This is the first installment of an intermittent series I’ve called “Hymns We Should Sing More Often.” The aim is to remind us (or introduce for the first time) excellent hymns that are probably not included in most church’s musical canon. A few hymns–like Holy, Holy, Holy or Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing—are familiar to many congregations and get sung in conferences and other large gatherings. Unfortunately, for a growing number of churches, there are no hymnals in the pews (or on the chairs), and consequently there is little opportunity to draw from the deep well of Christian hymnody. Most of the hymns in this series are not unfamiliar, just underutilized. I hope you will enjoy learning about these hymns as much as I have and enjoy singing them even more.
A few people reading this post can remember World War II. The rest of us know about it from movies, books, and television. The war ended 65 years ago, which seems like the distant past if you’ve used email your whole life. But it’s recent history compared to the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), which feels like yesterday compared to British Civil War nearly four centuries ago (1641-1651). Think of how the world has changed in 400 years. The growth of cities, the car, the plane, the computer, indoor plumbing, the rise of democratic capitalism, the transformation of agriculture, the first European settlers in America—400 years was a long time ago.
And yet, you have to go back another 400 years to get to the Fifth Crusade (1215-1221) and another 400 years from that to witness the death of Charlemagne (814). Now we are in the so-called Dark Ages (which actually weren’t so dark), worlds away from life as we know it.
But we still haven’t gone back far enough to get to this particular hymn.
Holy God, We Praise Your Name is based on the fourth century Latin hymn Te Deum Laudamus (“You, God, we praise”), often known simply as the Te Deum. The author is unknown, though church tradition ascribes the hymn to Ambrose and Augustine, on the occasion of Augustine’s baptism by Ambrose in 387. The Te Deum, used in all branches of the Christian church and often used as a setting for large choral arrangements, worships the Triune God by exulting in a mighty symphony of praise streaming forth from all creation, the saints on earth and the saints in heaven, angel choirs, the apostles, prophets, and martyrs, and the worldwide church. Look up the Te Deum and read the whole thing. It’s a beautiful work that deserves to be read 1600 years later.
Our English translation, which covers only the first half of the Latin hymn, comes from Clarence Walworth, a nineteenth century Catholic priest from New York. The Te Deum can be accompanied by many different tunes. The Trinity Hymnal uses GROSSER GOTT, an eighteenth century German tune whose simple and stately melody serves to accentuate the high-sounding doxology of the text.
Holy God, we praise your name; Lord of all, we bow before you;
all on earth your scepter claim, all in heav’n above adore you.
Infinite your vast domain, everlasting is your reign.
Hark, the loud celestial hymn angel choirs above are raising;
cherubim and seraphim in unceasing chorus praising,
fill the heav’ns with sweet accord: “Holy, holy, holy Lord.”
Lo! the apostolic train join your sacred name to hallow;
prophets swell the glad refrain, and the white-robed martyrs follow;
and from morn to set of sun, through the church the song goes on.
Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, Three we name you;
while in essence only One, undivided God we claim you,
and adoring bend the knee, while we sing this mystery.