Let’s Lift Every Voice and Sing: Music of the Episcopal Hymnal

I was raised in the Methodist Church, but the first time I walked into an Episcopal Church, I was blown away by the music.

That was when I was 19 and attending West Georgia College in Carrollton. My friend and I went to St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church. Much of the liturgy* was sung, and there were lots of hymns, not to mention the anthem and the opening and closing voluntaries by the organ. I was hooked and have been ever since.

The Cathedral Choir Sings Choral Evensong At St. Paul's Cathedral, London, where John Donne was Dean (stpauls.co.uk)

The Cathedral Choir Sings Choral Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, where John Donne was Dean (stpauls.co.uk)

Whether this would affect other people as it did me, I don’t know, but I am a singer. The more I sing, the happier I am. Most of the music in the Episcopal Church comes from the hymnal, whether it’s hymns or service music. The service music includes the parts of a mass*: the Kyrie eleison*, the Sanctus*, Agnus Dei*, and the Gloria*, as well as canticles*, fraction anthems* (sung during the Eucharist*), and morning prayers. Hymns are sung during the opening processional, the presentation of gifts (the collection), the Eucharist, the procession into the world, and after the second lesson.

Hymnals have been authorized for the Episcopal Church by General Convention* since 1789, followed by 1826, 1871, 1892, 1916, 1940, and 1982.The first four had only text – no music. The 1916 hymnal was the first with music accompanying text. The 1982 hymnal, the one we use today, has 720 hymns. It begins with morning, noonday, evening, compline* hymns, then moves through the seasons of the church year:  Advent, Christmas, Epiphany*, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost*. There are other categories, too, such as music for the Eucharist, Christian responsibility, and Christian life. The music ranges from plainsong* and chant to medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical, modern, and spirituals.

Composer J. Rosamond Johnson with his brother poet James Weldon Johnson. ASCAP (wikipedia.org)

Composer J. Rosamond Johnson with his brother, poet James Weldon Johnson. ASCAP (wikipedia.org)

The fabulous composers include J.S. Bach, who also arranged and added harmony to numerous hymns, Palestrina, Martin Luther, Hans Hassler, William Boyce, William Billings, Mendolssohn, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Thomas Tallis. Some of the most beautiful melodies come from folk and country music from the U.S., Ireland, England, France, Germany, The Southern  Harmony, and more. The African-American spirituals are among my favorites, too, i. e. “Were You There” and “There is a Balm.” Another, for its words and joyful music, is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed by African-American J. Rosamund Johnson (words by poet James Weldon Johnson). We sing it every Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at my church, the Church of the Epiphany in Atlanta.

John Donne, 17th Century Metaphysical Poet and priest (wikipedia.org)

John Donne, 17th Century Metaphysical Poet and Priest (wikipedia.org)

Many of these hymns are written as fine as any poetry one can find, and much of it is poetry. Take “Wilt Thou Forgive That Sin” by poet John Donne. It’s a joy to read and sing. So is “Come My Way” (or “The Call”) by George Herbert, a contemporary of Donne’s. The words, set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, are:

Come my Way, my Truth, my Life;

Such a way as gives us breath;

Such a truth as ends all strife;

such a life as killeth death.

Psalms is another source of lyrics. Take Psalm 23, set to music by various sources, including the Irish melody St. Columba and the American folk melody Resignation:

The king of love my shepherd is,

whose goodness faileth never;

 I nothing lack if I am his,

 and he is mine forever. 

"St. Patrick depicted with shamrock in detail of stained glass window in St. Benin's Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland." (wikipedia.org)

“St. Patrick depicted with shamrock in detail of stained glass window in St. Benin’s Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland.” (wikipedia.org)

When I started my research for this article, I went through the hymnal to choose my favorite hymns. They are too many to mention all.  I’ve already named a few, but another is “I Bind Unto Myself” (St. Patrick’s Breastplate) with words by St. Patrick and set to an Irish melody. The words are a prayer, especially in the sixth verse: Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of  all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.  

"Portrait of Martin Luther," by Lucas Cranach, 1533 (commons.wikimedia.org)

“Portrait of Martin Luther,” by Lucas Cranach, 1533 (commons.wikimedia.org)

Another hymn that is so moving to me is “A Mighty Fortress Is My God.” Luther was a prolific hymn writer, and this one most symbolizes the Protestant Reformation, giving courage to people persecuted during that time. The words are based on Psalm 46, and Luther composed the music, which is actually joyous and dance-like. Bach added the harmony and a more stately arrangement.

But Christmas and Advent music is a section where nearly every hymn is a winner from “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” to “O Come, O Come Emanuel” to “Angels we have heard on high.” One rarely heard is “‘Twas in the moon of wintertime” (The Huron Carol), a tender carol telling the story of the birth of Jesus and the visit of the magi as native Americans. Jesus is born in a lodge of broken bark and wrapped in a ragged robe of rabbit skin. The chiefs kneel before him with gifts of fox and beaver pelt. It’s set to a French folk melody.

I have sung these hymns (not all 720 of them) many times over years of singing in choirs, and I never tire of them.


Liturgy: a proscribed form for Christian ceremonies.

Mass: celebration of the Eucharist; a musical setting of parts of the Mass.

Kyrie eleison: a brief petition and response in Latin used in liturgies, meaning Lord, have mercy.

Sanctus: a hymn of praise (Latin, meaning holy)

Agnus Dei: a liturgical prayer (Latin, meaning Lamb of God)

Gloria: an ancient hymn of praise.

Canticle: a song or chant, especially a non-metrical hymn taken from a biblical text.

Fraction anthem: spoken or sung during the Eucharist when the celebrant breaks the consecrated bread.

Eucharist (or Communion): a sacrament and the central act of worship in many Christian churches in which bread and wine areconsecrated and consumed in remembrance of Jesus’ death.

General Convention: the governing body of the Episcopal Church.

Compline: the final church service of the day.

Epiphany: a manifestation.  It’s celebrated on Jan. 6 in honor of the three kings who came to visit the infant Jesus.

Pentecost: celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit 40 days after Easter and commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples of Christ.


Now it’s your turn. Please comment on this post OR consider this question: What are your favorite hymns and why?


9 thoughts on “Let’s Lift Every Voice and Sing: Music of the Episcopal Hymnal

  1. One of my favorites is the Advent hymn, “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending.” Text is by Charles Wesley. The usual tune is Helmsley, by Thomas Augustine Arndt. It was actually “borrowed” from one of his operas. Since he was Catholic, he would not have been allowed to write for the Church of England.

  2. Brenda, I love this article. It’s so informative. I have never heard the Huron Carol and would love to know it. The others that are your favorites are also mine, especially “A Mighty Fortress” and almost all the Christmas carols. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is one of my favorite songs. Two I would add are “Morning has Broken,” made popular by Cat Stevens, and “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

  3. Brenda, this was so very inspiring! I was raised with the Baptist Hymnal, and I treasure all the old favorites, but your post leaves me wondering if I missed out on beautiful music from more liturgical denominations. I will have to dig around in the bookstores and find a wider variety of “church music!”

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