Secular hymns

November 28th, 2018

A different kind of praise

The expression secular hymn may sound like an oxymoron. By definition, according to English Oxford Living Dictionaries, a hymn is “a religious song or poem of praise to God or a god.” How can you offer up praises to someone or something not related to the sacred or spiritual?

Nevertheless, secular hymns do exist, and the term has been used to describe a trend musicians and pop culture fans have noticed for several decades. Academic scholars have even researched the concept. Wikipedia defines secular hymn as “a type of non-religious popular song that has elements in common with religious music, especially with Christian hymns.” Commonly cited examples of American secular hymns include Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”; “Bridge over Troubled Water,” by Simon and Garfunkel; and “Don’t Stop Believin’,” by the rock band Journey.

In 2016, Steven R. Thomsen, a communications professor at Brigham Young University, studied this topic and observed what these songs have in common. Hemant Mehta, a former math teacher and editor of the Friendly Atheist site, summarized Thomsen’s findings in the blog post “The Six Rules That Define ‘Secular Hymns’ ”:

  1. The song transcends generations and remains popular for a long time. 
  2. Like many religious songs, a primary theme is redemption or deliverance. 
  3. The song has religious or spiritual overtones. It might even include biblical references, but it’s still not overtly religious. 
  4. It has references to vertical positions of up or down or metaphors referring to light and dark. 
  5. It has taken on a new meaning that transcends its original purpose. 
  6. It’s often used in personal celebrations such as weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs or anniversaries. 

Thomsen, who wrote the study along with Quint Randle and Matthew Lewis, recognizes that a growing number of people, particularly millennials, don’t identify with a specific religion (often referred to as “spiritual but not religious” or “nones”). Despite this, these secular hymns still play an important role in their lives. “It’s not surprising — in the absence of other sources — that music, which is very powerful in and of itself, can create that spiritual feeling,” said Thomsen, whose study was published in the Journal of Media and Religion.

“Hallelujah” — A case study

I attended a funeral at my church last summer where the service started with a video of the a cappella group Pentatonix singing Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It was moving, but I also felt a twinge of irritation. After all, hasn’t this song been covered by nearly everyone and their dog? How ubiquitous can this song get until it loses its original meaning completely?

The irritation quickly passed as I realized I had to give this song over to the masses. There was no denying that it moved people emotionally. What used to be an underground song known mostly by music aficionados had now become securely ingrained into our national consciousness. This revelation was confirmed several months later when I attended a Beer and Hymns event at a local pub. We sang old and familiar gospel songs and hymns — and once again, “Hallelujah” was right there in the mix. No one blinked an eye or even questioned if it was truly a hymn.

In a July 2017 episode of his podcast Revisionist History, author Malcolm Gladwell recounts the fascinating journey of how “Hallelujah” came to be a national hymn. Originally recorded by Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen in 1984, the song didn’t receive much attention at the time of its release, and according to Gladwell, it wasn’t very good either. Cohen tinkered with it for years, adding verses and arranging multiple versions of the song. Cohen shared his work with musician John Cale, who narrowed down the verses and released his own version in 1991. Then, in 1994, an unknown singer named Jeff Buckley recorded a cover of John Cale’s version. This version received little attention until 1997, when Buckley tragically died. In the wake of his death, Buckley’s fame grew, and “Hallelujah” first gained widespread attention. I first encountered the song through Rufus Wainwright’s 2001 version on the soundtrack of the hit movie Shrek. According to Gladwell, without all of these twists and turns, the song would never have gained popularity and would still be buried in the vaults alongside other forgotten songs.

More sweet sounds: “Amazing Grace”

Occasionally, this same story happens in reverse, and a song written for a Christian audience becomes well-known in the larger culture. Examples include “Amazing Grace” and “Morning Has Broken.” The lyrics to “Amazing Grace” were written in 1772 by John Newton, a former slave trader. This popular spiritual describes his deep regret for past sins and the power of redemptive grace. According to, “Amazing Grace” is performed 10 million times annually and has appeared on over 11,000 albums.

In 1990, journalist Bill Moyers released a documentary on “Amazing Grace” detailing how the song transcends race, creed, geography and social station and is beloved by millions of people. In the documentary, singer Judy Collins describes the power of spiritual and secular hymns: “When I sing [“Amazing Grace”] with a group of people, I always feel that there’s a mystical territory between the singer and the audience. It’s not just me singing, it’s something else that’s singing. And it’s all of those people and all of their spirits. . . . There is some experience going on which gives something to them and something to me that’s more than the sum of any of us.”

Like Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” Collins’s version of “Amazing Grace” became very popular, reaching No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 popular chart in 1970. Since then, Collins has rerecorded the hymn multiple times and has frequently performed it in concert.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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