Holy Holy Holy Hymn of the Week by Faith Music Connection

Holy Holy Holy Hymn

This is The Hymn of the Week with Dr. Larry Frazier—presenting the good news in song, combining faith and everyday experience.

Emotion, subjectivity and individual feeling and expression were powerful creative forces for art, poetry and music of the 19th century.  It was a time of a great increase in the writing of hymns, which combined these Romantic artistic ideals with a new sense of personal devotion informed by an awareness of Christian history and doctrine, liturgy and evangelical fervor. 

This week’s hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty! is from the work of two, Church of England clergymen, whose lives overlap by only three years, and is an outstanding example of this period which has remained widely popular today.

Click below for the Holy Holy Holy lyrics.

Holy Holy Holy-Lyrics by Faith Music Connection

Holy Holy Holy: Hymn of the Week Radio Show Episode

Reading of the Holy Holy Holy Hymn Text

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;

Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty;

God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! all the saints adore thee,

Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;

Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,

Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.

Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide thee,

Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see;

Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,

Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea;

Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty;

God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

And now, let us hear our hymn as sung by the St. John’s Children’s Choir

Background of the Holy Holy Holy Hymn

Reginald Heber was born in 1783, in Cheshire, England, to a wealthy and influential family.  A precocious reader from an early age, he received academic honors from his studies in Latin and English literature at Brasenose College, Oxford; He was then ordained in the Church of England and later awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. 

After 16 years as vicar at Hodnet in Shropshire, where he wrote almost all of his nearly 60 hymns, he was appointed Bishop of Calcutta, in 1823. In this new position he was actually responsible for preaching the Gospel, baptizing new converts and establishing churches throughout the entire Indian sub-continent.  This missionary work took a toll on his health, and he died of a stroke in 1826.

Among the more familiar hymns of Heber are Bread of the World in Mercy Broken, Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning, God that Madest Earth and Heaven, The Son of God Goes Forth to War and the great missionary hymn.

From Greenland’s Icy Mountains: “From Greenland’s icy mountains to India’s coral strand...the heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone...Salvation! O Salvation! The joyful sound proclaim till earth’s remotest nation has learned Messiah’s name.”  He also composed the melody of a single hymn tune—Calcutta.

Holy Holy Holy Stands Above All Others

But, it is Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty! that, today, stands above all the other hymns of Heber.  Published in A Selection of Psalms and Hymns of the Parish Church of Danbury, in 1827, the great poet Alfred Lord Tennyson is said to have considered it one of the finest hymns ever written.  Heber gives us poetic reference to the Nicene Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity, the sovereignty of God, to Psalm 19 and the Book of Revelation.  There is even a connection to the ordinary of the Catholic Mass, as the translation of the Latin “Sanctus” is “Holy.”

And now we hear Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! sung to the tune Nicea by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Background of the Tune

Composition and Musical Points of Interest: Melodic/Harmonic/Rhythmic Symbolism

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! was first paired with a now obscure Scottish tune.  It was not until 35 years later that it was paired with the tune by which it is known today: Nicea, by John B. Dykes, in the important collection, Hymns Ancient and Modern, published in London, in 1861.  Born in 1823, in Hull, England, Dykes, (spelled D-y-k-e-s), like Heber, distinguished himself as a scholar at a young age. 

Though Dykes concentrated on the classics, he was also an accomplished musical artist, becoming an assistant church organist at St. John’s Church in Hull when he was just 10 years old.  He completed his formal education at Wakefield and at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, and was ordained in the Church of England.

Dykes Composed Over 300 Hymns

He was a prolific writer whose sermons and religious articles were widely published, and he also composed over 300 hymn tunes, including Melita, associated with the sailors’ hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, which was played in ceremonies following the deaths of U.S. presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and St. Agnes, which is often paired with Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.  Nicea, St. Agnes and Melita represent some of the finest examples of Victorian hymn tunes, marked with rich harmonies and melodies in accord with popular music of the day, which encouraged renewed congregational singing. 

The first three words of Holy, holy, holy! are paired with repeating notes of the tonic triad of the music providing an unmistakable sense of majesty and strength.  The rising melody of the second line pauses as a beautiful passing tone in the tenor part of the harmony leads to the exact same pattern of repeated notes of the tonic triad as the third line of verse again re-states, “Holy, holy, holy!” 

The final line of verse of the first and fourth stanzas features the highest note of the entire tune sung to the word “God,” followed by a downward sweeping melody supported by rich harmony featuring another prominent passing tone—this time in the alto part—returning to a final resolution on the tonic chord on “Blessed Trinity!”

The meter of this hymn—that is the number of syllables in the four lines of verse in each stanza or strophe—is, a most unusual one; in fact, the only tune in this meter to be found in most hymnals is Nicea!  John B. Dykes’ productive life ended just weeks short of his 53rd birthday in 1876.

And now, listen to Nicea, beautifully arranged and played by pianist, Terry Lowry

Devotion or Scripture Related to the Hymn

A great hymn has a unique ability to inspire us today.  Hymns are the poetic testimonies of people throughout history who have lived out their faith in good times and bad.  Together with scripture, hymns invite us to discover anew the love of God and to share this love in our worship with other believers and in lives of true discipleship until we too, may “cast down our golden crowns around the glassy sea before the “Holy Lord God Almighty!” 

The beautiful poetry of Reginald Heber’s hymn is a sort of paraphrase of the statement of faith crafted by those early church leaders who met at Nicea, that, when coupled with John Dykes’ wonderful tune, resonates within our hearts.

Psalm 19 Relevance

Let us conclude with selected verses from another great hymn from the Old Testament: Psalm 19. 

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 

Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. 

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

And now, let us hear our hymn as sung by the Choir of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh.

Closing and Exit Theme

Thank you for joining me for this episode of the Holy Holy Holy Hymn.  Tune in again next week when we will consider another great hymn. 

Until then, this is your host, Dr. Larry Frazier…
Goodbye and Keep Singing!

About the Author Larry Frazier

Larry spent 24 years teaching music at the University of West Georgia to over 6,000 students. Ten years ago, Larry and his wife Mary Lynn, received comfort, support and inspiration from traditional Christian hymns while she overcame stage-three colon cancer. Larry is on a mission to help you discover God’s incredible power through the intersection of faith and Christian music in your life.