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History of Hymns: "When in Our Music God Is Glorified"

"When in Our Music God Is Glorified"
Fred Pratt Green
UM Hymnal, No. 68

Fred Pratt Green

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried
Alleluia! *


Sometimes a great tune can keep a hymn text alive. Sometimes a great text can revive a neglected tune. The latter is true in this case.

Noted British hymnologist John Wilson (1905-1992) suggested that the Methodist poet and hymn writer Fred Pratt Green write a text to the tune ENGELBERG, composed in 1904 by the famous British composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924).

Stanford’s tune had been well-known in the earlier 20th century until Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed the immensely popular SINE NOMINE in the same metre (sung to “For All the Saints”) for the English Hymnal (1906).

Hymnologist J.R. Watson records that “Wilson urged Pratt Green to write a text for a Festival of Praise . . . which could be sung to Stanford’s neglected tune.” Pratt Green based his text on Psalm 150 but alluded to Mark 14:26 in stanza four of the hymn, a stanza recalling the hymn sung by the disciples at the Last Supper.

The hymn, composed in 1972, first appeared in New Church Praise (1975) and in the single-author collection The Hymns and Ballads of Fred Pratt Green (1982) with the title, “Let the People Sing!”

The opening line (called the incipit) originally read, “When in man’s music, God is glorified. . . .” Pratt Green reluctantly altered this to the current title for the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) and this change has universally been accepted in North American hymnals.

The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes that the change in text, though an important “social witness” in the area of inclusive language, weakens the theological and aesthetic qualities of the hymn: 1) Theologically, “the change tends to weaken the affirmation that mere mortal musicians and their music may and often do glorify God”; 2) aesthetically, the wonderful alliteration between “man’s” and “music” paralleled by “God’s” and “glorified” is lost.

Dr. Young speculates that this “text has probably been set in anthem form more than any other of the late twentieth century.”

Ministry of music

This hymn is groundbreaking in many ways.

There are numerous examples in the history of hymnody where music is a metaphor for some theological theme or experience. In Babcock’s “This Is My Father’s World,” for example, “all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.” Charles Wesley speaks of “the music of the heart” in his paraphrase of Psalm 150, “Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above.”

However, Pratt Green uses music not just as a metaphor that points us to another idea, but explores music-making as a phenomenon in the Christian’s experience in its own right. The second stanza concludes with the marvelous thought that “making music . . . move[s] us to a more profound Alleluia!”

In this way, Pratt Green seems to agree with Martin Luther who said, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” Luther and Pratt Green seem to ascribe a quasi-sacramental quality to music—music as a means of revelation and grace.

Pratt Green (1903-2000) was born in Roby just outside of Liverpool, England. Following his education, he was ordained in 1924 as a Methodist minister and served in various parishes throughout England well into the 1940s. Although he had a long interest in poetry, he did not focus on hymn writing until his retirement from active ministry.

Eminent British hymnologist Erik Routley (1917-1982) suggested that in Fred Pratt Green, Methodists finally had a successor to Charles Wesley.

* Words by Fred Pratt Green © 1972 Hope Publishing Company; Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.