Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'How Shall They Hear the Word of God'

History of Hymns: 'How Shall They Hear the Word of God'

By Nicole Gray

Michael perry 72px
Michael Perry

“How Shall They Hear the Word of God”
by Michael Perry
The United Methodist Hymnal, 649

How shall they hear the word of God
unless the truth is told;
how shall the sinful be set free,
the sorrowful consoled?
To all who speak the truth today
impart your Spirit, Lord, we pray.*

*© 1982 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

It was a cold day in January 1981 in Winchester, UK, just three days after the new year. People joyously entered the Winchester Cathedral for the production and broadcasting of the BBC Radio Solent’s tenth anniversary celebration that marked a decade of broadcasting to the local area between Southampton, Portsmouth, and the Isle of Wight.

Earlier the previous year, local and well-known hymn writer, Michael Perry (1942–1996) was commissioned to write a hymn for the special event. As the downbeat swung, the Salvation Army band debuted Michael Perry’s, “How Shall They Hear the Word of God,” on January 4, 1981, broadcasting all over the villages.

In character with the apostle Paul, Perry’s text and melody both question and convict those who know the gospel to go out and spread it, in this case, through the medium of radio broadcast. Although rarely used after its premiere, Perry set the text to his own tune, SOLENT. His tune was “arresting and rhythmic” calling “heralds” into action (Young, 1993, p. 412). How shall they hear the word of God? Use the tools we have; use a radio station, or a concert!

Perry, quoting the apostle Paul’s questions from Romans 10:14–15, teaches that while we may have the knowledge of truth, it will not be heard unless it is told. The following is Paul’s epistle:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news! (NIV)

“How Shall They Hear the Word of God” has three stanzas, each of which poses a question. Stanzas 1 and 2 ask two questions, the first directly from the apostle Paul, and the second from the perspective of present-day Christian mission:

How shall they hear the word of God . . .? (stanza 1)
How shall they call to God for help . . .? (stanza 2)
How shall the gospel be proclaimed . . .? (stanza 3)

All stanzas end with a direct prayer to God, commissioning us to evangelize through word and deed with the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It is also the answer to the questions – to go. In the final line, Perry, using a reference to Romans 10:15, reminds us that we should “rejoice” that God sends us forth as wonderful messengers of good news “with life and voice” – a joyful calling.

This summoning hymn is a good choice for “dedications, missions, ordinations, and consecrations” because it calls the congregants to answer and commit to spreading their witness (Young, 1993, p. 412). While SOLENT was the first tune used for this text, the three common tunes that accompany it now are AUCH JETZT MACHT JESU found in the Choralbuch (1812), O JESU in a 1747 collection compiled by Johann B. Riemann, and a more recent tune PEMBROKE by Patrick Hadley (1899–1973). All three of these tunes are in basic chorale bar form, AAB, making it a perfect hymn for antiphonal singing. The leader takes the first question, section A. The congregation sings the second question, and then everyone responds with the prayerful B section. The use of antiphonal singing can strengthen a communal commitment response.

Perry was no stranger to presenting scripture in dramatized and unique ways for the community to grasp. Born in Beckenham, Kent, England, he studied physics initially, realizing his calling in ministry after only a year into college. Following his theological education and ordination in the Church of England, Perry served as a vicar and incumbent in Bitterne, rector of Eversly, police chaplain of Police Staff College, vicar of Tonbridge, and canon of Rochester Cathedral. While his work in these places was not without merit, it was his extensive work as editor and secretary with the Jubilate Group from 1972 until his premature death from a brain tumor in 1996 where his legacy would continue.

Perry said, “much of the work of the Jubilate Group has been in the interests of a clearer presentation of the facts of the faith in worship” (Perry, 1989, p. x). As editor and compiler of The Dramatised Bible (1989), Perry understood that people respond and retain the good news when they are actively involved. The Jubilate Group encourages publications that produce new and innovative vessels of word and song that challenge new generations to hear and respond to God’s message. Perry’s work with Jubilate, especially in the 1970s, paved the way for many UK contemporary hymn writers, including Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926), Christopher Idle (b. 1938), and Michael Saward (1932–2015) – all of whom have hymns in United Methodist publications as well as current denominational hymnals.

The hymn’s first hymnal appearance was in Hymns for Today’s Church (London, 1982), set to the tune PEMBROKE, a publication prepared and promoted by the Jubilate Group. “How Shall They Hear the Word” was established in the United States during the late 1980s and 1990s in a variety of denominational hymnals, Protestant and Catholic. Other prominent hymns by this Michael Perry include “Blessed be the God of Israel” (1973), a popular Advent hymn, and “O God Beyond All Praising” (1982), set to the soaring THAXTED by Gustav Holst (1874–1934).

Writing more than three hundred hymns and books and editing numerous publications, Perry understood the importance of using a wide range of media to preach the good news and gather people into an experience with God. “How Shall They Hear the Word of God” was one of them. He believed that we enrich our worship and open ourselves up to transformation when we can experience the gospel in new ways “by granting us a clearer vision of God and a surer knowledge of the revelation of the eternal purpose for our world in Jesus Christ” (Perry, 1989, p. xi).


Emily Brink and Burt Polman, Psalter Hymnal Handbook (Grand Rapids, MI: CRC Publications, 1998).

C. Michael Hawn, “O God Beyond All Praising,” History of Hymns (June 13, 2013): https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-god-beyond-all-praising (accessed February 1, 2021).

Donald Hustad, The Worshipping Church: A Hymnal, Worship Leader’s Edition (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing, 1990).

Michael Perry, “Editor’s Preface,” The Dramatised Bible (England: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989), x-xi.

Michael Perry, Singing to God: Hymns and Songs 1965-1995 (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing, 1995).

Burt Polman, “Michael Perry,” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/text/how_shall_they_hear_the_word_of_god (accessed on January 23, 2021).

Michael Saward, “Jubilate Hymns,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, https://hymnology-hymnsam-co-uk.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/j/jubilate-hymns (accessed January 23, 2021).

Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 412.

Nicole Gray is Director of Worship Arts and Music at Dickinson First United Methodist Church in a suburb of Houston, Texas. She is also the Associate Worship Director the Texas Annual Conference. She holds two degrees in vocal performance, a B.M. from Baldwin-Wallace University, and an M.M. from the University of Houston. Nicole is a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music degree program, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where she studied hymnology with C. Michael Hawn.

Verses marked NIV are from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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