History of Hymns: 'Praise God for This Holy Ground'
By Bryan Page
“Praise God for This Holy Ground”
by John L. Bell
Worship and Song, 3009
Praise God for this holy ground,
place and people, sight and sound.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God’s goodness is eternal.*
*© 2002 WGRG, Iona Community (Scotland), admin. by GIA Publications, Inc.
John Bell’s (b.1949) work with Graham Maule (1958–2019), the Iona Community in Scotland, and the Wild Goose Resource Group (WGRG) has produced and exposed the church to a wealth of ecumenical and global worship music by adapting and promoting biblical texts and giving voice to current and universal social issues (Routley and Richardson, 2005, p. 476). The popularity of “The Summons” (1987), appearing in at least forty hymnals, has encouraged the frequent use of additional texts and tunes by Bell in mainline hymnals.
First published in One Is the Body: Songs of Unity and Diversity (2002), “Praise God for This Holy Ground” appears in three hymnals: More Voices (2007), Worship and Song (2011), and Glory to God (2013).
A five-stanza hymn with a refrain, “Praise God for This Holy Ground” offers a litany of praise to God. Four of the five stanzas employ anaphora—a poetic technique that repeats the first words of phrases or stanzas: “Praise God.” Each stanza is followed by the jubilant refrain: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! / God’s goodness is eternal.” In One Is the Body, the hymn is described as being “suitable for use at either [the] beginning or end of worship” (Bell, 2002, p. 21).
Biblical allusions in each stanza reflect Bell’s reliance on scripture for both his music and ministry. Stanza one references “holy ground, place and people, sight and sound.” Thanksgiving for these elements of worship recalls Moses’s encounter with God through the burning bush (Exodus 3), Christ’s claim of his presence when two or more are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20), and the mystical nature of the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2), laying a Trinitarian framework for stanzas 2, 3, and 4.
Stanza two begins “Praise God in whose word we find.” In pairing God’s “word” with “food,” Bell anticipates both Christ’s incarnation—the word made flesh (John 1:14)—and the Eucharist—take and eat of his body (Matthew 26:26). God’s word orders our lives and provides us daily sustenance, sustaining our spiritual, intellectual, and physical strength (Deuteronomy 6:4–5, Mark 12:29–31), contending that God’s word is simultaneously momentary and eternal (Deuteronomy 8:3).
“Praise God who through Christ makes known” begins stanza three, reasserting God’s love for us through the giving of God’s only Son as God’s gift to the world, an act of pure selfless love (John 3:1–17). The singular reference to the name of Christ appears at the center point of the stanza and the hymn! In stanza four, Bell recognizes the work of the Holy Spirit and the diverse roles the Spirit undertakes in our lives as comforter, counselor, and friend. The Spirit “raises, humbles, breaks, and mends”—fulfilling God’s promise to care for us always (Psalm 147:3).
The first four stanzas guide the singer through the salvation narrative—from creation and the presence of the Trinity to direct encounters with Christ and the Holy Spirit. Stanza five sends us forth into the world to do the work of God—to be Christ’s presence in the world—completing the bookends of the classic four-fold worship pattern, gathering and sending. In this stanza, Bell invites us to grapple with the liminal nature of Lord’s Day worship and the cyclic nature of the Christian life. With the paradoxical statement, “Though praise ends, praise is begun / where God’s will is gladly done,” Bell effectively asks the question, “When and where does worship begin and end?” In his book Sent and Gathered, Clayton J. Schmit says:
The sending forth of gathered worshipers is the pivotal moment when worship turns from adoration to action. . . . The congregation has been prepared . . . for the ardent work of Christian discipleship that takes place between one Sunday and another. . . . In this final moment of worship, the gathered becomes the sent. . . . In the sending, worship redirects its focus from the liturgy of assembly to become the living liturgy of discipleship (Schmit, 2009, p. 155).
Schmit contends that “the sending is the fulcrum where worship turns from its interior focus to its outward thrust” (Schmit, 2009, p. 16). Bell affirms this assertion in his indication that the hymn can be sung either for gathering or sending. That we may see ourselves as either sent people being gathered, or as gathered people being sent, aptly tracks with Bell’s missional work (Hawn, 2013b, p. 319–324).
Each stanza ends with the refrain, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! / God’s goodness is eternal”—a reaffirmation of the anaphora “Praise God” in the first four stanzas as well as the double occurrence of the word “praise” in the final stanza. Throughout the hymn, Bell simultaneously offers thanksgiving for the physical space, the presence of a community gathered for worship, and the metaphysical space where the community experiences Christ’s presence and strength, whether gathered or scattered.
Music associated with the Iona Community is often directly quoted or adapted from Irish, Scottish, or British folk songs (Hawn, 2013a, n.p.). However, Bell composed the tune Heymonystraat specifically for “Praise God for This Holy Ground,” indicating that “the text is intended for unison singing with organ accompaniment” (Bell, 2002, p. 21). Worship and Song and Glory to God include chord symbols, inviting the use of other accompanying instruments. Since the refrain is brief and repetitive, the stanzas may be sung by a soloist or small group and the refrain sung by the gathered community in the absence of printed music.
The tune Heymonystraat is named for Hemony Street in Amsterdam. François and Pierre Hemony were seventeenth-century bell founders who, with collaboration from Jacob van Eyck, developed the first tuned carillon in 1644. Bell spent many summers in the 1970s with friends who lived on Hemony Street while he preached in the English Reformed Church in Amsterdam. The correct spelling of the tune should be Hemonystraat, however somewhere along the way an extra “y” was added (Daw, 2013, p. 412).
Throughout “Praise God for This Holy Ground,” Bell’s reliance on scripture is evident with allusions that connect past and present. For the singing congregant, these allusions might be ephemeral; however, the essence of scripture is apparent. In giving thanks for the “holy ground, place and people, sight and sound,” Bell could be referring to the Iona Community in Scotland, Hemony Street in Amsterdam, or virtually anywhere where two or more are gathered in Christ’s name. Whether sung at the beginning or end of worship, Bell’s litany of praise affirms that “God’s goodness is eternal.”
John Bell, One Is the Body: Songs of Unity and Diversity (Chicago: Wild Goose Publications, 2002).
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).
C. Michael Hawn, “The Summons,” History of Hymns, Discipleship Ministries, 2013a, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-the-summons (accessed January 25, 2021).
_____, New Songs of Celebration Render: Congregational Song in the Twenty-First Century (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2013b).
“Praise God for This Holy Ground,” Hymnary.org. https://hymnary.org/text/praise_god_for_this_holy_ground (accessed January 25, 2021).
Erik Routley and Paul Richardson, A Panorama of Christian Hymnody (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2003).
Clayton J. Schmit, Sent and Gathered: A Worship Manual for the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).
Bryan Page is Music Director at Northridge Presbyterian Church, Dallas, Texas. He received his education at the University of Montevallo (Alabama) and Westminster Choir College (New Jersey). A composer, his choral music is published by Paraclete Press and his instrumental compositions by Triplo Press. Bryan is a candidate in the doctor of pastoral music degree program, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where he studied hymnology with C. Michael Hawn.