The Stories Behind the Hymns

Hymns Sung at Worship
August 26, 2012
Elizabeth Deibert
The Stories Behind the Hymns

Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” has often been called the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” and has been translated into almost every known language. It was perhaps the single most powerful hymn of the Reformation, as it was a great source of strength and inspiration for those who were persecuted and even martyred for their convictions.   The story that Luther took a tavern song from the bar and changed the words is mostly legend.   Luther did compose both words and tune, proving that he was not just a theologian but a musician as well.  (

Isaac Watts was said to be so enamored with poetry as a child that he often rhymed his ordinary conversations.   Among his best known hymns are Joy to the World and Jesus Shall Reign, along with this classic Our God Our Help in Ages Past.   Many of his hymns are rhymed versions of the psalms, as it was common for the church to sing the psalms in worship.   It is said that he was complaining to his father as a teen that the psalter music sung in church was impossible to sing and his father said, “So write something better.”  So he did.  He wrote 600 rhyming hymns.  (

Amazing Grace is one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world, perhaps sung as often as 10 million times each year.    Newton was a slave trader, and there’s a legend that when he converted to Christianity, he got inspired to write this hymn, and then released all the slaves he had brought to England.   But this is not true.   Yes, Newton was a slave trader, and yes, he did have a profound conversion experience while on the ship, but it was due to his life being spared after a terrible storm.    He eventually gave up the slave trade and went into the ministry as an Anglican priest.   It was at least eight years after he wrote the hymn, that he began to denounce his involvement in the slave trade.   This story just goes to show that Christian maturity is a long process.    Conversions may happen overnight, thanks to God’s amazing grace, but changed lives, that “twas blind but now I see” part – that can take much longer.   (Wikipedia and Snopes)

This hymn was written after several traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of four, shortly followed by the great Chicago Fire which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer). Then in 1873, he had planned to travel to Europe with his family, but he sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with another ship, and all four of Spafford's daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him a telegram telling him that she was "Saved alone . . ." Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.   (wikipedia)