Several years ago a group of Church members approached me about singing more of “their old favorite hymns” on Sunday morning. One of my responses was to ask them to list the songs they wanted to sing. Together this group came up with about 25 total songs they wanted to sing. To be honest, I was a little surprised at the length of their list. I had figured they would give me 100-150 songs. Nope, just 25. Which seems remarkable when you consider that most hymn books contain well over 400 songs. In fact, one of the older hymn books at our Church has 518 total hymns. This simple encounter lead me on an interesting journey of discovery.
Three of the most famous hymn writers in history are Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. A little research provided me with these facts.
Fanny Crosby wrote somewhere between 5,500-9,000 hymns in her life. It is really hard to know exactly how many she wrote since she published many of them under various pseudonyms. I place suggested she had songs published under as many as 200 names. Here is the interesting part to me, of her thousands of hymns there are about 25 that are really well-known today. Out of that list of 25 I could only recognize 11.
Charles Wesley was a prolific hymn writer. Most people estimate that he wrote over 6,000 hymns in his life. One writer stated that he actually wrote 8,989 hymns total. So you understand this clearly, that means he wrote over 10 lines of music everyday for 50 years. Yet, when I look at his life of most known hymns today there are only 20. Personally I only knew 5 of those, but then I am not a Methodist.
Isaac Watts’ number does not match these other two but he still wrote an impressive 750 hymns in his life. He list of best known hymns includes only 12 that are sung today. Of that 12, I only knew 4 of them.
This study in hymns and hymn writing taught me several lessons. Most people would note that musical interests change with every generation, as a result you would expect not to see many songs remain popular for a long time. I understand that to be true, but there is something else that caught my mind.
For every popular and enduring song there are hundreds of unknown songs. I hate to call them failures, because nothing done for God is a failure. But for every song that makes our list of “old favorite hymns” there are hundreds, if not thousands that do not make the list.
Let me translate this into everyday life. For every hundred sermons I preach only one may be remembered for more than a week. For every hundred lessons someone teaches in Sunday school maybe one will be remembered for more than a month. For every devotion you have with your family or children, none may be remembered at all. For everything you do there will be hundreds of seemingly wasted efforts.
The key to writing a great hymn is to write a lot of hymns. The key to doing anything well for God is to keep at it day after day, year after year and decade after decade.