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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 Hymnary.org, 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.

12 Answers 12

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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".

Hail, gladdening Light, of His pure glory poured

Phos Hilaron (Wikipedia)

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

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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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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
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    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 Stratton Jan 26 '14 at 16:17
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    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
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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? – 3961 Mar 30 '15 at 2:33
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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 is protesting Nov 19 '15 at 22:32
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    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 '15 at 0:20
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The oldest hymn is, according to the Catholic Church, a simple hymn that was most likely written by an anonymous shepherd. The song was originally sang and played, but was written down, most likely several years later and probably sounded a little more like a Gregorian Chant than the hymn we know today. None the less, the song was very familiar in the time of St. Pius I, who served as Pope from 140 to 155 A.D. We do not know the date, but one year, St. Pius I issued a decree to the Christian Churches that they meet on a specific Sunday to celebrate the birth of Christ some 150 years before. We do not know if the date was December 25th, or some other date, or specifically which year. What we do know is the Decree instructed that each of the churches sing "the old familiar song." The song couldn't have been all that old, since Christianity itself was less than a hundred and fifty years old. The words of the song were included in the note, however, all that has survived to us is part of the chorus. But that is enough for us to know that the author was probably an eye-witness to the events in which he wrote (originally in Greek, later translated to Latin and French, and finally English), "Angels, we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plain."

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Of the Father's Love Begotten is not quite as old as the oldest two songs already mentioned here, but it's almost as old, and still widely sung, even in the West.

According to The Baptist Hymnal (1991 edition), the words are the work of Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, who lived from 348 to 413. The tune used in this hymnal is a 13th-century plainsong melody. (It doesn't even have a time signature!)

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Well, in the Adoremus Hymnal the 11th century translation of the Sub Tuum Praesidium is sung. That dates as early as 250Ad....but more likely 200AD

Beneath your compassion,We take refuge, O Mother of God:do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:but rescue us from dangers,only pure, only blessed one.

But the Mass Settings in any Roman Catholic Hymnal come from parts of the Old Testament and were used in the Jewish Liturgy and so are much older than just Christianity.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview of what this site is about, please take the Site Tour. Thanks for offering an answer. However, the question specifically is not asking about the earliest words to hymns, and it even says that the Psalms are not an example of what it wants. It is asking about the first hymns with music that are still sung today. See: What makes a good supported answer? Meanwhile, I do hope you'll stick around. – Lee Woofenden Jan 12 '16 at 3:41
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    As far as I understand, the Gregorian Chant melody for the Sub tuum praesidium antiphon is first attested in the 11th Century, though it may be older than that by a good deal. Even in the Coptic Christmas liturgy it's first attested on, however, it was probably already a hymn, although we cannot be sure if the melody is the same as it is today (technically the same applies to the Phos Hilaron, but we have no reason to believe it was different, either). – Wtrmute Sep 20 '17 at 13:20
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Probably not the oldest, but the tune for the familiar Christmas carol "The Friendly Beasts"is from the 12th century.

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Hymnal 555 "Shepherd of Tender Youth". Written 200 AD

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    Do you have a source for this? – El'endia Starman Jun 24 '18 at 0:18
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    Which hymnal are you referring to? – DJClayworth Jun 24 '18 at 2:51
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    It's Shepherd of tender youth and is by Clement of Alexandria as mentioned in this earlier answer on this page. I can't find a hymnbook listing it as 555, though. – Andrew Leach Jun 24 '18 at 10:22
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    Welcome to Christianity.SE! When you have a moment, please take our tour and visit our help center to learn more about us. – JBH Jun 25 '18 at 20:13
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What is the oldest hymn (with music) that is still sung in churches today?

The simple answer to the first part is the Sub tuum praesidium

1784 processional banner of the Lisbon Holy House of Mercy depicting the Virgin of Mercy protecting all social classes; the first verse of the hymn is quoted underneath.

"Beneath Thy Protection" (Greek: Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν; Latin: Sub tuum praesidium) is a Christian hymn. It is the oldest preserved extant hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos. The hymn is well known in many Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox countries, and is often a favourite song used along with Salve Regina.

The earliest text of this hymn was found in a Coptic Orthodox Christmas liturgy. The papyrus records the hymn in Greek, dated to the 3rd century by papyrologist E. Lobel and by scholar C.H. Roberts to the 4th century. According to scholar Serafim Seppälä "there are no determinate theological or philological reasons to reject the 3rd century dating."

The hymn is used in the Coptic liturgy to this day, as well as in the Armenian, Byzantine, Ambrosian, and Roman Rite liturgies. It was part of Sulpician custom that all classes ended with a recitation of this prayer. Besides the Greek text, ancient versions can be found in Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and Latin.

Henri de Villiers finds in the term "blessed" a reference to the salutation by Elizabeth in Luke 1:42. "Praesidium" is translated as "an assistance given in time of war by fresh troops in a strong manner."

The former medieval and post-medieval practice in several dioceses, especially in France, was to use the Sub tuum as the final antiphon at Compline instead of the Salve Regina and in the Rite of Braga where it is sung at the end of Mass.

An Egyptian Papyrus of the Third Century

An Egyptian Papyrus of the Third Century

The Sub tuum praesidium is probably the oldest Christian prayer dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This prayer was long used in both Eastern and Western rites, even if numerous variants existed at the time. In 1917, the John Rylands Library in Manchester managed to acquire a large panel of Egyptian papyrus -- the exact area where they were discovered is unknown -- including an 18 cm by 9.4 cm fragment containing the text of this prayer in Greek.

C.H. Roberts published this document in 1938 (cf. Catalogue of the Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library, III, Theological and literacy Texts, Manchester 1938, pp. 46-47). Roberts then dated this piece of papyrus back to the fourth century, thinking it was impossible to find an invocation to the Theotokos before this century (we will however see below, that the expression Theotokos was already in use in Alexandria before 250).

However his colleague E. Lobel, with whom he collaborated in editing the Oxyrhynchus papyri, basing his arguments on pure paleographic analysis, argued that the text could not possibly be older than the third century, and most probably was written between 250 and 280. A contributor to Roberts, H.J. Bell, even said that this document might be a "model for an engraver" considering the beauty of the uncials. The Sub tuum praesidium thus precedes by several centuries the Ave Maria in Christian prayer.

In the Byzantine rite:

The Sub tuum is sung during Vespers in Lent in the middle of the final prayers after 3 troparia: the Ave Maria, a Troparion to St. John the Baptist, and a Troparion to the Holy Apostles. This place assimilates the text to the role of an apolytikion troparion which changes each day during the rest of the year. The apolytikia troparia are related to the singing of the Canticle of Simeon, which begins with the words in Greek Νῦν ἀπολύεις (Nunc dimittis). It is very likely that this series of fixed troparia at the end of Vespers during Lent represents an old state of the rite. Variable troparia were probably substituted for them for other days of the year. Moreover, the Horologion Grottaferrata seems to assign them at the end of ferial Vespers also during the year (Horologion, Rome 1876, p. 104).

In the Russian tradition, the Sub tuum praesidium is often sung for devotion, even outside of Lent, with the addition of the invocation "Пресвѧтаѧ Богородице спаси насъ" ("Most Holy Mother of God, save us") added to the end. Russian believers are very attached to this troparion. Parishes still widely use the text that predates the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon in 1586; this fact is a clear sign of the strength of this attachment (such an attachment to the pre-Nikonian version is not observed for any other famous pieces of the repertoire - for example the Easter Troparion or "More honorable than the Cherubim".

In the Ambrosian rite:

enter image description here

In the Ambrosian rite this piece is sung as the 19th antiphon of the procession of the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin on Feb. 2, a procession of 21 antiphons, many of which are originally Greek. It's music is similar to that of a Roman second tone. The 20th antiphon of the procession, that follows, presents a text quite similar to the previous one and is built on the same melody:

enter image description here

Still in France from the nineteenth century onwards, the Sub tuum is frequently used for benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The Sub tuum is often associated with the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, as, for example, in the ordo of the procession made for the vow of Louis XIII in the proper of the diocese of Paris. Many old French liturgical books present the Sub tuum in a beautiful plainsong melody of the tone II. Here it is, taken from an edition of Digne of 1858:

Sub tuum

The Sub Tuum Praesidium

Listen to the Sub Tuum Presidium on this YouTube video: Sub Tuum Praesidium (Feasts of BVM, Antiphon)

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