Fortress Press

Singing Church History: Introducing the Christian Story through Hymn Texts

Singing Church History

Introducing the Christian Story through Hymn Texts

Paul Rorem (Author)


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Christianity is a "singing church," with biblical foundations and centuries of examples in the Psalms and canticles, favorite hymns, and gospel songs. And this singing church has a history. Through engaging tales of the stories behind this music and its authors, Rorem makes church history come alive. Singing Church History journeys through an ecumenical history of church music from early and medieval times through the Reformation and the early modern world, into American and World Christianity. Throughout, Rorem shows us how these familiar hymn texts have us "singing church history" on Sunday mornings without even knowing it.

Rorem's analysis of well-known hymns from diverse strains of Christianity makes Singing Church History a useful resource for students, congregations, and curious readers. Placing familiar music from Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Pietist, Methodist, American evangelical, historically Black, and Christian communities around the world into historical context helps us appreciate the ecumenical nature of our musical traditions. Singing Church History includes hymn texts for easy reference.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9781506496214
  • eBook ISBN 9781506496238
  • Dimensions 5.5 x 8.5
  • Pages 228
  • Publication Date May 14, 2024


In every generation, theological thought, priorities, and even controversies have been expressed in the texts of hymns. Reading and studying these texts gives us a fascinating glimpse into history. Singing them today connects us to timeless Christian truths, as well as to the great cloud of witnesses from the distant past to the present day. It is this connection that makes it so essential to keep a wide selection of hymns in every congregation's repertoire. This book by Paul Rorem is a great, relatively quick read for anyone interested in the intersections of church history, theology, and church music. Recommended for seminarians as well as congregational book groups and Christian education courses.

Tim Getz, director of music, Grace Lutheran Church, Palo Alto, California

A brilliant idea brilliantly done! There is no book we can hold in our hand that contains as much history as a hymnal. The story of each hymn in its particularity can teach us moments in church history that, together, give us the entire sweep of the past from Miriam to Lina Sandell. A great treasure and resource for congregations.

Gracia Grindal, professor emerita of rhetoric, Luther Seminary

Hymns, songs, and liturgy are formational to our Lutheran faith, marrying music, poetry, and theology. Building on the work of Erik Routley and Paul Westermeyer, Rorem explores hymns and songs, old and new, revealing the way they reflect their time, both historically and theologically, and also transcend it. This new resource is an excellent way to bring pastors, musicians, and lay folks together to teach, learn about, and appreciate our singing history as the church of Jesus Christ.

Julie Grindle, associate with the bishop of the Upstate New York Synod of the ELCA, and church musician

Paul Rorem applies his deep knowledge of church history and theology to hymns, and the result is an engagingly written brief history of the subject. Intended for lay audiences, it would make a good college or seminary textbook.

Joseph Herl, professor of music, Concordia University, Seward, Nebraska

Hymnody has been referred to as a form of practical theology; the church's central beliefs about Jesus are expressed through what the church sings in worship. Singing Church History proves that point, introducing major events, theologies, and figures of Christian history through a breezy, eminently readable chronology of congregational song.

Zebulon M. Highben, associate professor of the practice of church music, Duke Divinity School, and director of chapel music, Duke University Chapel

This is an unusual book, since we often associate hymns with worship, what we do on Sundays--those powerful songs that connect us with special times and special people in our lives. But as Paul Rorem creatively explores, the hymns we sing in the present also have a significant past. And it is in coming to terms with that past that our singing in the present takes on new meaning.

Robin A. Leaver, professor emeritus, Westminster Choir College, and editor of A New Song We Now Begin: Celebrating the Half Millennium of Lutheran Hymnals 1524-2024

Paul Rorem's delightful book explains how well hymns illustrate the entire history of Christianity, but also how often hymns have played an active part in shaping that history. With full attention to the importance of Scripture for hymnody through the ages, illuminating portraits of key hymn writers, carefully crafted discussion questions, helpful appendices with hymns identified for liturgical and doctrinal use, and (not least) many hymns printed for singing, the book is well suited for both church and classroom. It is keyed to Lutheran hymnals, but thoroughly ecumenical in its coverage and usefulness.

Mark Noll, professor emeritus, University of Notre Dame; coeditor of Sing Them Over Again to Me: Hymns and Hymnbooks in America and Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology

Some people watch thrillers on TV. Even if they know the outcome, they enter into the event with an energy that puts them on the edge of their seat. Some people read mysteries and just can't put the book down. They keep that nightlight on through until they finish the next chapter . . . and then the next. Now Paul Rorem has given us a book that helps us to sing the faith that has been passed on to us in such a way that we not only come to love the church's history, but we can't wait to sing it again. Like the satisfaction we receive when we come to a final cadence of a robust hymn, Dr. Rorem has given us a joyous ride that will encourage us to keep singing with our congregations and our ecumenical neighbors, and with such singing, the life of church will flourish.

Amy C. Schifrin, president emeritus, North American Lutheran Seminary; associate professor of liturgy and homiletics (retired), Trinity School for Ministry

This book scans the history of the Christian church by means of hymns. In the process, it provides theological and historical insights. It is a valuable resource for scholars, teachers, church musicians, and others who seek to understand the church and its song.

Paul Westermeyer, emeritus professor of church music, cantor, and director of MSM degree program with St. Olaf College, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota

Paul Rorem tells the story of the Christian church through hymn texts dating from the first centuries of the church's existence to the present day. Simultaneously, he provides the reader with welcome insights to these texts. His historical and geographical scope is commendably broad, with welcome attention to early and medieval hymn texts as well as global hymnody from the mid-twentieth century to the present. He has that rare gift of writing in a highly accessible way while not glossing over sometimes difficult historical issues.

Dr. Daniel Zager, librarian emeritus, Eastman School of Music