Behind the Hymn: Holy! Holy! Holy!

When I was growing up Holy! Holy! Holy! was the first hymn found in the Baptist Hymnal.  I remember often requesting this song at hymn sings, when I was in elementary school.  I’m sure this was because of the ease of finding the hymn.

Holy! Holy! Holy! speaks of the power of the Holy Trinity.  The opening phrase, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God of Hosts”, is a direct English translation of the Sanctus, which is found in the Latin Mass.

Reginald Heber

Reginald Heber

The words found in the hymn are a paraphrase of Revelation 4:1-11.

Holy! Holy! Holy! was written by Reginald Heber.

Reginald Heber was born in 1783 to a wealthy, educated family.  By the age of seven, he was translating Latin Classics into English verse.  He entered Oxford at age 17 and won two awards for poetry during his time at University.

Heber became rector of his father’s church near Shrewsbury, England.  He remained there for sixteen years.  He longed to improve the singing of his little congregation at Hodnet.  During his time there he began writing songs.  Heber wrote over 57 hymns over the course of his career.  {I’ve seen some accounts of over 300 hymns}.

Some of his hymns include, “Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand”, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” and “Lead, Kindly Light.”

While working at the little church in Hodnet, Heber also served on staff of a literary journal.

He is said to have been impressed by the holiness of God and often wrote the words “Only Thou Art Holy.”  His lyrics for Holy! Holy! Holy! are drawn from Revelation 4:8.

He was the first to compile a hymnal ordering hymns around the church calendar.Holy Spirit

Holy! Holy! Holy! was written for Trinity Sunday.  Trinity Sunday is one week after Pentecost Sunday.  This is evidenced by “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” which is found in the first and last verses.

He uses other symbolism such as God is “perfect in power, in love and purity;” God is worshiped by saints, cherubim, and seraphim; and God is praised “in earth and sky and sea,” and God is “holy, merciful and mighty.”

Heber had a deep fondness for India, and in 1823, he was appointed Bishop of Calcutta.  The primitive conditions, duties of the position as Bishop and hot climate took a toll on his health.

John Bacchus Dykes

John Bacchus Dykes

Heber died on April 3, 1826, just three years after he began to serve the people of India.  He was only 43 years old.  Many of his admirers raised over 10,000 pounds to support his widow and children.

After Heber’s death, his widow came across the words to Holy! Holy! Holy!.  However, more than three decades before the poem became a song and took its place in numerous worship services.

The tune, Nicaea, was composed for the hymn by John Bacchus Dykes.  A publisher came upon Heber’s words and asked Dykes to furnish a tune.  He wrote the tune in thirty minutes.  The text and tune were first published together in 1861.

Dykes had been a church organist since he was ten-years-old and was co-founder and president of the Cambridge University Musical Society.

Nicaea, is a tribute to the First Council of Nicaea, which formalized the doctrine of the Trinity in 325.

The hymn has been recorded by numerous artists and was sung in the 1953 film version of Titanic.

Famed poet Alfred Lord Tennyson felt Holy! Holy! Holy! was the “world’s greatest hymn.”

Holy Holy Holy

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