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History of Hymns: "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones"

"Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones"
John Athelstan Riley
The UM Hymnal, No. 90

Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” is the sonic equivalent of a Renaissance painting, such as Raphael’s “The Crowning of the Virgin,” according to hymnologist Richard Watson.

Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
Bright seraphs cherubim, and thrones
Raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
Virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs: Alleluia!


John Athelstan Riley (1858-1945) lived a long and well-traveled life. A native of London with an education at Eton and Pembroke College, Cambridge, his traveled to Middle Eastern countries including Persia, Turkey and Kurdistan to study the worship of the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches. Those experiences influenced his scholarship and our hymn.

The results of Riley’s research appeared in many articles and the book Athos, or the Mountain of the Monks (1887).

Riley participated fully in the publication of the landmark English Hymnal (1906), seen as an alternative to the more staid Hymns Ancient and Modern (first edition, 1861). The changes in the English Hymnal from its predecessor were not well-received initially, but many were won over by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ excellent contributions as musical editor and by Riley’s many lectures on the collection with an accompanying group of singers.

In spite of the competition between the two books, there was an important link between Riley and John Mason Neale (1818-1866), editor of Hymns Ancient and Modern. Both loved the historical liturgies of the Christian church, including those of the Orthodox tradition.

As English hymnologist Richard Watson points out, “[Riley] was a successor to John Mason Neale in his interest in the Eastern Church, and the hymn draws upon his knowledge of early theology, especially the thinking about angels.”

Professor Watson notes that Riley incorporated the concepts proposed by a sixth-century treatise on “a heavenly structure of threes, descending in order from the central three, the Holy Trinity.” Indeed Riley masterfully piles up three sets of threes in the first stanza: 1) Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; 2) Dominations, Virtues and Powers; 3) Principalities, Archangels and Angels.

This treatise was once believed to be the work of Dionysius the Areopagite, a convert of the Apostle Paul during his visit to Athens (see Acts 17:34). However, it is now thought to have been written much later, and the author is referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius. The treatise was very influential on medieval concepts of the structure of heaven and the theology of angels.

Following a pattern seen in other early hymns such as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” the witness of heavenly beings spreads to Earth via the Incarnation—“Thou Bearer of the eternal Word” (stanza two). The response on Earth resounds in stanza three with the affirmation of “Patriarchs and Prophets” and the “Holy Twelve” and “Martyrs strong” who are joined by “All Saints triumphant.” The final doxological stanza concludes with an affirmation of the Trinity as the cosmos joins in a glad song of “supernal anthems.”

Professor Watson suggests that the hymn is the sonic equivalent of a Renaissance painting where “the eye can think of the orders of the angels and saints, rank upon rank.” Raphael’s “The Crowning of the Virgin” (1502-1503) displays the connection between the sonic and visual symbolism of heaven and earth. Undoubtedly, Riley was influenced by his study of Greek liturgy and the Theotokion, “Hymn to the Mother of God.”

The hymn was first matched to the tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN (“Let us rejoice”), a German tune from the 17th century, by Ralph Vaughan Williams for the English Hymnal (1906). For over 100 years, this pairing of text and tune, as well as Vaughan Williams’ arrangement, has been standard for many hymnals.

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