I love learning the back story of a hymn! The hymn itself takes on so much added meaning when we know the context in which it was written. “From the texts of the hymns that have been preserved, we can discern the values, the collective wisdom, the beliefs, hopes, fears, and even something of the history of the people who wrote them” (Introduction to Our Latter-Day Hymns).
The best book for learning the histories of our latter-day hymns is the one written by Karen Lynn Davidson called Our Latter-Day Hymns: the Stories and the Messages. In this very thorough book, published in 1985, the 150th anniversary year of Emma Smith’s first hymnbook, we learn exactly as the title suggests: the stories and messages of each hymn. We also learn something about the music and the authors’ and composers’ backgrounds. It is a very meaningful book and very much enhances our appreciation of the hymns.
I have spent many many hours poring over the various descriptions of each hymn in this book and have learned so much. One thing that particularly impresses me is how old some of these hymns are and yet the spirit and faith of their words still shines forth as brightly today as it did way back when they were written. The text of “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” is attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, ca. 1091-1153, yet the testimony of that hymn is just as powerful today. Our hymns are a living history. We are singing the very words, and often to the same tunes, that Christian believers through the ages have sung. We are one with Bernard of Clairvaux and his flock in France when we sing the words to “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” We are one with Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and his followers in England when we sing “Joy to the World.” We are one with the pioneers of 1846 as we sing “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Their faith strengthens ours as we sing their words and feel of their spirit.
You can find this book for purchase here at Amazon. I’m sure you will find, as I have, that your love and understanding of the hymns increases as you come to know the context of their origins.
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