Dr. Larry Misconception Graphic

Conversation About a Great Hymn

I was having a conversation about hymns and hymn tunes the other day with a pastor friend of mine. He mentioned being inspired as he read the stanzas of the great hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save. The strong theology appealed to him, and he related how often he had utilized this hymn in funerals. My friend was obviously quite familiar with this hymn and appreciative of the author, William Whiting, a 19th-century English college choral director.

All was going well in this conversation. I’m thinking, this is great—a pastor with a knowledge and appreciation of a great traditional hymn. And then, he remarked about how much he liked the beautiful harmony Whiting had arranged for this hymn. This made him think of me and my Faith Music Connection blog.

A Misconception Shared by Many

Like just about everyone, I appreciate being recognized for the work I do. But, my friend displayed a misconception shared by many about hymns and hymn tunes. He obviously thought the author of the hymn also wrote the music. This was somewhat understandable as the author, William Whiting, was also a professional musician.

Instead of directly pointing out this error, I agreed that there is power in the great hymns. The Psalms teach us that wherever God is, there is singing.

William Whiting and Eternal Father Strong to Save

I noted the irony that choral director Whiting is probably best known for writing Eternal Father Strong to Save than for any musical accomplishment. Next, I told him that “Melita” is the name of the tune usually paired with this hymn. “Melita” was named for the island of Malta, where the apostle Paul spent some time after a shipwreck. This tune name relates to the mention of peril on the sea in the hymn, known as “The Navy Hymn.”

John B. Dykes, a 19th-century English composer, not Whiting wrote this tune. (Dykes also wrote many other hymn tunes; his most famous is “Nicea,” which is universally paired with “Holy Holy Holy.”) Dykes’ compositional style is marked by use of dominant seventh chords, which are quite apparent in the harmony of “Melita.” 

Hymns and Hymn Tunes

In summary, hymns are literary compositions—the lyrics. The title of the hymn refers only to the lyrics. Lyrics are crafted into verses in definite metrical rhythm. Hymns are meant to be sung. Consequently, they are paired with music composed in compatible meter—called tunes or hymn tunes. Each tune has a name. This is important because a hymn may be sung with any tune in the same meter.

Both Corporate and Highly Personal Worship Experience

Tunes and harmony paired with great hymns provide a vehicle of expression for worship of God almighty and connection and communion with the saints that transcends the power of the words alone. This worship experience can be both corporate and highly personal as well as concurrently eternal and present.

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.