Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Emmanuel, Emmanuel'

History of Hymns: 'Emmanuel, Emmanuel'

By Elizabeth Yoo, Guest Contributor

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“Emmanuel, Emmanuel”
by Bob McGee
The United Methodist Hymnal, 204

Emmanuel, Emmanuel,
His name is called Emmanuel
God with us, revealed in us,
His name is called Emmanuel.

© 1976 C.A. Music (div. of Christian Artists Corp.). All rights reserved.

“Emmanuel, Emmanuel” (1976), an early praise chorus by Bob McGee, has reached beyond its initial release. While little is known about Bob McGee or the origins of “Emmanuel, Emmanuel,” the song mimics other praise choruses and songs connected with the “Jesus People” movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

“Behind the Praise,” ONC Worship from the Heart, describes the origins of the song:

In 1976, Robert McGee, then an associate pastor at The King’s Temple Church in Seattle, Washington, wrote the chorus “Emmanuel.” The chorus first appeared in a collection of 11 choruses entitled Choruses From The King’s Temple, 1976, Book I, and was used by the church in their worship services. In 1983, C.A. Music, Inc. acquired the copyright in “Emmanuel” and licensed the song to dozens of companies. Bob McGee was sued in 1999 by a former associate who claimed he stole the song from another popular song in the church. After a court battle, McGee was cleared of the charge of plagiarism.

Now included in more than twenty-five hymnals, McGee’s song is an example of how praise choruses have moved from the “contemporary worship” idiom into the hymnals and corpus of congregational singing of churches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Following the rock ’n’ roll revolution of the 1960s, the “Jesus People” movement sought to bring some of the changing societal practices and music into the life of the church. By 1973, the release of “Only Visiting This Planet,” a Christian rock album by Larry Norman and heavily influenced by the “Jesus People” movement, showcased a new genre of Christian music combining rock ‘n’ roll with sacred/spiritual texts. Gradually, this new genre of music found its way into the worship of church congregations, introducing new instrumentation, texts, and styles to worship. As a result, congregations began incorporating praise bands into new contemporary worship services that still influence today’s churches. Songs like “Emmanuel, Emmanuel” suggested a new approach beyond the organ/piano dominant, strophic hymn traditions of most mainline Protestant churches in America. The Jesus People movement was responsible for creating a Christianized version of popular culture as a means for evangelizing unbelieving youth and building up, teaching, and inspiring children who came from evangelical homes and churches. This music has had a lasting impact on congregational singing and worship practice into the twenty-first century.

Even with its rock ’n’ roll influences, “Emmanuel, Emmanuel” provides an incarnation text rooted in scripture. The hymn’s repeated and simple lyrics are an expansion of Matthew 1:23 (KJV), “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring. forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” This verse of scripture is the message of the angels to Mary when she learns she will give birth to Jesus. For this reason, this song is primarily sung during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

The song has spread around the world with translations in languages that include large Christian populations, such as Korean and Spanish. Music often reflects the history of the era in which it was composed. “Emmanuel, Emmanuel” certainly reflects this reality. However, it is the lasting impact of “Emmanuel, Emmanuel” and similar pieces that makes it worthy of review. This and other praise choruses served as early gate openers for the inclusion of popular styles in mainline, Protestant worship, quickly becoming a “game changer” for the corpus of congregational singing.

For Additional Reading

“Behind the Praise,” ONC Worship from the Heart (January 4, 2009): https://oncworshipfromtheheart.blogspot.com/2008/12/ (accessed November 7, 2023).

Eskridge, Larry K. God's Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America, 1966-1977. 2005.

Hoffman, Brad. “Immanuel: God with Us.” Olive Tree Blog, 24 Jan. 2023, https://www.olivetree.com/blog/immanuel-god-with-us/#:~:text=Mary%20was%20the%20virgin%20mother,1%3A18%E2%80%9325.

Lim, Swee-Hong, and Lester Ruth. Lovin' on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship. Abingdon Press, 2017.

McGee, Bob. “Emmanuel, Emmanuel” 1976 C.A. Music (div. of Christian Artists Corp.), 1976. https://hymnary.org/text/emmanuel_emmanuel.

Stephens, Randall. “A History of the Jesus People: An Interview with Larry Eskridge.” Historically Speaking 14, no. 4 (2013): 28–29, https://doi.org/10.1353/hsp.2013.0033.

Wren, Brian. Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Elizabeth Yoo is a music student at North Texas University, where she studied hymnology with Drs. Michael Conrady and Joshua Taylor.

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