Holy, holy, holy
Text. 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 that coincided with each Sunday of the liturgical church year. “Holy, holy, holy” was written for Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. It was first printed in the third edition of A Selection of Psalms and Hymns of the Parish Church of Banbury (1826), but this collection seems to be lost to time. 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.
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)
Tune. The tune which is now practically inseparable from Heber’s text, NICEA, was written by John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876) for the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (London, 1861 | Fig. 2). The tune is named after the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), which officially affirmed and defined the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. For a detailed argument of how NICEA may have been based on the tune ADORATION by Lowell Mason, see 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).
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
6 July 2018
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
“Holy, holy, holy” at Hymnary.org:
J.R. Watson, “Holy, holy, holy,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: