8 Religious Hymns That Would Be No. 1 Hits if They Were Released Today

Religious songs slap.

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Truly, songs that touch on spirituality bear some of the best melodies, richest refrains, and most meaningful messages. There is a reason they’ve lasted hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Here at American Songwriter, we thought we’d honor some of these legendary numbers with a list of the eight best hymns that would be hits if they were released today. From inspiring gospel tunes to soul-enriching religious offerings, these are the church tracks that really hit the heart.

1. “Wade in the Water”

An African American jubilee song, this spiritual was created and first sung by Blacks during slavery. While the lyrics were first published in 1901, the song is much older. Today, the tune is associated with other songs from the Underground Railroad.

According to a 2002 article written by Dave Watermulder, J. Amber Hudlin, and Ellie Kaufman at George Washington University, the song originally reflects the Israelites’ escape out of Egypt as found in the Book of Exodus. But later it was used in the United States by Blacks during the era of forced labor.

2. “When The Saints Go Marching In”

A lively song that signals triumph, this rejoicing tune has long been a favorite amongst rollicking churchgoers. The song originated as a Christian hymn and more recently, thanks to a New Orleans influence, is often played by jazz bands with big horn sections. It was famously recorded by Louis Armstrong and his orchestra in 1938. Check that out below.

3. “It Is Well With My Soul” 

Whenever you feel like you can’t catch a break, remember Horatio Spafford. 

A once successful Chicago lawyer, real estate investor, and staunch Presbyterian, Spafford lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Just before the event, he lost his four-year-old son to scarlet fever. His family was overcome with grief from the losses, and he sent his wife and four daughters to England for a vacation on the S. S. Ville de Havre. 

He was set to join them after he tied up loose ends, however, the ship his family was traveling on was involved in a collision and sank into the Atlantic in just 12 minutes. All four of his daughters perished along with more than 200 other passengers. His wife was among the few survivors.

Spafford set sail for England to join his wife upon learning of the news. It was on the journey that he penned a poem that would later become the 1873 hymn about finding refuge in God in the midst of overwhelming loss and insurmountable grief.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way / When sorrows like sea billows roll / Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say / It is well, it is well, with my soul

4. “How Great Thou Art”

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee / How great Thou art, how great Thou art. If you’ve ever sat through a Sunday morning at your grandmother’s church, you know how much of a banger “How Great Thou Art” truly is. The melody is a certified earworm and is rousing to boot. Elvis Presley knew its power – Lauren Daigle, too. Notably, Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill delivered a chill-inducing version of this one that is worth checking out. 

5. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”

It’s a classic. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is a song you know even if you don’t agree with its sympathies. Like most hymns, the refrain is simple but, nevertheless summarizes the central message of Christianity. What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! can get stuck in your head just as easy as anything coming out over pop radio these days.

6. “Amazing Grace” 

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me / I once was lost but now am found / Was blind, but now, I see.  

These sweet words have permeated the spiritual songbook of America for centuries. Initially written as a Christian hymn, the song was written by English Anglican clergyman and poet John Newton in 1772, and later published in 1779. Throughout the centuries, “Amazing Grace” has transitioned into one of the most popular, more secular, hymnals in American history. Growing up without any specific religious convictions, Newton later connected to God in 1748 when his ship was violently swept at sea off the coast of Donegal, Ireland while he served in the Royal Navy. Calling out to God for mercy, that moment marked a spiritual shift for Newton, who began studying Christian theology, all of which inspired the later lyrics of “Amazing Grace.” Ordained in the Church of England in 1764, Newton became a clergyman and premiered the song in a sermon on New Year’s Day in 1773, but the hymn was left unnoticed in England until Methodist and Baptist preachers in the U.S. began incorporating it into sermons in the 1950s.

Throughout the decades the hymn has been covered or sang by everyone from Joan Baez, Sarah McLachlan, Judy Collins, Alan Jackson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard & The Strangers, Elvis Presley, Glenn Campbell, among hundreds of others, proving that this song is still a hit—even though it was written nearly 250 years ago.

Read our Behind the song on “Amazing Grace” here.

7.  “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”

favorite hymn of the late Queen Elizabeth II, “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven” was originally written by Anglican clergyman Henry Francis Lyte and first published in 1834. Drawing from Psalm 103, the song was first published in Lyte’s publication The Spirit of the Psalms, which was used at his congregation in southern England. Later set to music by John Goss in 1868, the hymn was played during the 1947 royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II) and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburg, along with her other favorite hymnal “The Lord’s My Shepherd.” The hymn was also played during the 2018 funeral of former U.S. President George H. W. Bush.

Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven;
To His feet thy tribute bring.
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Evermore His praises sing:
Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him, praise Him!
Praise the everlasting King.
Praise Him for His grace and favor
To our fathers in distress;
Praise Him still the same as ever,
Slow to chide, and swift to bless.
Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him, praise Him!
Glorious in His faithfulness

8. “Holy, Holy, Holy”

Anglican bishop Reginald Heber wrote “Holy, Holy, Holy” in praise of the holy trinity and meant for the hymn to resound as the ultimate endless song of worship. Released posthumously in 1826, “Holy, Holy, Holy” has stood the test of time, consistently being unearthed and covered by the likes of Steven Curtis Chapman, Sufjan Stevens, Hillsong United, the Choir of King’s College, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! / Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee / Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty / God in three persons, blessed Trinity

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