by John Ellis
Ranking hymns was supposed to be easy. When the idea first came to me, I assumed that minimal effort would be required (both in thought and in execution), and that the end result would yield high reward (page clicks and discussion). While I have yet to discover if the second half of my assumption is correct, the first half has proven laughably wrong. There are several reasons for that: 1. There are a lot of excellent hymns out there. 2. Choosing what I believe are the best hymns of all time seems weighted with far more import than when I’m ranking the pop music released during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, for example. 3. Every single person I asked, listed different songs than those I was considering. 4. I don’t hold to as clearly defined and strict of a definition of “hymn” as hymnody nerds do. Strangely, the opinions of hymnody nerds actually matter to me. And, 5. My pastor (boss) reads what I write, and if I choose incorrectly, he will be sure to let me know. Probably over and over. In front of people. I am risking scorn by ranking the best hymns of all time.
On the flip side of all that, though, researching this article has proven far more rewarding and edifying than any other music list I have written. As I wrote above, there are a lot of excellent hymns, and listening to them has been encouraging and, frankly, quite enjoyable. In fact, as I get older, I desire to listen to hymns more often than any other genre of music. Looking at the project from that perspective means that while it may not have been easy, it was a highly profitable exercise that caused my soul to be frequently stirred to tearful praises of my God and my Savior. I pray that reading this list and listening to the hymns will do the same for you. However, don’t let that stop you from sharing points of disagreement with me.
10. Abide with Me
“[B]ut they urged [Jesus] strongly, saying, ‘Abide with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them (Luke 24:29).”
Dying from tuberculosis, Henry Lyte penned this meditative hymn as a prayer for the continued presence of Jesus. As the hymn says, “other helpers flee and comforts fail,” yet, we know from 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 that God is the “God of all comforts, who comforts us in all our affliction.” May God give us the grace to find all of our hope and comfort in Jesus, no matter the trial.
9. Of the Father’s Love Begotten
A Christmas carol, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” packs a lot of theology in its nine verses. Rehearsing who God is and His plan for salvation that culminated in the Incarnation is always a blessing. Truly, while rehearsing the story of Redemption, those of us who have been adopted into the family of God should “every voice in concert sing/ Evermore and evermore.”
8. A Mighty Fortress is Our God
This is the one hymn that makes my regulative principle loving heart wish that my church would use the organ. This majestic hymn is the great Reformer Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46. Singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with a room full of Believers is a soul-stirring experience.
7. The Church’s One Foundation
The history of this hymn is fascinating. In the midst of a schism wrought in the Church of South Africa by the heretical teachings of a rogue bishop, Samuel Stone purposed to write a series of hymns based on the Apostle’s Creed. In 1866, he wrote “Lyra Fidelium: Twelve Hymns on the Twelve Articles of the Apostle’s Creed.” “The Church’s One Foundation” was written for the ninth article. More than just a rehearsal of ecclesiology, the hymn reminds us why the Church exists, from whence the power of the Church is derived, and asks for God’s protection over the Church, the Bride of Christ.
6. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
The only hymn on this list from the prolific hymn writer Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is a beautiful reminder of Paul’s words in Galatians 6:14 that, “far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” After rehearsing the suffering of our Savior on the cross poetically rendered in the previous verses, the fourth verse never fails to move me to tears as I reflect on the great and priceless love of Jesus.
Depending on what’s going on in my life and what I’m studying, these next five hymns can all lay claim to being my favorite hymn at different times.
5. It Is Well with My Soul
How any Christian can sing (or hear) “It Is Well with My Soul” and not be drawn into a spirit of adoration for our great Savior and King is beyond me. We don’t have to have suffered as great a loss as the hymn writer Horatio Spafford for the words (and music) to resonate with us and cause us to rehearse and rejoice in our heart over the eternal victory over sin and death that Jesus has won for us. No other truth can cause us to deeply confess that it is truly well with our soul as does our place in Christ.
4. Holy, Holy, Holy
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come (Revelation 4:8).”
“Holy, Holy, Holy” has a reverence in tone, mood, and lyric that, from a human standpoint, does as good a job as any hymn ever written of representing the might, majesty, and mystery of the Trinity.
3. Be Still My Soul
While the admonition to “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side/Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain/Leave to thy God to order and provide/In every change He, faithful, will remain/Be still, my soul, thy best, thy heavenly friend/Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end” is always relevant, the charge seems especially needed in 2017. Listen to this hymn, and rest, knowing that “the waves and winds still know/His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.”
2. Be Thou My Vision
“Be Thou My Vision” is an Irish hymn of devotion. With words that we would do well to keep close to our heart and on our lips in prayer, musically, this may be the most beautiful hymn on this list. “Be Thou My Vision” causes us to long for “heaven’s joys, O’ bright heaven’s sun,” while reflecting on the truth no matter what comes our way, good or bad, “Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.”
1. Jesus Paid It All
I’m not sure how any other hymn could be ranked number one. The first verse, “I hear the Savior say, ‘Thy strength indeed is small/Child of weakness, watch and pray, Find in Me thine all in all,” is enough to propel “Jesus Paid It All” to the top of the list. The rest of the song, however, is just as true and just as powerful. The beautiful recognition that “All to Him I owe” is the heart of our Faith. If Jesus hadn’t paid it all, there would be no reason for us to sing any of the hymns on this list.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Among the errors and heresies believed and promoted by Bishop John Colenso were the defense of polygamy and the belief that some books of the Bible should be considered fallible.