Hymn of the Week: What Wondrous Love Is This?

March 13, 2015 § 2 Comments

For me, this is the most essential Lenten hymn. This tune was paired with this text for the first time in the Second edition of Southern Harmony in 1840. “What Wondrous love is this” combines a moving statement of faith with a haunting melody. I can’t sing this hymn without being immediately transported to the Sundays I spent sitting between my grandparents in their little country Methodist Church in Lewisville, North Carolina. One verse in and I am transported home. I can smell the damp red earth on the verge of spring and hear the passionate singing of this farming community. My extended family has been part of this congregation since its founding in the 1780s. Every Holy Week, my grandparents (often accompanied by various grandchildren) would clean and put flowers on the graves of all of our relatives. Wherever I go, I carry these memories with me always.

This hymn is a staple of the Southern Harmony and Sacred Harp canons and an ingrained part of Southern folk tradition. Southern Harmony is a collection of shape note hymns and tunes used for congregational worship that has remained basically unchanged since 1854. Rooted in the American colonial traditions, shape note singing relies on the use of shapes to distinguish pitch. Most hymns are in three part harmony. Historically, during a sing or worship service, a congregation would sit in a square by voice part. The hymn would be sung first in solfege ( do, la, so, fa, etc) and then with words. The goal is not performance but participation. The singing is unaccompanied, lusty, unrefined and powerful. Here is the hymn sung by a group of Sacred Harp singers in Texas.

And here is the hymn as recorded by Chanticleer.

Since its creation, it has been published in 188 hymnals. Despite its widespread reproduction, the text has remained basically unchanged. It ends with this immortal message. The hope of our ancestors handed down to us…

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be;

And through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;

And through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.

– Rev. Emily Lloyd

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