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!
Joyful, all ye nations, rise.
Join the triumph of the skies.
With th’ Angelic Hosts proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem!
Hark! The herald angels sing,
Glory to the new-born King.

Another hymn from Charles Wesley, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is one of the few Christian hymns to have undergone so many changes since it was first written. The original version was slower and more solemn than the familiar tune of today. The hymn first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems, and then appeared again in 1743 as a revised version. Originally, it opened with a different beginning: “Hark! How all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings.” This changed into “Hark! The herald angels sing / Glory to the new-born King” when the hymn appeared in George Whitefield’s Collection of hymns for social worship (1753). Other changes were implemented in 1760, 1782, 1810 and 1861.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was said to have been written by Wesley upon finding inspiration from the festive tolls of London’s church bells while he was walking to church on Christmas.

  1. To God Be the Glory – Fanny Crosby, New York City, USA (1872)

To God be the glory, great things He hath done;
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,
And opened the life gate that all may go in.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,
And give Him the glory, great things He hath done.

Fanny Crosby wrote the lyrics and William Howard Doane the tune. Published in 1875 in the collection Brightest and Best, To God Be the Glory first appeared in 1872. The hymn didn’t receive immediate acclaim in the United States, but it was already popular in the United Kingdom before its publication. In 1954, Cliff Barrows was given a copy so that it could be added to the London Crusade song book. His audience responded very positively, so he played it again in Nashville, TN for the following year’s Crusade. Their American audience received the hymn with much enthusiasm, prompting Barrows to use the hymn as part of their standards. This exposure propelled the hymn to global recognition and brought it to most modern hymnals.


Leave a Reply