Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty
Text: Origins. Reginald Heber (1783–1826) was an Anglican clergyman who served in England (1807–1823) and India (1823–1826). Heber wished to create a set of hymns coinciding with each Sunday of the liturgical church year. “Holy, holy, holy” was written for Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost, when Heber was Vicar of Hodnet. It is said to have been first printed in the third edition of A Selection of Psalms and Hymns of the Parish Church of Banbury (1826), but this collection is either lost or only exists in private collections. It was included in Heber’s posthumous Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year (London, 1827 | Fig. 1), without music, in four stanzas of four lines.
A manuscript copy of Heber’s Hymns is held in the British Library (Add MS 25704). It includes a small difference at the end of stanza 2, line 4: “and ever art to be” (Fig. 2). The British Library record does not indicate whose hand is responsible for the manuscript; it could be the hand of Amelia Heber, his widow, who prepared the publication of Hymns in 1827.
Text: Analysis. Heber’s hymn draws largely from Revelation 4:1-11, part of John’s heavenly vision of angelic worship, which relates closely to Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6. It contains the glorious “Holy, holy, holy,” known throughout history as the kedusha, trisagion, tersanctus (or simply Sanctus), or thrice-holy.
And before the throne there was, as it were, a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:6-8, ESV)
One unique feature of Heber’s text is the persistent rhyme of the same sound (y/ee) at the end of all sixteen lines. Although Heber’s text is still often printed without alteration, some versions of the hymn include sensible revisions. The phrase “Early in the morning,” for example, is sometimes changed to reflect usage of the hymn at other hours of the day (or night). The most archaic phrase, “Which wert and art and evermore shalt be,” is frequently subjected to revision.
Tune. The tune which is now practically inseparable from Heber’s text, NICAEA, was written by John Bacchus Dykes (1823–1876) for the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (London: Novello, 1861 | Fig. 3). The tune is named after the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), which officially affirmed and defined the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The opening triad of Dykes’ melody is sometimes seen as a musical homage to the Trinity.
Erik Routley lauded this tune: “It is the noblest of Dykes’s tunes, and on the strength of it alone Dykes earns immortality in the annals of hymnody. … His other tunes may be indispensable and beyond price, but they are ‘of their age’ in a sense in which this is not.” Archibald Jacob’s perspective was more measured: “The tune shows less weakness than is often found in Dykes’s tunes; its celebrity places it beyond the reach of useful comment.”
NICAEA is sometimes compared to other tunes, especially WACHET AUF by Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608), with its rising triad and other structural features. Hymnologist Carl Daw has noted an important difference: “Unlike Nicolai, Dykes never returns all the way to the tonic at the conclusion of a structural unit and thus is able to keep up the forward motion of his tune.” NICAEA has also been compared to TRINITY by John Hopkins (1820–1891).
For a detailed argument of how NICAEA might have been based on the tune ADORATION by Lowell Mason, see Robin A. Leaver, “Dykes’ NICAEA: An original hymn tune, or the re-working of another?” The Hymn, vol. 38, no. 2 (April 1987), pp. 21-24 (HathiTrust).
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
6 July 2018
rev. 8 April 2019
Carl P. Daw Jr. “Holy, holy, holy,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), p. 2.
Erik Routley, “Nicaea,” Companion to Congregational Praise (London: Independent Press, 1953), p. 125.
Archibald Jacob, “NICAEA,” Songs of Praise Discussed (Oxford: University Press, 1933), p. 115.
John Julian, “Holy, holy, holy,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 530-531: Google Books
“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!” Hymns Ancient & Modern, Historical Edition (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1909), pp. 425-426.
Charles Nutter & Wilbur F. Tillett, “Holy, holy, holy,” The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church (NY: Eaton & Mains, 1911), pp. 44-45: Archive.org
Percy Dearmer & Archibald Jacob, “Holy holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!” Songs of Praise Discussed (Oxford: University Press, 1933), p. 115.
K.L. Parry & Erik Routley, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty,” Companion to Congregational Praise (London: Independent Press, 1953), p. 125.
Erik Routley, “Holy, holy, holy,” Hymns and the Faith (Greenwich, CT: Seabury Press, 1956), pp. 69-78.
Frank Colquhoun, “Holy, holy, holy,” Hymns that Live (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), pp. 146-153.
Robin A. Leaver, “Dykes’ NICEA: An original hymn tune, or the re-working of another?” The Hymn, vol. 38, no. 2 (April 1987), pp. 21-24: HathiTrust
Carol A. Doran & Robin A. Leaver, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty,” The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3A (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), 667-671.
Edward Darling & Donald Davison, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty,” Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005), pp. 447-449.
Paul Westermeyer, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!” Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), pp. 232-234.
Carl P. Daw Jr. “Holy, holy, holy,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 1-3.
“Holy, holy, holy,” Hymnary.org:
J.R. Watson, “Holy, holy, holy,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: