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Greatest Hymn Hits of the 20th Century

We are into the third millennium of the Christian faith and have recently left behind the 20th century. Before we move too far into the new century and millennium and whatever they hold for us in the way of congregational hymnody and song and new musical styles, let us take a look at the last century's greatest congregational songs.

I am not defining greatness here on the basis of a set of musical and textual characteristics or qualities. Rather, I am offering my list of the century's greatest songs based on a combination of factors that include the following, in no particular order:

  • frequency of appearance in hymnals and songbooks
  • observed frequency of use in worship
  • frequency of requests by worshipers
  • frequency of appearance on various favorite hymn lists
  • people's ability to sing the hymn from memory
  • perceived emotional attachment to a hymn
  • frequency of recording and broadcast
  • use by all ages and generations

It is worth noting that even with all of the diversity of musical style and performance practice of the 20th century — Victorian hymns, modernism, old and new gospel styles, ethnic and cultural expressions, global music, jazz, the acceptance of secular and popular styles in the church, Civil Rights music, feminism, protest music, the charismatic movement, Vatican II, and more — the most successful congregational music of the 20th century shares a few broad characteristics:

  • The century's greatest hymns were music of "the warmed heart." These songs connected with people's living, their emotions, their memories, and their experiences.
  • Most of these songs are songs of personal expression. They allow people to say to God and to each other what is in their hearts and minds.
  • Most of these are written in or highly influenced by popular musical styles of their own time. They are clearly vernacular music — intended as music for the people.
  • With perhaps one exception (#4), these hymns are not associated with a particular artist or personality.
  • All ten are stylistic departures from the previous century's hymn style.
  • The melody is of supreme importance among musical elements. These tunes make use of nonharmonic tones, but are largely diatonic. They use more steps than leaps. They use accented dissonance and resolution for tension-release. With one exception (#8), they use verse-refrain structure.
  • There is a point of climax in each song, usually at the end, marked by coming together of the melody, rhythm, harmony, and text to create the highest point of intensity.
  • These hymns exhibit a harmonic richness beyond the primary I, IV, V harmonies.
  • The texts and tunes are wed, that is, these texts are sung to only these tunes, and these tunes are only used with these texts. With one exception (#3), text and tune were composed by the same person.

With all of that in mind, here is my list of the top ten greatest hymns and worship songs of the 20th century, in chronological order of composition:

  1. "In the Garden" (1913), words and music by C. Austin Miles
  2. "The Old Rugged Cross" (1913), words and music by George Bennard
  3. "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" (1923), words by Thomas O Chisholm, music by William M. Runyan
  4. "How Great Thou Art" (1953), words and music by Stuart K. Hine
  5. "There's a Sweet, Sweet Spirit" (1962), words and music by Doris Akers
  6. "He Touched Me" (1963), words and music by William J. Gaither
  7. "Here I Am, Lord" (1981), words and music by Dan Schutte
  8. "Hymn of Promise" (1986), words and music by Natalie Sleeth
  9. "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High" (1989), words and music by Rick Founds
  10. "Shout to the Lord" (1993), words and music by Darlene Zschech

I base all of this on personal opinion and experience, and thus you are free to disagree. Remember that this is not a list of personal favorites, or songs that your congregation enjoys singing. This is not a list of 20th century songs that will have the most influence on styles of the next century. What do you think? Are there other titles that should appear on this list of the ten greatest hymns and songs of the last century? And if so, which songs should they replace? Why?

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