11 Beautiful Lesser-Known Hymns for Ordinary Time

The Devotional Art I Need Right Now

Ben Self / 5.28.20

Ahh, Ordinary Time… that long dull humid period in the church calendar when livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high. Or something like that.

For the low-church among us, let me explain: Ordinary Time is a phrase used by Catholics and some Protestants to denote a two-part season in the liturgical cycle that falls in between those seasons of a more “distinctive character,” namely Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, and Pentecost. In some denominations, it is also known simply as the “Season after Pentecost.” The bulk of Ordinary Time stretches from the day of Pentecost (this year, May 31st) to the start of Advent (this year, Nov. 29th) and is sometimes referred to as the “green season” because that’s the season’s main liturgical color – although in the northern hemisphere green also tends to align nicely with the lushness of the summer months.

For laypeople like me, Ordinary Time is typically experienced as a somewhat amorphous and forgettable season when ministers take their vacations, attendance is pretty low, the choir a bit thin, and you sometimes end up with a stream of randos passing through the pulpit. In fact, the specific liturgical meaning of the word “ordinary” is simply “time that is counted,” something we’ve probably all been doing quite a bit of lately. But this lack of definition is perhaps also an opportunity for exploring a broader range of topics than usual. According to the official Episcopal Church website, it’s a time for “the living out of Christian faith and the meaning of Christ’s resurrection in ordinary life.” The Catholic Church’s Universal Norms document defines it as a season “in which no particular aspect of the mystery of Christ is celebrated, but rather the mystery of Christ itself is honored in its fullness.” Sounds pretty wide open to me!

In the common sense of the word, our present moment is of course anything but ordinary. By most accounts, these are bleak times for churches – as they are for most communal organizations in our society. It’s hard to participate in the “forged family” of church at a distance. And yet, we’re all doing our best – I never thought I’d be so grateful for the internet!

One of the things I’ve been missing most in these months without normal church services is the singing. Despite my own rather mediocre singing voice and the surfeit of utterly mediocre songs I’ve heard sung in services across the wide range of denominations I’ve attended over the years, I still love church music with a passion. In fact, some years back I became so enamored by it all that I borrowed hymnals from several denominations and spent months compiling my own annotated “devotional hymnal” of sorts. As far as I’m concerned, there are few things sweeter and more uplifting to me than a chorus of voices lifted in (implicit or explicit) praise! And that’s true whether in church, at a concert, in a bar, or in your own living room. Quick plug: if you ever have a chance to attend a robust “Beer & Hymns” session somewhere, do it.

Anyway, over the past few weeks I’ve found myself thinking about hymns a lot. Thus, on the off chance that some of you have also been missing church singing, I thought I’d share this annotated list of some of my favorite lesser-known hymns that are broad-themed enough to work well for the upcoming season of Ordinary Time. While they aren’t all exactly obscure, none are among Hymnary.org’s list of the “250 hymns published the most frequently in modern hymnals” and only 3-4 are songs I’ve ever actually heard in church. So perhaps you’ll find something new. In any case, they are all among my many personal favorites and by my reckoning are works of devotional art as ripe for the plucking as any summer berries. I hope you think so too.

1.) “All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly”
Text: by Silvia G. Dunstan, 1991.
Tune: “Holy Manna,” in The Southern Harmony, 1835.

All who hunger, gather gladly;
Holy manna is our bread.
Come from wilderness and wandering,
Here, in truth, we will be fed.
You that yearn for days of fullness,
All around us is our food.
Taste and see the grace eternal.
Taste and see that God is good.

Remember when we used to be able to “gather gladly,” or at all? Seems like ages ago. Anyway, this hymn is often sung with communion, as was clearly intended, but its lovely jaunty tune and references to “keep[ing] the feast” and “days of fullness” also make it well suited for the summer and fall months. “Holy Manna” is a classic of the shape-note tradition, a system of musical notation and music style first developed in late 18th-century New England to aid in social and congregational singing. The shape-note style flourished across much of central and southern Appalachia during the 19th century, where settlers drew on folk traditions from the British Isles to produce some of the best-loved tunes in Western congregational singing, including “Beach Spring,” “Foundation,” “Land of Rest,” “New Britain,” “Nettleton,” and “Resignation.” (If those tune names don’t sound familiar to you, the tunes likely will.)

This hymn text was written in 1991 by Sylvia Dunstan, a minister of the United Church of Canada (a uniquely Canadian denomination founded in 1925 as a merger between four Protestant denominations, including, remarkably, Methodists and Presbyterians). Dunstan wrote the text after being introduced to American shape-note tunes at a Hymn Society conference in South Carolina. As the Presbyterian Glory to God hymnal explains, after the conference “she vacationed with friends nearby and worked out this text while humming this tune as she walked up and down the beach.”

2.) “Come to Me, O Weary Traveler”
Text: by Sylvia G. Dunstan, 1991.
Tune: “Austin,” by William Rowan, 1992.

“Come to Me, O weary traveler;
Come to Me with your distress;
Come to Me, you heavy burdened;
Come to Me and find your rest.”

Sure, we’re all travelers on a journey, but when that journey feels like a trek through Mordor, oh how sweet it is to rest in Jesus. One thing I noticed during my months of amateur research was just how few well-known hymns use Jesus’s own words. Seems like a missed opportunity to me! For instance, you’d be hard-pressed to find many well-known hymns that use more than a line or two from the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, it’s always nice to find a hymn like this one – reminiscent of another one of my favorites, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” – that gives us the Gospel straight from the Savior’s mouth as it were, and has a heart-stirring tune to match. This late 20th-century text, a second from Dunstan (who sadly passed in 1993), is an expansion of Matthew 11:28–30. Singing it, you feel like Jesus is speaking right at you, beckoning you towards Him. Below is a beautiful choral version by the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter in Chicago.

3.) “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul”
Text: by Anne Steele, 1760.
Tune: “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul,” by Kevin Twit, 1998.

But oh! when gloomy doubts prevail,
I fear to call Thee mine;
The springs of comfort seem to fail,
And all my hopes decline.
Yet gracious God, where shall I flee?
Thou art my only trust,
And still my soul would cleave to Thee,
Though prostrate in the dust.

When I first heard the Indelible Grace / Sandra McCracken version of this obscure 18th-century hymn, it gave me chills. There are so many songs of joyful praise and celebration sung in churches, and yet so few of lament – despite the prominence of gloomy verse in the OT. Here’s how the tune’s composer Kevin Twit introduced this song on Indelible Grace’s 2010 live album:

I remember being so struck by this text. I thought, this is surely not a song that would have been written in our day and age, because Christians are just afraid to say these kinds of things to God… [I]f we’re [always] singing songs where people feel like they have to put on a happy face to be part of the worship, we’re lying to them about what the normal Christian life feels like… The reality is, Jesus is the dear refuge of our weary soul, the one upon whom our fainting hope relies.

Anne Steele, the text’s author, certainly experienced her fair share of heartbreak: most notably, at 21, her fiancé was said to have drowned on the day of their wedding. Afterward, Steele remained single and assisted her father with his ministry, writing a number of poems such as this one, which reminds us of God’s abiding presence through all of life’s peaks and valleys.

4.) “I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew”
unknown author, first published in Holy Songs, Carols, and Sacred Ballads, 1880.
Tune: “I Sought the Lord,” ancient plainchant adapted by Isaac Wardell, 2009.

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of thee.

This remarkable little-known piece of 19th-century verse turns on the central Christian theme from 1 John that “We love because He first loved us.” In fact, in the final verse, the unknown author basically says as much: “the whole / Of love is but my answer, Lord, to Thee.” What a powerful idea! Sure, we may seek God in some form or fashion, but as Rumi put it, “What you seek is seeking you.” God’s forever out prowling the wilderness to rescue us lost sheep and reconcile the world unto Godself. Of course, like many 21st-century Christians, I struggle a bit with the use of gendered language for the divine found in many older hymn texts like this one, but I try to remember that it’s intended to remind us of God’s ultimate parenthood – and as Paul writes, of our having “received a spirit of adoption as [children] by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’” Hopefully it won’t be much of a distraction. In any case, this rich text has been set to several different tunes, but by far my personal favorite is this plaintive contemporary arrangement by Bifrost Arts featuring Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer fame.

5.) “Lead, Kindly Light”
Text: by John H. Newman, 1833.
Tune: “Lux Benigna,” by John B. Dykes, 1865.

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

This is perhaps the best-known hymn on this list and certainly John Henry Newman’s most famous hymn composition, and yet I’ve only heard it in church one time in my life (that I recall). As a young Anglican priest – prior to his famous conversion to Catholicism – Newman became sick while in Italy and was unable to travel for weeks. It was on his long, frustrating voyage home that he composed the words to this hymn, which call to mind the line from Psalm 119: “Your Word is a lamp to my feet, and a light for my path.” As Newman later wrote, “I was aching to get home, yet for want of a vessel I was kept at Palermo for three weeks… At last I got off in an orange boat, bound for Marseilles. We were becalmed for a whole week in the Straits of Bonifacio, and it was there that I wrote [these] lines.” Interestingly, Newman shares a memorial stone with his close friend Ambrose St. John that bears the inscription of a motto Newman had chosen: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem, or “Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth,” a line which can be traced to Plato’s allegory of the cave. Here’s a lovely traditional version of the song and a slightly more contemporary arrangement by The Lower Lights.

6.) “Light of the World, We Hail Thee”
Text: by John S. B. Monsell, 1863.
Tune: “Aurelia,” by Samuel S. Wesley, 1864.

Light of the world, Thy beauty
Steals into every heart,
And glorifies with duty
Life’s poorest, humblest part;
Thou robest in Thy splendor
The simple and mundane,
And helpest us to render
Light back to Thee again.

I’m not sure how I came across this obscure 19th-century text by Irish poet-clergyman John Monsell, but I love the idea he captures in the verse above (slightly edited) that Christ’s “beauty / Steals into every heart” and glorifies even the most commonplace aspects of our lives with meaning and splendor. Monsell is of course expanding on Jesus’s own words in John: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” I’ve tried to persuade my church’s worship minister (to no avail) that this hymn would be perfect for that season of light in the Christian calendar we call Epiphany – meaning “manifestation” or “striking appearance” – but it’s a text that easily works for other seasons as well, not least those sun-soaked summer months. The most recent hymnals I could find to include this text come from the 1950s and pair it with a rather bland tune called “Salve Domine.” I personally prefer to sing it to the better-known “Aurelia,” which has the same meter and which you can listen to here.

7.) “Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me”
Text: Psalm 139 versified for The Psalter, United Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1912.
Tune: “Tender Thought,” in Kentucky Harmony, 1816.

If deepest darkness cover me,
The darkness hideth naught from Thee;
To Thee both night and day are bright,
The darkness shineth as the light!

The Psalms were written to be sung. In fact, according to Walter Brueggemann, “the term psalm means ‘hymn,’ an exuberant act of praise that exalts and celebrates… YHWH.” Of course, the book of Psalms includes more than “hymns” per se; it also includes songs of “Communal Lament,” “Individual Lament,” and “Thanksgiving.” But the point is that from long before Jesus, the Psalms were used in liturgical contexts – in other words, for public worship. That tradition has continued to the present in Jewish and many Christian communities, with particular prominence in the Christian context given to singing the Psalms in the Orthodox, Catholic, and more Calvinist protestant denominations. If you ever hang out with Christian monks, you’ll also notice that many sing the Psalms eight times a day as part of the Liturgy of the Hours (a.k.a. Divine Office). As Brueggemann summarizes, “The book of Psalms is an ancient mapping of Israel’s life with YHWH, a mapping that has continued through the centuries to be the primal guide for faith and worship in both the synagogue and the church.”

I love his use of the word “primal.” The best music and poetry often feels like that – like it springs forth from a kind of divine abyss within. Every Christian has their favorite Psalms, those that resonate most deeply within, and 139 is mine. It reminds me that nothing can separate me from the love of God. Although, like many hymn texts on this list, the language style of this interpretation from the 1912 Presbyterian/CRC Psalter is a bit archaic, it is my favorite versification of the Psalm and pairs perfectly with the early shape-note tune, “Tender Thought.”

8.) “O God of Love, How Strong and True”
by Horatius Bonar, 1861.
Tune: “Dunedin,” by Vernon Griffiths, 1971.

O Love of God, how strong and true,
Eternal, and yet ever new,
Uncomprehended and unbought,
Beyond all knowledge and all thought.

There are so many great hymn variations on the theme of God’s extravagant love for us that you might wonder why we’d need any more. But since that theme is pretty much the distilled essence of the Gospel, I’m always game for another, and this one soars. The text explores God’s many-splendored love in different facets – its shear expansiveness (v. 1), its expression all around us in creation (v. 2), its presence in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (v. 3-4), and finally its promise of ultimate rest and redemption (v. 5). I first encountered this hymn when I attended the National Cathedral in the late 2000s. I later learned that a special arrangement of it had been performed by the Cathedral choir for President Reagan’s funeral there in 2004. You can watch the original grainy CSPAN footage of that performance here. “Dunedin,” the little-known hymn tune the text is best paired with is one of my absolute favorites, but it’s a bit challenging to sing, which perhaps explains why it isn’t more widely used. Once you get the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun – it really gives the old pipes a nice work-out. I couldn’t find a choral version of the tune with this text that doesn’t have the flourishes of the National Cathedral arrangement, but here’s a beautiful Easter hymn set to the same tune that gives you an idea of what it sounds like.

9.) “O Thou Who Camest from Above”
by Charles Wesley, 1762.
Tune: “Hereford,” by Samuel S. Wesley, 1872.

O Thou who camest from above,
The fire celestial to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart.

Okay, this hymn is a bit high-churchy – in fact, this 2010 performance of it by the Rochester Cathedral Choir is laughably so. But in my view it’s still a moving meditation on the source of all love and one of the most beautiful hymn texts Charles Wesley ever wrote (among 6,500). That said, it isn’t terribly well-known: according to Hymnary.org, 73 of Wesley’s texts appear in more hymnals than this one. Its obscurity may be in part because the opening lines of the second stanza – “There let it for Thy glory burn / With inextinguishable blaze” – have been found difficult to sing. As one 19th-century hymnal editor explained, “This admirable hymn would have been far more popular if it had not been for the very long word ‘inextinguishable.’ Words of five syllables must be admitted into hymns sparingly; but for a whole congregation to be poised on six, practically leads to a hymn being passed by.” In some versions, the line has thus been edited to “With ever bright, undying blaze.” Either way, it’s a stirring piece of poetry set to a loving lilting tune that was composed by Charles’ own grandson.

10.) “Stand By Me”
Text: by Charles A. Tindley, 1906.
Tune: “Stand By Me,” by Charles A. Tindley, 1906.

When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the world is tossing me,
Like a ship upon the sea,
Thou Who rulest wind and water,
Stand by me (stand by me).

I’ve sometimes found it a bit cringe-worthy to hear African-American spirituals sung in the predominantly white mainline churches I’ve attended over the years. There’s just something a bit off when my lily-white dentist who looks like Mr. Rogers is belting “Wade in the Water” from the pulpit, know what I mean? I remind myself that God appreciates sincerity over performance. More to the point: there is such a wealth of powerful songs in the “spirituals” tradition(s), and I wish predominantly white mainline churches could find more non-cringe-worthy ways to incorporate both elements and songs from those traditions into our worship.

This rousing gospel song – the inspiration for Ben E. King’s pop classic of the same name – is credited to Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley, an incredible autodidact who became a leading American Methodist preacher, social activist, and composer of his day and is considered one of the progenitors of black gospel music. (He also wrote the first version of “We Shall Overcome.”) This particular spiritual reminds us, as Proverbs put it, that “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” that God is the leaning post that never falls over. That’s an especially potent message for turbulent, trying times such as these. Despite being rarely used in congregational singing today, the song has been covered by such notable artists as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Elvis twice, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, and Seth Avett. Word has it there’s even a bootleg Bob Dylan version floating around – it’s apparently one of his favorite gospel songs. That said, my personal favorite version is by Albertina Walker.

11.) “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee”
Text: by William A. Percy, 1924.
Tune: “Georgetown,” David M. Williams, 1941.

Contented, peaceful fishermen,
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that filled their hearts
Brimful, and broke them too.

This astonishing, rarely sung hymn text was penned by Walker Percy’s cousin-once-removed, poet-lawyer William Percy, a fellow native of the “Christ-haunted” south. Typically set to the gentle meditative tune “Georgetown,” it captures the paradoxical nature of God’s peace, which both comforts us in our afflictions and afflicts us in our comforts. As Sam Candler, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip, explains, the text evokes the gospel story of

the calling of four fishermen into the fold… Andrew and Simon Peter, and James and John. They became, probably, the closest followers and friends of our Lord. But they were ordinary people, rural people. They were fisherfolk, accustomed to making a living in uncertain, but hard-working ways…

In fact, most of us make a living like that. There is little in our daily lives that we can truly depend upon… The first followers of Jesus were regular people, making a regular living, praying for the peace of God. That peace was often strife, but it was worth it.

The peace of God is not a faux calm that we bestow on ourselves, but the merciful guiding love of the Holy Spirit, which sometimes brings us “strife” in this troubled world but which also enables us to somehow say, as Julian of Norwich did during her own intense social isolation, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things of shall be well.”

Ultimately, it’s hymns like this that keep coming back to me, bubbling to the surface of my mind and continuing to offer me inspiration, solace, and guidance as an ordinary struggling follower of Jesus. I hope you’ve found a hymn or two on this list to enrich your own life as we all move together in spirit into this especially uncertain season of Ordinary Time. Feel free to share your own favorite lesser-known (or well-known) hymns in the comments. I’m always game for more!

Featured image: Andrea Bogdan on Unsplash.