The Greatest Hymn You’ve Never Heard

 

Te Deum Landamus: “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name”

What’s the greatest hymn in Christian history? What’s at the top of your personal list? Some of my favorites are:

  • Rejoice, the Lord is King
  • All Creatures of our God and King
  • Of the Father’s Love Begotten
  • And Can It Be
  • Great is Thy Faithfulness
  • I Sing the Mighty Power of God
  • Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty

But if I arc across the centuries, I can make a case that the greatest, most powerful, most beloved, most sung hymn in Christian history is the Latin hymn, Te Deum Landamus, which is sung in English as “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”

Te Deum Landamus has been called the greatest of all medieval hymns. The Latin phrase, Te Deum Landamus means “Thee, O God, We Praise.” Nothing is known for certain about the original Latin author or authors, although there are traditions that trace this hymn back to the days of Ambrose and Augustine. Indeed, a story was told for centuries that Ambrose spontaneously sang this song at the time he officiated Augustine’s baptism; similar stories suggest Te Deum Landamus was a joint composition between the two men. Whatever its source, it has been sung for 1600 years and is still sung today.

Professor E. E. Ryden says of this hymn: “Through the centuries it has been the supreme triumphal hymn of the Christian church, and its use has been invoked on innumerable occasions to celebrate the great moments in human history.” [E. E. Ryden in The Story of Christian Hymnody (Rock Island, IL: Augustana Press, 1959), 34].

Hymnologist Elizabeth Rundle Charles called the Te Deum “at once a hymn, a creed, and a prayer; or rather it is a creed taking wing and soaring heavenward; it is faith seized with a sudden joy as she counts her treasures, and laying them at the feet of Jesus in a song…. It is a shrine around which the Church has sung her joys for centuries.” [Elizabeth Rundle Charles, Te Deum Laudamus: Christian Life in Song (London: Society for the Promoting of Christian Knowledge, 1897), 30.]

In 1771, a German Catholic priest named Ignaz Franz wrote a German version, Großer Gott, wir loben dich, which came to America with German immigrants who sang it widely. In 1858, Clarence Walworth, a Catholic priest in New York, rendered the words into English, giving us the hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” The first verse says:

Holy God, we praise Thy name;

Lord of all, we bow before Thee!

All on earth Thy scepter claim,

All in heaven above adore Thee;

Infinite Thy vast domain,

Everlasting is Thy reign.

The eight stanzas of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” exalt God as king of heaven and earth—the all-triumphant Savior—and call on all creatures in the universe to praise Him. Most modern hymnals only contain four of the stanzas and end with a wonderful doxology to the Trinity, one of the most theologically rich hymn stanzas I’ve ever read. In the early centuries of the church when popular heresies were denying the Deity of Christ, this stanza became a Trinitarian creed for the masses who sang it and who heard it sung:

Holy Father, Holy Son,

Holy Spirit, three we name You,

Though in essence only one;

Undivided God, we claim you,

and, adoring, bend the knee

while we own the mystery.

Though omitted from many hymnbooks, the last stanza of Clarence Walworth’s English version brings this hymn right down to our daily lives, saying:

Spare Thy people, Lord, we pray,

By a thousand snares surrounded;

Keep us without sin today,

Never let us be confounded.

Lo, I put my trust in Thee;

Never, Lord, abandon me.

This hymn was sung at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and is thought to have been Kennedy’s favorite hymn [C. Edward Spann and Michael E. Williams, Sr./, Presidental Praise: Our Presidents and Their Hymns (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press), 242.]

Even if you don’t know this hymn, you can enjoy it in three ways. First, study its words as a devotional and theological exercise. You can easily find the words online. Second, while you’re online find a recording of Te Deum as a Gregorian chant. You may not understand the Latin words, but the bells and intonations and cadences are hauntingly beautiful. Third, look up some videos of the English hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” Become well acquainted with it. If the church has benefitted from this hymn for 1600 years, there’s a chance it may be a blessing to you too.

Having said all that, I wish we had a rousing new modern tune for this hymn. Even to a hymn-lover like me, the traditional melody is dated. I’d like to encourage new composers and modern hymn-writers to put fresh life behind the words. We could even use a new English translation. This is a hymn that still has a lot of life in it.

If you know this hymn or have a story about it or listen to it and learn it, comment below. Let me know. Maybe some of us will include it in our list of favorite hymns of all times.

PS – For stories behind more of the great hymns, check out my series of book, Then Sings My Soul.

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