This is my song: the women behind the hymns

Want to hear women’s voices in the church? Open a hymnal.

In many Christian denominations, women struggle to find a voice. Some of them feel called to teach or preach and so are relegated to teaching only women or children. Others pour their thoughts into blogs, books, and Bible studies. But if you really want to hear the voice of women in the church, you need only listen to the church’s hymns and praise songs.

Hildegard of Bingen lived in the 11th & 12th centuries. She was a musician, an artist, a writer, a theologian, and a mystic whose interests included natural history and medicine. A true “Renaissance Woman” long before the Renaissance, hymn-writing was just one of Bingen’s many talents and interests. Hildegard’s music belongs to the plainchant tradition in church music, and interest in her music has revived in recent history. You can find a full digital archive of her works here, or listen now to her beautiful hymn to the Holy Spirit, Caritas abundat in omnia, which reminds us that in God, “Love abounds in all, from the depths exalted and excelling over every star…”

Caritas Abundat in Omnia

In the 1800s, hymn writing from women reached unprecedented heights. A small sampling of these Victorian-era hymnists includes Annie Sherwood Hawkes (“I Need Thee Every Hour”), Cecil Frances Alexander, (“All things bright and beautiful”), Catherine Winkworth, (translator, “Praise to the Lord the Almighty the King of Creation,”), Sarah Flower Adams (“Nearer, My God, to Thee”), Anna Laetitia Waring (“In Heavenly Love Abiding”), and Charlotte Elliott (“Just As I Am Without One Plea.”) All these hymns hold a beloved place in the hearts of many Christians, but just imagine a Billy Graham altar call without Elliott’s “Just as I am” and you may begin to see how important the contributions of these women have been.

Valentine Cunningham of the Guardian explains how these women’s diminished status in their male-centered society may have affected their hymn-writing. She writes, “The insistent “I” of their verses is clearly the manifestation of Victorian female selfhood – marginalised, disenfranchised, propertyless. What have they to give to Christ in return for the gift of salvation? Not any treasure the bank might value.” Instead, these women give their hearts and lives in gestures of total surrender, grace, and intimate relationship with Jesus, and that language has colored Christian theology for over a hundred years.

The most prolific and famous of all these Victorian women hymn writers was the American poet, Fanny Crosby, who wrote more than 9,000 hymns in her life. Many of these are among the most beloved hymns of any Christian denomination, including “Blessed Assurance,” “Draw Me Nearer,” “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” and “I Am Thine, O Lord,” to name only a few.

Blinded as an infant by a quack doctor, Fanny Crosby was raised mostly by her Christian grandmother while her widowed mother struggled to provide for the family. After excelling in her studies at the New York Institute of the Blind, Crosby returned there as a teacher, and it was during that time that her poetry began to attract notice. Crosby rubbed elbows with presidents and elites, getting standing ovations for her readings, and eventually she began writing hymns for publisher William Bradbury.

Through her hymns and her life, Fanny Crosby left a legacy of faithful devotion to her Savior. She famously praised her blindness, saying, “When I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior!” Today, the impact of her thousands of hymns on the collective faith of the church is impossible to calculate. (Read more about Fanny Crosby here and here.)

In the 20th and 21st centuries, women haven continued to write important music for the church. Gloria Gaither co-wrote with husband, Bill, starting in the 1960s, and their songs quickly found a home in the hymnal alongside much older classics. A few of these favorites include “He Touched Me,” “Because He Lives,” and “There’s Something About that Name.”

In the 80s and 90s as the modern worship movement began to spread, some prominent voices were also female. Darlene Zschech has probably had a larger effect on modern worship than any other female worship leader. She is best known for the 90s worship classic, “Shout to the Lord,” but even more importantly, that song thrust her church, Hillsong, into the international spotlight. Today, “Shout the the Lord” and Hillsong worship music in general is beloved globally, and includes both male and female writers. One key female voice carrying on in Zschech’s tradition is Brooke Fraser Ligertwood, the pen behind beloved songs such as “Hosanna,” “Lead me to the Cross,” and “What a Beautiful Name.”

While many other prominent worship music composers are male, women continue to praise, worship — and teach — through their music. A quick scroll through the CCLI top 100 list reveals many female writers and co-writers like Brooke Fraser Ligertwood of Hillsong; Leslie Jordan of All Sons and Daughters; Sarah McMillian, co-writing with her husband John-Mark McMillian; Beth Redman, with her well-known husband, Matt; and Christy Nockels, credited in the co-write for “Lord I Need You,” the modern update of Annie Sherwood Hawkes’ “I Need Thee Every Hour.” Jennie Lee Riddle’s “Revelation Song” continues to make the top 100 year after year, right alongside those women who paved the way for her — Darlene Zschech, whose “Shout to the Lord” still charts in the top 100 over 25 years after it was written, and Gloria Gaither, who made the list twice for both the original and the modern update of “Because He Lives.”

Women do have a voice in the church. While church and denominational leaders have argued over women’s proper role, women have been speaking and teaching in the church for at least 900 years by contributing well-beloved psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to the nourishment of the church body and the glory of God.