Hymn Reflection: Holy, Holy, Holy — what makes it so great?
Baptist theologian, Malcolm Yarnell said recently in a class full of worship leaders, “The one thing that has prevented many Baptists in the United States from becoming modalists has been the first hymn in the Baptist Hymnal.” Most Baptists growing up with a hymnal knows that this hymn is none other than, “Holy, Holy, Holy” by Anglican missionary and pastor Reginald Heber in 1826. This beloved jewel of Trinitarian hymnody is found in 1,421 hymnals, and in dozens of translations. It is such a powerful, beloved hymn that even non-Trinitarian worshipers have used it such as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir by changing the line “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity” to “God in Thy glory, through eternity” (Episode 4337, Aired October 28, 2012)
Despite the hymn tune name NICAEA, the hymn itself smacks more of a poetic Athanasian Creed (and much shorter than the verbose Quicumque Vult) in its Triune thought than it does with the Nicene Creed. With a song so economic in wording and reflective of arguably the most complex concept of orthodox Christianity, one may ask, “how is it still so popular maintaining its textual and melodic integrity in world where change is constant?” In the 1990s a popular radio program on National Public Radio was Performance Today and on the show there was a segment titled, “What Makes It So Great?” where the host Martin Goldsmith would take a popular classical work, often from the romantic period and ask musicians and composers of the day to analyze and answer the question, what makes it so great? In this article, a short look is taken, historically, aesthetically, and textually to try to understand what makes this hymn so great.
Beauty is born oftentimes out of tragedy and hymn-writer, Oxonian, Reginald Heber (1783–1826) is no exception. Heber was raised in educational privilege and became an Anglican country parson for much of his adult life taking over his father’s church after his death until being promoted by the church to be the Bishop of Calcutta (India). Calcutta was where he served for the final three years of his life, ending tragically at the age of 42. After a great April morning of baptizing new saints and preaching, Heber went to his home in Calcutta, and the rest is tragic history. From The Life of Reginald Heber, Volume II we read:
“He retired into his own room, and according to his invariable custom, wrote on the back of the address on Confirmation ‘Trichinopoly, April 3, 1826.’ This was his last act, for immediately on taking off his clothes, he went into a large cold bath, where he had bathed the two preceding mornings, but which was now the destined agent of his removal to Paradise. Half an hour after, his servant, alarmed at his long absence, entered the room and found him a lifeless corpse.” (437)
The cold water of his bath, juxtaposed with his body heat in the stifling Calcutta weather, sent Heber’s body into a massive fatal stroke on April 3, 1826. However, though Heber was no longer earth-bound, his legacy is still deeply felt.
Reginald Heber was a prolific writer and his death in many ways became a rallying point for missions in the Victorian era, with Heber’s mission hymn, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.” However, it would be his text of “Holy, Holy, Holy” that would be the most enduring and beloved. The love comes from a wedding of music aesthetics and careful and judicious writing.
Though this article is most certainly about the hymn (lyric) and not the tune (NICAEA by John Dykes), it has been nearly impossible to separate the two since they were first married together in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861, that “marriage” would be officiated by William Monk, the editor.
The tune name NICAEA may actually have less to do with its Trinitarian leanings than the fact it was traditionally sung after the recitation of the Nicene Creed. Originally the tune used for this text was the more aptly named TRINITY, composed in 1850 by John Hopkins, its harmonic layout is much like that of NICAEA.
As this writing is not a platform for a stronger musical exposition of NICAEA, the article, “A Musical Analysis of John Dykes’ “Holy, Holy, Holy” (NICAEA) by Timothy Shafer” will serve as a strong musical accompaniment to this hymn analysis.
American forefather, Benjamin Franklin, once said that with twenty-six lead soldiers he could conquer the world: This the power of the written word. In “Holy, Holy, Holy” there are only one-hundred, twenty-six words, nineteen of the words are the echophonetic “Holy, Holy, Holy!” Stated six times, these three words (read trinity) help anchor and solidify the song’s purpose and meaning, into the head of the worshiper. The four stanzas form a natural worship “sandwich” of adoration, recollection of scripture, confession, and joyful adoration, and take the worshiper on a natural journey through the song. Beginning with the first verse we read:
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!
The first stanza, “Early in the morning, our song shall rise to Thee.” begins a clear offering of praise to the Triune God. This morning praise is prefixed by the chorus given to us by the cherubs and seraphs in Isaiah, chapter six, verse three. “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty.” This triune chant will precede nearly every verse.
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.
This text takes the worshiper seamlessly between the Old and New Testament prophecies found in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 and 5. Heber’s work is rife with Biblical imagery, and the romanticism that has permeated the literary world in the time of its writing. Hymnologist, J.R. Watson says of his second verse,
“Though an economy of words, the second stanza suggests a congregation in church: as in Ezekiel 1:1, the hymn is beginning with time and place and circumstance, and ending in mystery and wonder. Heber contrasts the earthly worship with the endless majesty and magnificence of the Holy Trinity, using Revelation 4: 6 — ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal’. William Law, In The Spirit of Love (1752–4), had turned this into ‘a glassy sea’, and Heber uses the same phrase to indicate heavenly, as opposed to earthly, worship:” (J.R. Watson, The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study, 324).
Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
though the eye made blind by sin Thy glory may not see,
only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.
The third stanza weighs humanity and deity to find that humanity is sadly wanting and needing of revelation when we see Revelation 15:4, to see how truly blessed man is when it says: “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (ESV). In congregationally directing this stanza, as a worship leader, I have often sung it a cappella allowing the listener to better hear, understand and assimilate the naked text for introspection and repentance. The confession ending, the fourth and final verse is much like the first:
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.
Again with rich imagery, not only of the magnum opus of God, man, but of all creation. Revelation 5:13 states that John the beloved, heard, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.”
However, it is the final sentence of each verse that unifies the whole construct into one of deep doctrine that has defined orthodox Christianity since the Council of Nicaea (325), “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity. This doctrinally-powerful statement echoes the champion of Triune thought in early Christianity, Athanasius (296–373), when he stated that, “God is one being (ousia) and three persons (hypostasis).”
In the Words of Heber
As this article has briefly explored the history, aesthetics and text of this hymn, we realize its importance, and uniqueness in Christian hymnody. In a world of verbosity, it is succinct; in a doctrine of complexity, it is simple; and in a time of romanticism, it is accurate without sterility. In fact it would be the words of Dr. Heber that best sum it up in a letter to the editor of the Christian Observer about his hymns:
“[I] hope that the . . .[hymn] will not be found reprehensible; no fulsome or indecorous language has been knowingly adopted; no erotic addresses to Him whom no unclean lip can approach.” (David Music, Hymnology 151–152.)
Simple, elegant, and perfect.