While we know about when “What Wondrous Love is This” was written, who composed it or truly put its current tune to the text is unknown. A spiritual of the early 19th century, it became popular during and was likely composed for the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening. It was first published in one of the hymnbooks for such a meeting in 1811, and its popularity quickly grew, for it was included in a number of other hymnals in the following three decades. However, it appears that it did not enter Lutheran hymnody until 1978 with the Lutheran Book of Worship.
Originally, the text appears to have had six stanzas, and all six are found in most of the early hymnals. However, a handful only had four, or even one, stanza depending on what the hymnal was used for or the denomination, such as the LCMS. Such is the case for one particular hymnbook, William Walker’s Southern Harmony. This hymnal was composed not only for congregational singing but for teaching, and in this case, teaching young people how to read music. In most places in the United States, and especially in the South and rural areas, congregants did not sing with any accompaniment, let alone with a hymnal that had notated music in it. This, in part, has to do with the history of hymn-singing, spirituals, and ballads both from the United States and England.
The spiritual has a unique history in the United States. Most people associate spirituals with the music of slaves, which developed into Gospel music and even Jazz. Yet this style has a much more complex history. These slave songs were influenced by the culture around them, and they also strongly affected the culture’s spirituals. So while the texts of Anglo-American music affected what are often termed “black spirituals,” the melodies of African spirituals affected what are sometimes referred to as “white spirituals,” such as “Wondrous Love.” This mix of two different music styles, a distinctly Southern creation, has now created a beautiful genre of music, much of which has been preserved to this day. Additionally, they have given birth to several new genres, such as Gospel music and Jazz.
But while the style of spiritual is what brought “What Wondrous Love is This” to the forefront of southern camp meetings, it appears the tune itself is much older. As mentioned before, the camp meetings were orchestrated without accompaniment. Thus, these were texts that everyone knew or were provided in the form of those older, score-less hymnals, and the congregants sang the text to an old tune they recognized. This allowed for wider congregational participation. So, we have the spiritual. But not all of the spiritual’s tunes originated in the South. Many of these tunes were well-known folk melodies, or the British-born ballad, joined with various, non-religious texts. Such is the case for the tune now called WONDROUS LOVE, once known as the “The Ballad of Captain Kidd.” This was an upbeat English ballad from the early 1700s about the infamous pirate of the same name. This tune is even older yet, so it has been in the voice of vocalists for over three-hundred years.
So it was a sound compilation that Walker made, though not unique among hymnals in general. With the help of compilers and musicians like Walker, many congregations were provided with a more standardized version of songs, so more people were able to sing them unitedly. Unlike the songbooks of the North and Europe, however, Walker used the shape-note style of music for his hymnbook, which was almost the standard in the South and Midwest. But when did this music and text come together? Historians are unsure. It appears not to have been Walker, though most say that he was the first to put the two together in a hymnal. Likely, they were already popular together as early as 1810, and maybe even before, and it merely took a few decades for someone to publish them together in a hymnal.
Later, people such as James Christopher harmonized the tune. Other composers such as Charles Bryan in 1952 and Samuel Barber in 1958 arranged the melody for congregational singing with instruments, such as the organ. Because of their work, standard hymnals, such as the Methodist Book of Hymns, began to include this hymn in their regular worship, bringing this hymn to a wider variety of congregations. In fact, it only took twelve years after appearing in the Book of Hymns for “What Wondrous Love is This” to show up in the Lutheran Book of Worship.
Like most camp songs, the text and tune of this one are repetitive, simple, and impactful. In “What Wondrous Love is This,” the text briefly and beautifully tells the story of our wretchedness and separateness from God and how Jesus was sent to save us. This is the wondrous love that amazes us and causes us to sing!
What wondrous love is this,
O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this
That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!
The song begins with a sort of introduction to the story. While the verses are repetitive, this is not without cause. Think about those words: What wondrous love is this?! It is repeated three times. What sort of love exists that would send this Lord of grace and goodness to save me from my sin? Oh my soul, I was burdened with the curse of death from the Rebellion to my own participation (Rom. 5:1-2). I was in rebellion against such love! And yet, this perfect, holy, unsearchable, and unimaginable love caused my Savior, full of grace and mercy, to bear instead of me the penalty for my sin (Isa. 53, Jhn. 3:14-21, Gal. 3:13-14, 1 Jhn. 4:9-10). And so I say again, what wondrous love is this that God has shown to us!
When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down
Beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.
And what sort of state were we in when the Lord of grace came to rescue us? We were sinking down into the pit. We were dead, helpless, falling further into despair, separate from God and under His righteous judgment (Psa. 69:1-3, Rom. 5:6-11, Eph. 2:1-3). But what did our Lord of grace do? Out of His great love, He set aside His glory for our souls (Eph. 2:4-9, Rom. 8:1-4, Phil. 2:1-11). This was not a sacrifice made lightly or without cost. This was the ultimate sacrifice, the only way to make propitiation for our sins, the giving up of heavenly glory for an earthly body to be marred and crucified for us (Mar. 10:45, 14:24, Rom. 3:24-25, Heb. 2:17, 1 Jhn. 2:2, 4:10). What wondrous love that our Lord has shown to us! He pulled us out of the dominion of darkness, where we were dead in our sins, and into the love of Christ (Col. 1:9-14)!
To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb,
Who is the great I AM.
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing.
While millions join the theme, I will sing.
So we sing to our God and to the Lamb, for what wondrous love has been shown to us! We reflect on that image of the lamb during this time more than perhaps we do at other times of the year. At this time, we remember what we discussed in the last verse. Christ was sacrificed for us. Yes, he sacrificed His glory in heaven to come to earth. But He Himself was the sacrifice! And what was that? He was the spotless, perfect Lamb. This was the Lamb promised from the beginning, the one that meant more than the blood of sheep, the atoning that could only come from perfect selflessness, what we could not give but could only be given in Christ (Gen. 3:15, Jhn. 1:29, 8:58, Isa. 53:7, Matt. 20:28, Rev. 5). That is what this Lamb was. So we praise Him now as we will when everything is finally restored with all the saints in heaven (Rev. 7:10-12, 19:1-9).
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free,
I’ll sing His love for me,
And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And through eternity I’ll sing on.
Yes, this praise is not only for the here and now. The curse has already been taken from us. But when we are finally with Christ in the new creation, living eternally with our Lord and Savior, we will keep on singing (Psa. 34, 1 Cor. 13:12-13)! For this is wondrous love indeed. There is really little more to be said than that. We are reminded at this time of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and our sin bears us down. And yet, we are not in despair. We have been freed from the bondage of sin and the curse of death. Because of this wondrous love, we shall sing (Rev. 22:1-5)!
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig
“543. What Wondrous Love Is This.” The Lutheran Service Book. 2006.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Spiritual“. Encyclopedia Britannica. 18 Mar. 2016.
Cobb, Buell. The Sacred Harp. University of Georgia Press, 2004. pp. 30-32.
Crawford, Richard. America’s Music Life: a history. Norton, 2001. pp. 167-68.
Joyner, Charles. Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture. University of Illinois Press, 1999. pp. 22-25.
“What Wondrous Love Is This.” Hymnary.org.