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Hymn History - For All the Saints

I hope to start a series at least once a month looking into the history of various familiar hymns that we sing in the church!


The hymn For All the Saints was written, to no surprise, specifically for All Saints Day. We at the First United Church of Christ use this day to celebrate all saints that have risen to heaven, and by all we mean everyone is a saint. The text for this hymn was written by Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897) for the Sarum Hymnal in 1869. Bishop How was a very well liked Bishop where he served in England, in East London and Wakefield, and was known as "the children's bishop" and "the poor man's bishop".


Hymn writing was one of Bishop How's talents and he wrote many hymns in his time of service. The orignal title for this hymn was "For all thy saints" but it's usage only spread after the title was updated to "For all the saints". The text of the hymn references multiple ideas surrounding the idea of saints in Christianity. It is largely a commentary of the line "I believe in the Communion of Saints" in the Apostles' Creed, and the union between the faithful on earth and the saints in heaven. It also references 'a Cloud of Witnesses' in it's fourth stanza which is a reference to Hebrews 12:1: "So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up..." (CEB)


This hymn originally had eleven stanzas, and is often pared down to the five or six stanzas often seen now in church services. Our church also uses updated lyrics from the UCC's New Centuray Hymnal, as language has changed quite a bit in the last 150 years and find updated language can produce greater understanding!


The tune that we and many use for these lyrics in SINE NOMINE, by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). However, it was originally written to the Victorian tune SARUM by Joseph Barnby (1828-1896) and can still be found paired with that tune in some hymnals! Here is the original SARUM tune.



An interesting aside about the popular Vaughan Williams tune: SINE NOMINE liternally means "without a name" in Latin. It was one of four anonymous tunes published in The English Hymnal that were later attributed to Vaughan Williams. It is speculated that he may have been trying to avoid overt competition with the tune ENGLEBURG, another tune briefly paired with "For All the Saints", which was written by his former teacher C.V. Stanford a mere two years prior to the publication of SINE NOMINE.

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