Both my husband Peter and I grew up singing hymns. Besides singing them in church every week, we attended Lutheran elementary schools where we learned hymns systematically. Every Friday we recited the “hymn of the week” to our teacher. Our families also used hymns devotionally at home, and singing hymns after meals and before bed was common practice. When God began to bless us with our own children, we knew that we wanted to sing hymns at home with them as well.
But why sing hymns in the first place? What makes them worth learning? Well, for starters, God’s people have been singing about Him for nearly all of recorded biblical history. The psalms are the hymns of the Old Testament, and the oldest recorded psalm is from the time of Moses (Psalm 90)! God inspired the psalms, so it is clear that He desired His people to sing about Him and to Him.
Hymns are a joint confession of faith. They not only join us with fellow believers today, but they also join us with all the saints who have sung these hymns before us. They declare God’s Word—they tell us who He is and what He has done, and they praise Him for His mighty and merciful acts. They soothe aching souls with the Gospel.
Hymns are a prime vehicle for teaching. A good hymn doesn’t just expound on a spiritual theme. It neatly gift-wraps it with a melody, meter, and rhyme. There is no better way to commit ideas to memory than the combination of song and poetry. The psalmists knew this. The medieval singers of epic ballads knew this. The home school curricula developers know this. And we benefit from it in our hymnody.
Why THESE Hymns?
Our family uses the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, published by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The hymnal contains 602 hymns. It would be overwhelming and unattainable to expect our kids to commit every single hymn to memory. So which hymns are worth memorizing?
When our family started home schooling, we wanted a more systematic approach to learning hymns than just singing what we knew and liked. Peter and I separately picked out the hymns we thought were the most important to teach our kids, and together we pared them down to 70. This number allowed for approximately 35 hymns per year (or one per school week) in a two-year rotation.
What criteria did we use to determine whether a hymn would make the cut?
Doctrine simply means “teaching.” If one of a hymn’s primary purposes is to teach, then a logical question to ask of a hymn is, “What does it teach?” What does it say about who God is? about sin? about Jesus as Savior? about forgiveness? about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper? about prayer?
Some hymns clearly have more doctrinal “punch” than others. That doesn’t make the others bad. However, in the interest of our children’s time and brain capacity, we tried to pick hymns with richer doctrinal content. We also tried to pick hymns that connected with the church year and the catechism.
2. Historic Value
How has a particular hymn been used through the history of the Christian church? Some hymns in our book date from the earliest days of Christianity. “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (ELH 181) has a text dating from the 300s AD—before the fall of the Roman Empire! The tune joined it a millennium later; that means that the text was still being used one thousand years after it was written. And the text and tune together continued to be used into the 1800s, when John Mason Neale finally translated it into English for our use. For a text and tune to be in the lexicon of the Christian church for 1700 years begs the question: If 17 centuries of Christians have thought this worth knowing, shouldn’t we also?
Many of our hymns date from the Reformation and shortly thereafter. Look for author dates from around A.D. 1500-1700. These hymns are often considered the “heart” or “core” of Lutheran hymnody. Called chorales, they are rich in comfort and teaching. Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, and Thomas Kingo are some of the best of these hymn-writers.
3. Musical Value
Musical style has changed over the past two thousand years. From medieval chant to Lutheran chorales to the distinctly American spirituals and everything in between, the hymnic idioms of spiritual song offer richness and variety to our musical palettes. In our hymn curriculum, we tried to represent the spectrum of music history. Some melodies are simple and easy to learn. Others are more jarring to our 21st-century ears. We didn’t shy away from “difficult” melodies, however. We’ve found that our kids actually like the challenge of an unfamiliar melody. And when they know it, it sticks. Learning a hymn at home means that we have the luxury of time—of letting the more difficult aspects slowly work their way into our hearts and minds.
Putting It into Practice (or Not)
Our plan was to use the hymn curriculum in a two-year cycle, each subsequent cycle requiring the student to memorize more verses. For example, the first time we learned “A Mighty Fortress,” the 1st-2nd graders had to learn the first verse. Next cycle, when they were in 3rd-4th grade, they’d review verse one and learn verse two. By the time 7th-8th grade rolled around, they’d have memorized all four verses. This seemed like a great plan to us.
In practice it hasn’t always worked so smoothly. For one thing, I found that 1st -2nd graders don’t learn things well on their own. They need lots of motherly support and spoon-feeding in order to do their work. It became either a power struggle or a time drain to force hymn recitation for this age group. For another thing, part of the joy of singing hymns is the pleasure of singing together. Requiring rote memorization made hymns into a chore for everyone. I wanted us to enjoy hymns.
Finding a Routine
Lack of routine also got in the way of learning hymns. Hymn-singing is something that we have to purposefully do. I found that if we didn’t sing right away in the morning, it didn’t happen. With pregnancies and babies as a part of our lives, our morning routine could be iffy at best. After three years of late starts and rushed mornings, Peter and I looked for a way to make our routine more, well, routine.
This year Peter has taken over the first part of the morning. He does a half hour of Bible history, catechism/memory work, and hymn singing. This has worked beautifully. The little kids (2nd grade and pre-school) listen and sing along if they can read. We haven’t been requiring the kids to “recite” the hymn every week, but because our routine has been so much more predictable and regular, I am confident there’s a good deal of learning happening with the repetition. Peter also cycles back through the hymns that they’ve sung earlier in the year, so in any given morning, they’ll sing both the hymn of the week and another that they learned weeks or months ago.
The Big Picture
At this point, I would say that my goal for hymn-learning is that my kids’ ears know the melodies and their minds are familiar with the words. I pray that our routine will continue and that as we keep singing, the words will become more entrenched in their hearts.
I’ll leave you with this anecdote. Due to the COVID-19 quarantine, my pastor-husband recorded a divine service from our living room on Easter Sunday. Our family was the “congregation.” We ran through the hymns ahead of time to make sure that we could sing them without embarrassment. One of them was Martin Luther’s “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (ELH 343). My seven-year-old son had never sung it before. By the end of the seventh verse, though, he was enthusiastically singing along with us. A couple hours later, he was still humming the melody, concluding with an energetic “Alleluia!” at the end of the verse. “I really like this hymn!” he remarked to the empty living room.
This, friends, is why we sing hymns at home. So I encourage you. Sing hymns with your kids. Find a routine that works for you, and make it part of your family’s daily life. You and your children will reap rewards that last a lifetime.
Kristin Faugstad and her husband Peter relish raising their five children on a peaceful gravel road in rural Iowa. Kristin is continually surprised, delighted, and challenged by her kids, and she is thankful that homeschooling allows her to share her love of learning with her children.