St. Augustine

"To sing is to pray twice." -- St. Augustine

Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) was the foremost philosopher/theologian of the early Church and had a profound influence on the subsequent development of Western thought and culture. He, more than any other person, shaped the themes and defined the problems that have characterized the Western tradition of Christian Theology. Many of his writings are considered classics and two in particular stand out as his most celebrated: Confessions (an autobiography describing his life and conversion) and City of God (a Christian vision of history). [paraphrased from Believe]

Although Augustine did not write any hymns, he did write about the nature and importance of hymns and also about the activity of hymn singing. Several selections from his writings are of particular importance:

Concerning the definition of a “hymn” :

In his Expositions on the Psalms, Augustine commented on Psalm 148. Here is the Psalm from the Septuagint (which was the version of the Old Testament used at that time):

His praise is above the earth and heaven, and He shall exalt the horn of His people.
This is the hymn for all His saints, for the sons of Israel, and for the people that draw nigh unto Him.

Here is Psalm 148:14 from the King James Bible:

He also exalteth the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints;
even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him, Praise ye the Lord. [What happened to “hymn” ?]

Here is what Augustine writes about Psalm 148:14 in his Expositions on the Psalms : [from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia]

“An hymn to all His Saints.” Know ye what an hymn is? It is a song with praise of God. If thou praisest God and singest not, thou utterest no hymn: if thou singest and praisest not God, thou utterest no hymn: if thou praisest aught else, which pertaineth not to the praise of God, although thou singest and praisest, thou utterest no hymn. An hymn then containeth these three things, song, and praise, and that of God. Praise then of God in song is called an hymn. What then meaneth, "An hymn to all His Saints"? Let His Saints receive an hymn: let His hints utter an hymn: for this is what they are to receive in the end, an everlasting hymn. ...

[A modern paraphrase by Louis F. Benson:

“... the hymn for all His saints.” Do you know what a hymn is? It is singing to the praise of God. If you praise God and do not sing, you utter no hymn. If you praise anything which does not pertain to the praise of God -- though in singing you praise, you utter no hymn. A hymn then contains these three things: song, and praise, and that of God. Praise then of God in song is called a hymn.]

Concerning the activity of hymn singing:

In Book IX of his Confessions, chapters 6 & 7, Augustine describes a famous incident in Milan concerning St. Ambrose and the Empress Justina, who had been converted to Arianism: [from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia]

... and we were baptized, and solicitude about our past life left us. Nor was I satiated in those days with the wondrous sweetness of considering the depth of Thy counsels concerning the salvation of the human race. How greatly did I weep in Thy hymns and canticles, deeply moved by the voices of Thy sweet-speaking Church! The voices flowed into mine ears, and the truth was poured forth into my heart, whence the agitation of my piety overflowed, and my tears ran over, and blessed was I therein.

Not long had the Church of Milan begun to employ this kind of consolation and exhortation, the brethren singing together with great earnestness of voice and heart. For it was about a year, or not much more, since Justina, the mother of the boy-Emperor Valentinian, persecuted Thy servant Ambrose in the interest of her heresy, to which she had been seduced by the Arians. The pious people kept guard in the church, prepared to die with their bishop, Thy servant. There my mother, Thy handmaid, bearing a chief part of those cares and watchings, lived in prayer. We, still unmelted by the heat of Thy Spirit, were yet moved by the astonished and disturbed city. At this time it was instituted that, after the manner of the Eastern Church, hymns and psalms should be sung, lest the people should pine away in the tediousness of sorrow; which custom, retained from then till now, is imitated by many, yea, by almost all of Thy congregations throughout the rest of the world.

Augustine writes about a particular type of hymn singing practiced by the Donatists in his Letter LV, chapter 18: [from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia]

I am surprised at your expressing a desire that I should write anything in regard to those ceremonies which are found different in different countries, because there is no necessity for my doing this; and, moreover, one most excellent rule must be observed in regard to these customs, when they do not in any way oppose either true doctrine or sound morality, but contain some incentives to the better life, viz., that wherever we see them observed, or know them to be established, we should not only refrain from finding fault with them, but even recommend them by our approval and imitation, unless restrained by fear of doing greater harm than good by this course, through the infirmity of others. We are not, however, to be restrained by this, if more good is to be expected from our consenting with those who are zealous for the ceremony, than loss to be feared from our displeasing those who protest against it. In such a case we ought by all means to adopt it, especially if it be something in defense of which Scripture can be alleged: as in the singing of hymns and psalms, for which we have on record both the example and the precepts of the Lord and of His apostles. In this religious exercise, so useful for inducing a devotional frame of mind and inflaming the strength of love to God, there is diversity of usage, and in Africa the members of the Church are rather too indifferent in regard to it; on which account the Donstists reproach us with our grave chanting of the divine songs of the prophets in our churches, while they inflame their passions in their revels by the singing of psalms of human composition, which rouse them like the stirring notes of the trumpet on the battle-field. But when brethren are assembled in the church, why should not the time be devoted to singing of sacred songs, excepting of course while reading or preaching is going on, or while the presiding minister prays aloud, or the united prayer of the congregation is led by the deacon's voice? At the other intervals not thus occupied, I do not see what could be a more excellent, useful, and holy exercise for a Christian congregation.

[This last section is particularly interesting. Evidently the practice of spontaneous and ecstatic hymn singing was taking place, even during the reading of scripture, during prayers and during preaching.]

See: Augustine [from New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia]

See: Augustine [from Believe]

See: Augustine [from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

See Augustine's, Confessions [from Cyber Library]

See Augustine's Confessions [from New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia]

See Augustine's Letters [from New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia]

See Augustine's Expositions on the Psalms [from New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia]

See Augustine of Hipo [maintained by J.J. O'Donnell, Provost of Georgetown University]

The reinforcement of the idea of a hymn being a “song of praise to God” can be seen in one of the Canons of the 4th Council of Toledo in 633 CE (a national Council in Spain) :

Whatever poems, then are sung in the praise of God are called hymns. A hymn, moreover, is of those who sing and praise, which from the Greek into Latin is interpreted LAUS, because it is a song of joy and praise; but properly hymns are those containing the praise of God.


We possess some hymns composed to the praise of Christ ... And these are rejected by certain people on the pretext that nothing should be received [sung] except the text of Holy Scripture ... But what do these people say of 'Gloria Patri' and 'Gloria in excelsis' and of the prayers? Surely there is no more ground for condemning hymns than prayers." See

© 2001 Smith Creek Music
Site last updated: August 1, 2007