“Come Sunday”

TITLE:"Come Sunday"
AUTHOR: Duke Ellington
COMPOSER: Duke Ellington
SOURCE: United Methodist Hymnal, no. 728
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; Matthew 24:1-35; Matthew 28:7; Luke 6:20-31; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12; Hebrews 4:1-3, 9-13; Revelation 21:1-7
TOPIC: adversity, blessing, commitment, creation, heaven, obedience, perseverance


Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist, and big band leader with over 1,000 compositions to his credit. Ellington was one of the giants of twentieth-century jazz, whose work also extended into blues, gospel, classical, film scores, musicals, big band, and pop. He preferred the term American Music over Jazz to describe his music.

Ellington began piano lessons at age seven. Over the years, he listened to and consciously imitated many jazz and ragtime pianists, eventually learning to read music. He began playing in cafés and clubs around Washington, D.C. Success led to his forming his first group in 1917. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Ellington toured with his band and continued writing songs, including -- in the 1930s -- some of the great American songs: "Mood Indigo" (1930), "It Don't Mean a Thing [If It Ain't Got That Swing]" (1932), "Sophisticated Lady" (1933), "Solitude" (1934), "In a Sentimental Mood" (1935), "Caravan" (1937), and "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" (1938).

Ellington was nominated for (but did not win) a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, the same year as the premiere of his first Sacred Concert, an attempt to fuse jazz and Christian liturgy in concert form. A second Sacred Concert followed in 1968, and a third in 1973.

"Come Sunday" was written by Ellington as an instrumental set piece in his 1943 jazz suite Black, Brown and Beige, scored for big band, solo sax, and jazz violin. Ellington composed the lyrics in 1958 and included it in the first performance of his Sacred Service No. 1 in 1965. It is that version that appears as no. 728 in The United Methodist Hymnal. Hymnal editor Carlton Young characterizes "Come Sunday" as a "slow and sustained pop-style optimistic religious song" (Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal, p.299).

In his book Come Sunday: The Liturgy of Zion (Abingdon, 1990), Dr. William B. McClain, noted pastor, professor, preacher, scholar, writer, and an active participant in the development of three song collections of The United Methodist Church (Songs of Zion, The United Methodist Hymnal, Zion Still Sings), chose Duke Ellington's song as title. He chose "Come Sunday" in recognition of the importance of Sunday in the historic experience of African Americans and discusses that importance in his book.

"Come Sunday" first appeared in a congregational hymnal in the groundbreaking 1977 collection Ecumenical Praise. It was still largely unknown to most worshipers twelve years later when it was included in our 1989 hymnal, and it remains one of the least sung songs of that hymnal.

There are a number of reasons for its infrequent singing in congregational worship, all related to the disparity between the style of "Come Sunday" and the traditional style of congregational hymnody and even most contemporary worship songs. These differences lead to the wide perception by song selectors and leaders that "Come Sunday" is a difficult song for congregations to sing. Indeed, the Hymnal Revision Committee thought it would need a skilled choir, soloist, and accompanist to successfully transform it into a congregational song. Here are some of those distinctives:


  • It opens, not with a strong lyric, but with a plaintive, extended "Oh," almost a moan. It raises questions: Is someone in pain? pleasure? questioning? surprise?
  • The lyrics are often regarded as theologically "light," more appropriate for a pop song, with their sun, moon, sky, gray skies, and clouds.
  • The second stanza calls for a suspension of singing in favor of a spoken line, but with the continuation of the accompaniment.


  • It has a melodic range substantially greater than most hymns, nearly two octaves, with both the upper and lower extremes outside the normal congregational range.
  • The opening is not joyful, triumphant, or jazz-like; rather, it is slow, almost mournful.
  • The song contains numerous rich pop and jazz harmonies and progressions, objectionable to some.
  • Stylistically, it should be sung rubato rather than in strict rhythm, a strange technique for most congregations accustomed to a steady beat and unchanging rhythm.
  • The musical form of the hymn is almost unique, with its opening two-line introduction or prologue sung by the congregation only one time.
  • The small cue notes at the end of the refrain and stanzas may be confusing to untrained singers, even with the easy-to-miss asterisk at the bottom of the page.

On the other hand, there are those who find the song entirely worthy of learning and singing by congregations in worship. Here are some of their reasons:

  • It's by Duke Ellington, one of the great American composers and jazz artists.
  • It broadens the musical style of the hymnal and most congregations.
  • It moves worship out of a previous century and closer to the present day.
  • The song offers great flexibility of performance: by soloist, choir, and/or congregation.
  • To quote William McClain, it expresses the concept of "the importance of Sunday in almost every aspect of black life."
  • It underlines the special nature of Sunday in the wider culture.
  • It allows the congregation the opportunity to sing emotionally and expressively. This is heart music.

If you have avoided this hymn, or if you've only used it with a soloist or choir, it's time to try it with your people. Prepare them. Point out the places in this song that are different from traditional hymns and contemporary worship songs, but without leading them to view these as difficult: the opening "Oh," the range, the small cue notes, the rubato phrasing, and so on. Explain the significance of Sunday in the African American tradition. What will you do with the spoken phrase? One option is to have the people simply continue singing through it using eighth notes and making a contraction out of "you would." Demonstrate for them as follows, with each bar consisting of a single beat: "Do / unto / others/ as you'd / have them / do to / you / and…." Prepare the choir; rehearse the rubato and the spoken line. You may decide to have the choir sing the "Oh" opening. Suggest to the people that this is music they will enjoy singing and that they may find themselves humming and singing it in the shower or alone in their car. While especially appropriate for observing Black History Month (February), "Come Sunday" should be sung throughout the church year.


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