Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Come, Holy Ghost' and 'Come, O Holy Spirit'

History of Hymns: 'Come, Holy Ghost' and 'Come, O Holy Spirit'

By Joshua Taylor

“Come, Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire”
by John Cosin
The United Methodist Hymnal 651
“Come, O Holy Spirit, Come” (“Wa wa wa Emimimo”)
Yoruba praise song
The Faith We Sing, 2124

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire;
thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

Wa wa wa Emimimo
Wa wa wa Alagbara;
Wao, wao, wao

Come, O Holy Spirit, come;
Come, almighty Spirit, come;
Come, come, come.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each (Acts 2:4-6 NRSV).

The fullness of God’s promises in Jesus Christ are on display on the day of Pentecost. As we have been swept from Christ’s death and resurrection to his ascension, Pentecost celebrates the sending of the Holy Spirit to empower and commission the ministry of Christ’s church. Worship professors Hoyt Hickman, Don Saliers, Laurence Hull Stookey, and James F. White, in The New Handbook of the Christian Year, describe Pentecost as, “a reliving of all that the Easter Season has come to mean for the people of God . . . it is a day marking the universality of the new age in which ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’” (Hickman et al., 109). Pentecost is the celebration of a new unity of the Spirit of the Lord with all of God’s creation.

How then shall this new unity be reflected in the music of our worship?

The ninth-century text “Veni Creator Spiritus” has a long history of use for the celebration of Pentecost. Attributed to Rabanus Maurus (ca. 780-856), the archbishop of Mainz, the Latin text appeared in nine manuscripts during the tenth century and was widely circulated in hymnals and breviaries by the twelfth century. The 24 lines of the Latin text were frequently divided into six, four-line stanzas with an added doxology. However, with the absence of any rhyme scheme, the divisions were arbitrary. The English translations, of which there are more than 50, are much the same.

John Cosin (1595-1672), an Anglican priest who became the Bishop of Durham during the English Restoration period, provided the 1627 translation, which is the shortest and appears most often in hymnals. Included in the ordination service of the Book of Common Prayer (1662), Cosin’s translation replaced an older translation, “Come, Holy Ghost, eternal God,” and became the first postbiblical hymn to gain prominence in a musical world dominated by metrical psalmody (Daw, 282). Some sources indicate that it may have been written for the coronation of King Charles I in 1625, a state event at which Cosin was the master of ceremonies (Doyle, n.p.).

The text highlights the fire descending on the disciples (Acts 2) and then draws on the messianic characteristics found in Isaiah 11:1-3 and an enumeration of seven spiritual gifts attributed to early Christian patristic theologians: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord (Daw, 282). Cosin links the creative work of the Spirit at creation (Genesis 1:2, stanza 2) and the promise of the Holy Spirit as comforter (John 14:16, stanza 3).

Sung to the plainsong melody VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS, taken from the Vesperale Romanum, Mechlin (1848), these images incorporated in this hymn have a strong connection with both ordination and Pentecost. John Wesley (1703-1791) brought the hymn into wider use when he included it anonymously in his Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1738), the same year as the Wesley brothers’ “conversion,” as V. in the section “Psalms and Hymns for Wednesday or Friday.” He also included it in the ordinal he sent to the Methodist churches in the United States in 1784. As United Methodist hymnologist Carlton Young notes, “Since that time it has been included in our services of ordination of elders and consecration of bishops” (Young, 291). The hymn gained even greater prominence when it was included in the first edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861). Its subsequent publication in over 200 hymnals has made it one of the most important hymns for worship at Pentecost. This hymn should not be confused with Charles Wesley’s “Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire” which first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1740.

While “Come, Holy Spirit, Our Souls Inspire” speaks to the historical song of Pentecost, the unity of Christ’s church in Acts 2 calls for a wider expression beyond that beloved hymn. The disciples’ experience at Pentecost was one of multiple tongues. The characters of the biblical narrative do not begin speaking in one language; rather, the native language of each person is understood by the others. Acknowledging the biblical narrative invites worship planners and song leaders to embrace a diverse repertoire for the celebration of Pentecost.

The western Nigerian gathering song “Wa wa wa Emimimo” (“Come, O Holy Spirt, Come” in English) is a gift from the Church of Lord (Aladura), an African-initiated congregation of the early twentieth century, whose name means in Yoruba, “owners of prayer.” The text in the Yoruba language, one of the three primary vernacular tongues of Nigeria, reflects its tonal nature with the melodic line of the hymn imitating the high, medium, and low tones of the language. The syllable “wa” is an imperative form of the verb meaning “to come,” and the addition of the “o” in “wao” intensifies the petition, similar to an exclamation point in English – “come NOW.” Unlike many other pieces from western Africa, in this song, the soloist does not serve as the caller/initiator of the song, but as an encourager propelling the assembly on to the next phrase (Michael Hawn, n.p.).

Ethnomusicologist Christopher Brooks notes in the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music that aladura hymns are drawn from various sources, including western hymnody with substituted Yoruba texts. However, in many cases, the English texts do not allow for the tonal variety of the language, prompting the composition of new aladura compositions, as is the case with “Wa wa wa emimimo” (Brooks, 403-404). Transcribed by Taiwanese ethnomusicologist I-tō Loh (b. 1936) for the collection African Songs of Worship (Geneva Press 1986), “Wa wa wa Emimimo” has a strong association with Pentecost, but is used year-round as a gathering song in Nigeria.

Both texts connect to the experience of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and unite the biblical and historical context with the ever-expanding repertoire of congregational song in much the same way as the Pentecost story began the far-reaching story of the church.

Sources and Further Reading

Christopher Brooks, “Foreign Indigenous Interchange: The Yoruba,” Africa: the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Ed. Ruth M. Stone (New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1998), 400-414.

Carl Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Sheila Doyle, "Come, Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed May 12, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/come,-holy-ghost,-our-souls-inspire.

C. Michael Hawn, "African Hymnody." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed February 13, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/a/african-hymnody.

Hoyt Hickman, et al., The New Handbook of the Christian Year (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992).

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

Joshua Taylor is the Director of Worship and Music at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas, and a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music program at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, where he studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

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