Article

History of Hymns: ‘They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love’

by Joshua Taylor

 “We Are One in the Spirit”
(“They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love”)
by Peter Scholtes
The Faith We Sing, 2223

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”
(John 1113:35, NIV*).

In her book, Holding Faith: A Practical Introduction to Christian Doctrine, Cynthia Rigby writes on Christian vocation:

What sense can we make of this moment, as a moment of discipleship? What are we being called upon to do and to be right now, today? For it is right now – today – that the Messiah asks us to join him in doing power differently, in hoping against hope, and in holding nothing back for the sake of those whom God so loves ….  Will we join in what God is up to, or will we just get in the way? (Rigby, 299)

Written following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” joins hymns “Here I Am, Lord” and “One Bread, One Body,” among others, composed in a vernacular-folk style (Saliers, n.p.). The accessible melody and folk-guitar accompaniment encouraged the “full, conscious, and active” participation of the assembly as set forth in the liturgical vision of Vatican II (Harmon, 3-8). Originally published in the Hymnal for Young Christians (1966), the song by Catholic priest Peter Raymond Scholtes (1938-2009) connects participation in communal singing with the charge and benediction to the gathered assembly. The hymn becomes a sung theology of discipleship and action at the congregation’s sending. Each subsequent stanza reflects on the “what” of the community’s life together using present participles: walking hand in hand, working together, and praising together. The stanzas are anchored by the repeated refrain.

Like many post-Vatican II hymns, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” a favorite song during the folk mass of the later 1960s and 1970s, has reached beyond its Roman Catholic origins. Don Saliers notes in his article, “Vatican II and Its Influence on USA Hymns and Hymnals,” that songs such as “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” accent the connection between the church’s song and its role in the life of the world (Saliers, n.p.). The hymn becomes the vehicle for connecting worship to a specific moment of discipleship. This charge also becomes a commitment to the believer’s responsibility and participation in God’s kingdom work. As Rigby writes:

When we focus on imagining what it is that God desires, as people of hope, we emphasize that the work does not and cannot begin with us, but rather is grounded in God. We work hard to do our part, as participants in the labor of God, impatient to witness the coming of God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven (Rigby, 287).

Peter Scholtes, a Catholic priest serving at St. Brendan’s parish on the South Side of Chicago in 1966, penned “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” when he could not find a suitable song to accompany a series of ecumenical and interracial events for which the youth choir he led was to sing (Daw, 303). Like many songs coming out of the popular folk music of the 1960s, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” connected to the societal upheaval of the decade. Alongside popular protest songs like Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” or Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flower’s Gone,” Scholtes’s text connected the faith story of young people disillusioned with the landscape of American culture (Loftis, 142).

Scholtes later left the priesthood, married, and had an active life in the public sector, where he was an author and international consultant with a focus on helping “businesses engage employees’ talents more fully, humanely, and effectively” (Scholtes obituary: https://pscholtes.com/obituary.htm).

The song’s popularity later earned it the title “anthem of the Jesus Movement” (Daw, 303). In retrospect, Scholtes’s song, along with other selections associated with the music of the Jesus People, helped establish guitar as the primary instrument for worship in the growing contemporary worship model (Lim & Ruth, 20). Also, like many songs of this period, “We Are One in the Spirit,” as it is sometimes known, is based on a specific scripture reference, John 13:35, which is paraphrased in the refrain of the piece: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV*).

The f-minor tune was composed at the same time as the text. Carl Daw writes in his companion to Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, “[the] pentatonic style and its flatted seventh clearly have roots in the folk idiom popular in the 1960s” (Daw, 303).

From its origins as an early example of post-Vatican II hymnody to its widespread inclusion in both Protestant and Catholic hymnals today, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” has become an important piece in the church’s efforts to sing a theology of active participation and discipleship in and for the world.

Further Reading and Sources:

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

Kathleen Harmon, “Singing the Paschal Mystery: Roman Catholic Liturgical Music after Vatican II,” in New Songs of Celebration Render: Congregational Song in the Twenty-first Century, ed. C. Michael Hawn (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2013).

Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, Lovin’ On Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017).

Deborah Carlton Loftis, “Dance Then Wherever You May Be: Folk Hymnody” in New Songs of Celebration Render: Congregational Song in the Twenty-first Century, ed. C. Michael Hawn (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2013).

Cynthia L. Rigby, Holding Faith: A Practical Introduction to Christian Doctrine. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018).

Don E. Saliers, “Vatican II and Its Influence on USA Hymns and Hymnals.” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, accessed April 3, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/v/vatican-ii-and-its-influence-on-usa-hymns-and-hymnals.

Peter R. Scholtes, “Creating Pride and Joy at Work: Obituary”: https://pscholtes.com/obituary.htm

J. Richard Watson & C. Michael Hawn, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, accessed April 3, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/they’ll-know-we-are-christians-by-our-love.

* Verses marked NIV are from 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.


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.

Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, The Faith We Sing