The Christian church has many gospel hymns that have colorful and interesting histories, providing insight to the author and the lyrics. Explaining the history to children can make a hymn more appealing and interesting. Several books that will help your quest include “Story of the Hymns” by Hezekiah Butterworth; “Hymns for a Kid's Heart” series by Bobbie Wolgemuth and Joni Eareckson Tada; and “Then Sings My Soul," volumes one and two, by Robert Morgan.
Familiar songs such as “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” offer an excellent opportunity to teach children about the history of gospel hymns. Sing the songs together before and after talking about the author and circumstances surrounding a song’s writing. For example, Anna and Susan Warner wrote the novel “Say and Seal” about a dying boy whose Sunday school teacher sang to him “Jesus Loves Me” to comfort him in his last hours. William Bradbury read the words penned by Anna and Susan and composed a melody with childlike simplicity; in return, it became the most familiar children’s hymn in the world. The melody to “Jesus Loves the Little Children” was a Civil War ballad about a soldier. The song's composer, George Frederick Root had Clare Herbert Woolston write new words for it after the war was over.
Famous Hymn Authors
In a choir or for a homeschool unit on hymns, teach hymn histories grouped by authors. Church hymnals contain many lyrics written by famous religious composers such as Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby. Hymns by Charles Wesley include “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” Hymns for consideration by Isaac Watts include “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed,” “Jesus Shall Reign,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Joy to the World.”
The melodies of many hymns are familiar and can be used for more than one hymn. For example, Beethoven’s “Hymn to Joy” is the melody for “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, “O How Glorious, Full of Wonder” and “Sing with All the Sons of Glory.” You can teach the children about the composer, the history of the melody and then look at various hymns using the melody. Other melodies for consideration include “Arlington” by Thomas Arne, “Londonderry Aire” -- an Irish folk song most familiar as “Danny Boy,” and John Dykes’ “St. Agnes.” Alternatively, some famous hymns are sung to various melodies, including John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” most often sung to and early American melody by Virginia Harmony.
Give a hymn history a personal touch by explaining what the hymn means to you and your walk as a Christian. The kids may also have favorite hymns that have special meaning, such as the song a grandmother sang often when working in the kitchen or one sung as a lullaby. Kids might often remember the personal histories more than a hymn’s official history.