What hymns are distinctive for Unitarian and Universalist Christians? Lists proffered.

Yesterday, I blogged wondering what might constitute a Unitarian and Universalist Christian hymn corpus. In essence, this would seem to me to be those hymns most commonly found in Unitarian and Universalist hymnals (the Universalists wrote few enduring hymns themselves and tended to rely on the Unitarians as much as anyone) less those hymns commonly found in any number of hymnals.

I steeled myself for a bit of a research project — we all have our hobbies — then discovered a tool that probably give as good a result in a fraction of the time. The Hymnary.org site indexes American hymnals. Ideally, each hymnal should have each consituent hymn notes withits particular version of the text, plus the tune and distinguishing metadata. In many cases, however, all there is is a list of hymns, noted by a standardized name. This includes a large number of Universalist and Unitarian hymnals. (The 1993 Singing the Living Tradition is noted, but alas doesn’t even have a list of hymns.)

A feature at Hymnary.org is the ability to compare two hymnals by common content. So I thought: if someone took a list of the hymns found in both the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit and the 1964 Hymns for the Celebration of Life, less those hymns found in the Consultation on Ecumenical Hymnody list, you might have a working list of distinctively Unitarian and Universalist hymns.

A few caveats:

  • Some hymns thought as distinctly Unitarian might not be on the list because they were adopted ecumenically.
  • Some ecumenical hymns were re-written for a particularly Unitarian audience — usually to remove references to the Trinity; Holy, Holy, Holy leaps to mind — and so may be thought of distinctive, but remain with the ecumenical list.
  • Several hymns on the “distinctive” list were not written by Unitarians and Universalists; this is only a reference to adoption.
  • Some hymns, however distinctive, are so out of fashion that their current adoption is unlikely. So this list should be read both from a practical and historical point of view. Not Alone for Mighty Empire — on the ecumenical list — comes to mind.

So here’s the distinctive list: many items that seem just right, others that needs bear scrutiny.

A noble life, a simple faith An open heart and
Abide not in the realm of dreams
Again, as evening’s shadow falls
All are architects of fate
All beautiful the march of days
All hail the pageant of the years
All my hope on God is founded
As tranquil streams that meet and merge
Awake my soul, stretch every nerve
Awake, my soul, and with the sun
Behold a sower from afar, He goeth forth with might
Beneath the shadow of the cross
Bring, O morn, thy music
Creation’s Lord, we give Thee thanks, That this Thy world is incomplete
Fair is their fame who stand
Forward through the ages
From age to age the prophets [how grandly] rise
From heart to heart, from creed to creed
Gather us in, thou love that fillest all
Gird on thy sword, O man
Go not, my soul, in search of him
God is in his holy temple, all the earth keep silence here
God is my [our] strong salvation
God of the earnest heart
God of the earth, the sky, the sea
God send us men whose aim will [shall] [’twill] be
God’s trumpet wakes the slumbering world
Hear, hear, O ye nations, and hearing obey
Heaven and earth, and sea, and air God’s eternal
Heir of all the ages, I
Heir of all the waiting ages
High o’er the lonely hills
How happy is he born and [or] taught
I cannot think of them as dead
I saw the city of the Lord
I walk amidst thy beauty forth
Immortal Love, forever full
In the lonely midnight, on the wintry hill
It came upon the [a] midnight clear
It sounds along the ages
Let the whole creation cry
Let there be light, Lord God of Hosts
Life of ages, richly poured, Love of God, unspent and free
Light of ages and of nations
Lord of all being, throned afar
Lord of all majesty and might
Make channels for the streams of love
Man’s comradeship is very wide
Men whose boast it is, that ye
Morning has broken, Like the first morning
Morning, so fair to see
My country is the world, My flag with stars impearled
My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee
No longer forward or behind
Not always on the mount may we Rapt in the heavenly vision be
Not gold, but only men can make
Not in vain the distance beacons
Now is the time approaching
Now while the day in trailing spleandor
O beautiful for spacious skies
O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother
O day of light and gladness, of prophecy and song
O God, beneath thy [your] guiding hand
O life that maketh all things new
O prophet souls of all the years
O sometimes gleams upon our [my] sight
O star of truth, down shining
O thou great Friend to all the sons of men
O thou whose gracious presence shone
O thou whose power o’er moving worlds presides
O Thou whose Spirit witness bears
O worship the King, all glorious above
O ye who taste that love is sweet
O’er continent and ocean
Once more the liberal year laughs out
Once to every man and nation
One holy church of God appears
One thought I have, my ample creed
Our God, our God, thou shinest here
Out of the dark, the circling sphere
Past are the cross, the scourge, the thorn
Praise to God and thanks we bring
Prayer is the soul’s [heart’s] [saint’s] sincere desire
Rank by rank again we stand
Remember me, the Savior [Master] said
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky
Rise up, O men [man] [youth] of God
Say not the struggle naught availeth
Say not they die those martyr souls
Seek not afar for beauty
Send down thy [your] truth, O God
Sovereign and transforming grace
Spring has now unwrapped the flowers
Thank we now the Lord of heaven
The crest and crowning of all good
The harp at nature’s advent strung
The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want
The morning hangs its signal
The spacious firmament on high
The voice of God is calling its summons unto men
These things shall be, a loftier race
Thou, earth, art ours, and ours to keep
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, wide circling as the sun
Tis winter now, the fallen [gleaming] snow
To mercy, pity, peace and love
Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways
Unto thy temple, Lord, we come
Veiled in darkness Judah lay
We come unto our fathers’ God
We move in faith to unseen goals
We praise thee, God, for harvests earned
We pray no more, made lowly wise
We thank you, Lord of heaven
We three kings of [from] Orient are
When courage fails, and faith burns low
When my Love to Christ [God] grows weak
When Stephen, full of power and grace
When the gladsome day declineth
When thy heart [with joy] o’erflowing Sings a thankful prayer
Where is our holy church
Where is your God they say
Wisdom has treasures greater far
Wonders still the world shall witness
Ye [You] that have spent the silent night
Ye shepherd plains of Bethlehem
Years are coming, speed them onward

And for the record, here are the ecumenical hymns found in both hymnals

A mighty fortress is our God
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
All creatures of our God and King
All people that on earth do dwell, Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice
All praise to thee, my God, this night
Angels we have heard on high
Come, thou almighty King, Help us thy name to sing
Come, ye [you] thankful people, come
Dear Lord and Father [Master] of mankind [us all], Forgive our foolish ways
For all thy [the] saints, who from their labors rest
For the beauty of the earth
God moves in a mysterious way
God of grace and God of glory
Hail to the Lord’s anointed
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Early
Immortal, invisible, God only wise
Joy to the world, the Lord is [has] come
Joyful, joyful, we adore thee
Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates
Not alone for mighty empire Stretching far o’er land and sea
Now thank we all our God
O come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant
O come, O come, Emmanuel [Immanuel], And ransom
O God of earth and altar
O [Our] God, our help in ages [seasons] past
O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see
O Sacred Head now [once] [sore] wounded [surrounded]
Praise to the living God All praised be his name
Praise to [ye] [we] the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation
The first Noel, the angel did say
Watchman, tell us of the night
Where cross the crowded ways of life
While shepherds watch [watched] their flocks by night

And here are the ecumenical hymns found only in the Hymns of the Spirit. (Having not worked with Hymns for the Celebration of Life, I don’t have a list of those ecumenical hymns for only in it.)

All Things Are Thine, No Gift Have We
As with Gladness Men of Old
Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light
Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness
Eternal Ruler of the Ceaseless Round
Fairest Lord Jesus
Faith of Our Fathers
From All Who Dwell below the Skies
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken
God of Our Fathers
Good Christian Men, Rejoice
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
In Christ There Is No East or West
In Heavenly Love Abiding
In the Cross of Christ I Glory
Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee
Judge Eternal, Throned in Splendor
Lord, Dismiss Us with Thy Blessing
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
New Every Morning Is the Love
O Perfect Love, All Human Thought Transcending
Praise God from Whom All Blessing Flow
Praise the Lord, Ye Heavens
Ride On, Ride On in Majesty
Silent Night
Spirit Divine, Attend Our Prayer
Strong Son of God, Immortal Love
Sun of My Soul
Take My Life and Let It Be
The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended
The Duteous Day Now Closeth
The King of Love My Shepherd Is
We Plow the Fields and Scatter
When All Thy Mercies, O My God
When Morning Gilds the Skies

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Scanning the list, it looks pretty good. Obviously, you will tweak the list over time, adding additional ones. As you do so, I’d like to point out that Hymns of the Spirit left out some 19th C. Unitarian hymns that I think are worth reviving. I love Samuel Johnson’s “Onward, onward, through the region.” Sir John Bowring was, I believe, an English Unitarian, and while I don’t agree with the theology of it, I do like the hymn “In the cross of Christ I glory.” Eliza Scudder’s “Thou grace divine” I find comforting; some of Scudder’s other hymns are also worth looking at.

    Also worth looking at, in my opinion, and not in any 20th C. UU hymnal: John Quincy Adam wrote some hymns that might be worth reviving; Herman Melville’s poem on Jonah (in Moby-Dick) is really powerful.

  2. Oh yeah, and how about Pete Seeger’s version of Ecclesiastes, “Turn, Turn, Turn”? It’s very mid-20th C., but it’s still a good way to connect people with the Bible. Supposedly, the only reason it got left out of Sing the Living Tradition was that Seeger did not want to change the language to be gender inclusive.

  3. I agree with you about Scudder, though she was better remembered as a convert to the Episcopalians. That doesn’t keep me from loving her hard-to-sell “I cannot find thee, still on restless pinion.” (HS1937, #72) Really, the problem is wholly within the incipit, and might suffer well to be altered, and perhaps the whole hymn reset to something familiar and soaring like Finlandia. Could fill a similar ecological niche to “How Great Thou Art.”

    “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” is an ecumenical hymn with a Unitarian writer, which is why it’s not on the list.

    For the core hymnody, I’d prefer to avoid items still covered by copyright, though there are a few items in the ecumenical list that would present problems — these can, with Seeger, be added back in as the opportunity presents. That’s a later consideration, I think.

  4. Copyright-free, of course. Makes total sense.

    I’m working on a related project, and may have some more hymns for you. I’ll see how it goes….

  5. From Singing the Living Tradition might be included:

    Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire
    Lift Every Voice and Sing
    For the Earth Forever Turning
    Precious Lord, Take My Hand

    Most of these though are not UU hymns.

    One of the issues with the earlier lists of hymns is that are classics and few were written before say, 1950. Few are not purely Anglo-American. The additional problem is that they do not wrestle with the trends in contemporary Christian thought. And, of course, “How Great Thou Art” should be in every UU Christian hymnal.

  6. Several on the “distinctive” list are in the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 and were quite frequently sung in the Episcopal school I attended as a kid. Among these are “Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve”, “High o’er the lonely hills”, “It came upon the midnight clear”, “Once to every man and nation”, “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want”, “The spacious firmament on high”, “Turn back O man, forswear thy foolish ways”, and “We three kings of Orient”.

    I suspect some of these “false-positives” may be due to a difference in timing, if you are comparing an older compilation of UU hymns with a contemporary compilation of ecumenical ones. I wonder if the contemporary list also under-weights older hymns sung in the more traditional Protestant denominations due to the recent popularity of evangelical and non-denominational churches with more casual worship styles. You might want to filter a little further against Episcopal, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian hymnals from the comparable era for fine-tuning.

    There are also several patriotic songs that are certainly not distinctly UU and were probably excluded from your Ecumenical Hymnody list because they are not really hymns.

  7. @Fausto. What you identify as a bug I’m presenting — for better or worse — as a feature, to show what Unitarian and Universalist Christians actually sung (or rather, what was in the hymnals) rather than what they produced.

    I don’t pretend it’s a current rendering; indeed, UU Christians are so few now that it would be hard to say that there is an ongoing hymn tradition, or at least a vital one.

    Plus, hymnals have long legacies. The ecumenical list was produced more than 30 years ago, when the Episcopalian Hymnal 1940 wasn’t quite put to pasture, and before Hymns of the Spirit had its last printing.

    If there’s a criticism of the ecumenical list is that it undercounted gospel songs, so if anything it over-weights them. But then again, I can’t stand gospel songs and cringe when Unitarian Universalists — Christians especially — trot them out to show how with-it we are.

  8. You have provided a great list of hymns, familiar fare to one, like me, who cut his Unitarian teeth at the First Church in Boston (1961-1967). Most of these hymns are drawn from the epochal 19th century during which time UUs really flew into hymn production. Interestingly, I did a service in Beckley, WV in 1998 featuring many of these hymns. Much to my shock, the UUs in West Virginia did not know them, any of them, even the few who were reared in New England!

    I have recently found two hymnals that contain most of these pieces. They constitute remarkable collections, for each hymn is thoroughly generically theistic, while many are certainly also of liberal Christian bent. Unity Hymns and Chorals for Congregation and Home (W.C. Gannett, J.V. Blake, and F.L. Hosmer), 1880; AND The Thought of God in Hymns and Poems (Gannett and Hosmer) 1918. Both are on the web in their entirety via Harvard’s Andover-Harvard Library. Each should give any UU Xn a trove of material to try out.

  9. The Thought of God in Hymns and Poems is new to me, but is out of copyright and all three volumes can be downloaded (http://www.archive.org/details/thoughtgodinhym00ganngoog; see the second series here for a very nice PDF: http://ia700308.us.archive.org/18/items/thoughtofgodinhy00hosmiala/thoughtofgodinhy00hosmiala.pdf)

    Unity Hymns and Chorales is interesting, apart from texts and music, because (as others may not know) the pages were cut horizontally like Dutch doors, with the music on the top and the texts on the bottom. This allowed for mixing and matching, though I’m sure the hymnals didn’t age well. Perhaps for this reason, too, it doesn’t seem to have been scanned; not a good candidate for mechanical page-turners.

  10. There are hymns by Unitarian authors that get added to most every hymnal. I think these should be on your list:
    Bowring’s “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” of course “I Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” (does “Jingle Bells” also count? does “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day?”) In my Methodist days our SS used to sing most every Sunday “Happy the Home” (Cokesbury Hymnal et al.) which discovered, much to my surprise, was written by Henry Ware. One must include also Frederick Henry Hedge’s translation of “A Mighty Fortess IS Our God.” And, as you cite, perhaps the all-time favorite, as attested in the BBC’s “Big Sing” and Nederland Zingt’s “Zingt Dag,” Sarah Flower Adams’ “Nearer, My God, to Thee” aka “Nader Mijn God Bei U.”

  11. There are hymns by Unitarian authors that get added to most every hymnal. I think these should be on your list:
    John Bowring’s “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” of course “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” (does “Jingle Bells” also count? does “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day?”) In my Methodist days our SS used to sing most every Sunday “Happy the Home” (Cokesbury Hymnal et al.) which I discovered, much to my surprise, was written by Henry Ware. One must include also Frederick Henry Hedge’s translation of “A Mighty Fortess IS Our God.” And, as you cite, perhaps the all-time favorite, as attested in the BBC’s “Big Sing” and Nederland Zingt’s “Zingt Dag,” Sarah Flower Adams’ “Nearer, My God, to Thee” a.k.a. “Nader Mijn God Bei U.”

  12. I am an Australian Episcopalian priest (of the Diocese of Sydney!) but also a long-time member of King’s Chapel, Boston, and of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship and the (UK) Unitarian Christian Association, with a great interest in hymns (and a writer of hymns) but also an interest in many other subjects ! My favourite unitarian Christian hymn book is Hymns of Faith and Freedom, published by the Chalice Press in London in 1991. There is a later book but it is slighter and certainly not the equal of HFF. HFF I would highly recommend. At present I am completing two books, one is a small work, “Beauty and Truth”, with a re-writing or renewal of 25 traditional hymns (retaining the beauty of traditional liturgical language and not excluding kings and lords and fathers !). The other is An Ancient and Modern Book of Common Prayer : Anglican and Unitarian – much longer but one I hope, despite my advanced age, to finish before dropping off the perch.
    Thank you for your site.

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