Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty! (StF 11)

Authors & translators:
Heber, Reginald
Elements of Worship:
Composers & arrangers:
Dykes, John Bacchus
The Trinity
Guitar Chords:
Guitar chords available
Singing the Faith: 11 (CD 1 #12)
STF Number:

Ideas for use

l81-trebizond2-largeThis hymn was initially intended for use on Trinity Sunday. It is one of six texts in Singing the Faith that directly quote the Book of Revelation 4: 8-11* (pictured right  in the Byzantine Church museum in present-day Trabzon). Heber is also thinking of the prophet’s vision in Isaiah 6:1-3 and, in verse 2, Isaiah 37:16 – again referencing God,  the enthroned maker of heaven and earth. 

In some traditions, this hymn came to be sung every Sunday (see below). Consider using the hymn “on repeat” for a season or sequence of Sundays, remembering that Heber is inviting us to join in an ongoing, eternal song. Church musician Paul Westermeyer suggests that, in the past, the regular singing of this hymn “functioned to draw the gathered community into the kind of worship described in the text from Revelation as the assembly does what the heavenly assembly does”. 

*Hymns in StF directly quoting the Book of Revelation 4: 8-11

Many other hymns have the passage as an underlying source of inspiration e.g. John Henry Newman’s Praise to the holiest in the height (StF 334) 

More information 

adoration-of-the-lamb-van-eyckAt a  when hymn-singing at regular Sunday services was not officially sanctioned in the Church of England, Reginald Heber conceived the idea of ordering (and singing) hymns around the church calendar. This innovative concept was, in a sense, the initial forerunner of Singing the Faith’s own regular lectionary hymn suggestions. 

Heber himself wrote over 100 hymns while serving as vicar of Hodnet in Shropshire, including "Holy, Holy, Holy" for Trinity Sunday. The hymn in Revelation 4: 8-11 that inspired Heber is one of a number of hymns that punctuate the vision of John. They are all sung in the throne room of God and the Lamb, and remind us that our first duty as followers of Christ is to love and worship God. The second verse in particular appears to be inspired by the 24 elders before the throne, whose primary function seems to have been to offer heavenly praise of God and the Lamb (left, imagined by Jan van Eyck). Verse 3 has something of the mystical sense of God experienced within the darkness. 

The hymn was first published in 1826 but included by Heber’s widow the following year in Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year. The poet Tennyson thought it the finest hymn ever written, given the difficulty of the subject and the devotion and purity of its diction. It was sung at his funeral in Westminster Abbey.

John Dykes composed the tune Nicaea especially for the text. It was published in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861 and is named for the Nicaean Council of 325 AD. Erik Routley once described the tune as Dykes’s “one piece of perfection”. 

Hymnary.org notes that the hymn is almost ubiquitous in published hymn books. It has also proved remarkably suitable for adaptation by a wide range of performers, from the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and the Tabernacle Choir to Sufjan Stevens and Hillsong United. For a long period, some Protestant churches used the hymn every Sunday to begin worship. 

Reginald Heber 

reginald-heber-monument-to-bishop-reginald-heber-by-sir-francis-chantrey-st-pauls-cathedral-kolkata-calcutta-indiaReginald Heber (1783 – 1826) died in India, where he had taken up the position of Bishop of Calcutta (now Kolkata). He was seen at the time as a martyr to the cause of overseas Christian mission. (The monument pictured right stands in St Paul's Cathedral, Kolkata.)

Born into a wealthy and educated family, Heber was bright, entering Oxford University aged 17 and winning poetry prizes, including the Newdigate Prize for his poem, “Palestine”. Following graduation, he was elected a Fellow of All Soul’s College and travelled in northern Europe before being ordained in 1807. He became vicar (and Lord of the Manor) in the village of Hodnet near Shrewsbury in the west of England. He remained there for 16 years, also active as an academic and editor, before taking up, following some initial hesitation, the bishopric in Calcutta in 1823. He was active across all of British India, and ordained the first Indian to take Anglican orders. 

The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology comments that “Heber’s sudden and untimely death in India made him a missionary hero, and helped to ensure that his advocacy of hymn singing within the Church of England was successful. His position as a highly-regarded figure helped to dispel the idea that hymns were associated with Methodists and extreme Evangelicals.” 

Other popular hymns by Heber include Brightest and best of the sons of the morning (StF 227), “From Greenland’s icy mountains” and “By cool Siloam’s shady rill”, which has been taken up again in some more recent hymn books, including Church Hymnary 4.

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