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Using any of the standard hymnals, what is the oldest hymn that people are still singing?

For example:

  • The Baptist Hymnal 1975 / 1991 / 2008,
  • The Faith We Sing (Methodist, right?),
  • The (Episcopal) Hymnal 1982,
  • Adoremus (or anything else Catholics use)
  • or just about any standard denominational hymnal in current usage

Alternatively, I'll take anything on, since my aim is to find old hymns while excluding extremely obscure ones that only appear, for example, in a random hymnal from the 1700s.

Let me strike out one answer real quick – yes, I know the Psalms is a Jewish hymnbook. The problem that I have with including the Psalms in the scope of this question is that we don't have the music :)

I suspect somebody can find obscure hymns that are old, but I'm looking for old hymns that are still sung widely. Things like the Doxology, the Sanctus, or other parts of the Mass would be likely candidates: as long as the song is still sung widely, I'm fine with translations of the original lyrics, but I'd prefer that the original tune/music be at least known, if not used.

Please include the date of the text and the music, if you could.

E.g., "All Creatures of Our God and King", words by Francis of Assisi (1200s), tune is Lasst Uns Erfreuen, 1623.

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Lots of Catholics Parishes in the US use the Adoremus hymnal and the GIA hymnal. – Peter Turner Mar 5 '12 at 20:35

6 Answers 6

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Probably the oldest text you'll find is the Phos Hilaron, sometimes known as "Hail gladdening light". The earliest music for it was a Byzantine Chant, and it's still largely sung in churches worldwide, though not so much in the West.

David Crowder released a version on his album "Church Music".

AFAIK, that's the oldest Christian hymn known today.

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St. Basil the Great (329-379 AD) spoke of the singing of the Phos Hilaron as a cherished tradition of the church, the hymn being already considered old in his day (from the Wikipedia article). This hymn is part of daily Vespers, and thus could be sung every day by the Orthodox (even today).…… – Josiah Oct 23 at 3:48
Cappella Romana Also has some great renditions of this Phos Hilaron. – Josiah Oct 23 at 4:07

I was going to say Adeste Fideles "Oh Come all Ye Faithful" as it was anachronistically placed in my kids' cartoon about St. Nicholas of Myra. It's old, but, Te Deum (4th century) was attributed to St. Ambrose and is sung by lots of Catholic religious to this day while praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

I'd say, David's answer is probably the right one for all of Christendom, but Te Deum would be one of the oldest hymns in the Latin Rite.

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Be Thou My Vision - is a hymn an ancient Irish hymn translated in English, thank God, and one of my favorite. I named my daughter - Jeriel, meaning, "The Vision of the Lord," in ancient Hebrew.

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I love that hymn (it's one of my favorites), but do you realise this question is asking for the oldest known hymn, not just old ones? Your suggestion is a thousand years newer than the other answers here. – Caleb Jan 26 '14 at 0:26
Welcome to the site! This next has nothing to do with the quality of your answer, it's just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first.) As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": the help page and How we are different than other sites? – David Jan 26 '14 at 16:17
I don't think this should have been downvoted. The questioner states, "I'm looking for old hymns that are still sung widely" - old hymns plural. Not a contest. – wberry May 18 '14 at 14:15

The text, "Let All Mortal Flesh keep Silence", may be a close contender to the Phos Hilaron. It is in common use in some English speaking churches in the West, and the text is thought by some authorities to date back to the third century, perhaps 275 AD, or about the time of the Phos.

But this begs the question of exactly what you are looking for by way of criterion for determination. "The Song of Miriam" from Exodus has been used in Western Churches for years, and was included in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 in English. Do you date this to the time of original composition, just after the Crossing of the Red Sea, or does it only count from the time it was translated to English (late 15th / early 16th Centuries)? And some very old texts, like "Worthy is the Lamb", from Revelations 5:12-13, but was adapted as a hymn about 60 years ago, or so; the Phos Hilaron is a very old text, but it only became popular as a hymn within the past century, or so.

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Hymns by Clement of Alexandria. There are two in The Hymnal 1982: "Shepherd of Tender Youth," and "Sunset to Sunrise Changes Now." Most cite "Shepherd of Tender Youth" as the elder hymn, dating to around CE 200. We're using "Sunset to Sunrise Changes Now" today.

A more commonly used very old hymn is "Welcome Happy Morning" by Venantius Fortunatus that dates to the sixth century.

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Welcome to the site. Do you have a reference for the dates of these hymns? – fredsbend Mar 30 at 2:33

Not an expert, but "Savior of the Nations Come", I would think is surely in the top 10 of the oldest surviving hymns. St. Ambrose of Milan wrote this hymn in Latin ("Veni, Redemptor gentium") in the fourth century. In 1523, Martin Luther translated this text into German. Because of Martin Luther's influence and translation work, this hymn is probably one of the best known Advent hymns in Lutheran circles. However, a number of variations of this hymn found its way into a number of English church hymnals, including those published by Methodist and Presbyterian and Roman Catholic church.

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Welcome! Nice answer; thanks for contributing. A question though: when was the music written? A source for this information would be helpful too. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. – Nathaniel Nov 19 at 22:32
Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview of what this site is about, please take the Site Tour. Thanks for offering an answer. If you could provide some links to historical information about this hymn and any music associated with it, that would make it an even better answer. See: What makes a good supported answer? Meanwhile, I do hope you'll stick around. – Lee Woofenden Nov 20 at 0:20

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