Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs and Women

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Ephesians 5:19 (NIV).

And so the letter to the Ephesians exhorts those early Christians to sing.  Colossians 3:16 has a similar exhortation.  Matthew and Mark report Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before going to the Mount of Olives.  So what are these three types of sacred music and what role did women  play in them?   Psalms are fairly easy to figure out.  They are of course, from the Psalms, which by the time of Paul, were those 150 poems found today in both the Christian and Hebrew scripture.  The word is from the Greek meaning “instrumental music” and by extension, “words accompanying the music”.  Psalms were meant to be accompanied by stringed instruments such as the harp, lyre, or lute.  Even today, Psalms, or excerpts from Psalms are put to more modern music. This summer, I observed the monks of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky chanting Psalms accompanied by a pipe organ.  They manage to chant the entire 150 Psalms during a two week cycle.  But modern Psalms can also be adapted to even more modern accompaniment and additional lyrics.  Amy Grant’s “Thy Word” from Psalm 119:105 comes to mind.

A psalm can be a hymn, but hymns go beyond that.  The word comes from the Greek word, “hymnos” which means a song of praise to gods or heroes. Indeed, Sappho (c.620b.c.  to c.565b.c.), a Greek pagan woman, wrote hymns long before Christ. She may be the earliest known hymnist.   Of course, hers were hymns of praise to her pagan gods and Greek heroes.  But my book and blog focus on music and hymns in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  So I will skip ahead.  Obviously, if Christ sang hymns, they existed in the Jewish tradition.   Hymns are formal and traditional songs to be sung in public by congregations in praise of God.   Traditional hymns have a defined rhythm such as 8.8.8.8.  The hymns are lyrics. The melodies to the lyrics are often interchangeable.  Since congregational singing of hymns was unknown until the Reformation, hymns today are much more recent than the Psalms.  Women took it and ran with it.  The most noted hymn writer in history is probably Fanny Crosby (1820 to 1915) who wrote over 8000 hymns.  How much more can a hymn praise God than Crosby’s “Praise Him, Praise Him”? Though it seems most modern church music today has irregular rhythms, there are still contemporary women writing hymns along traditional lines.  Ruth Duck and Carolyn Winfrey Gillette have written many hymns and still write hymn lyrics that fit into traditional  well known metrical tunes.

This then leads to the question of “spiritual songs”.  How are they different than hymns?  I assume the Ephesians and Colossians thought they were different or the two extra words would have been extraneous.  The term could be even broader in meaning than just a hymn.  Of course, Psalms and hymns are spiritual songs for they have a spiritual theme, but now the net is thrown out to include spontaneous songs (think of the African-American spirituals, including Harriet Tubman’s “Go Down, Moses”), short snippets of praise as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:15 (“I will sing with my spirit but I will also sing with my mind”), and non-metrical songs.  Today’s praise music appears to come within the purview of “spiritual songs”.  Women are even more a part of this than of traditional hymns.  Doris Akers comes from the African-American spiritual experience and refashioned the format into wonderful songs such as “Sweet, Sweet Spirit”, “Lead Me, Guide Me” and “Lord, Don’t Move This Mountain”.  Even more contemporary spiritual song writers would include Deborah Smith, Laurie Klein, Karen Lafferty and Darlene Zschech.  This is only a small number of the many spiritual song writers today.  Their musical output floors me.