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Looking at Hymns Sociologically from a Marxist Viewpoint

Updated on September 9, 2011


Hymns are characterized by their musical and religious elements. Karl Marx is famously quoted for theorizing that religion is the opium of the masses. His less elaborated theory of music being the “mirror of reality” has been further developed by musicologists and sociologists. This paper aims to examine hymns from Marx’s perspective of religion and music. In it, I aim to show that both standpoints are useful to give us a better understanding of hymns.



Marx and Religion

Marx is famous for his quote about religion being the opium of the masses. Marx believed religion was a fantasy created by man who turned to it for a false sense of comfort and joy. Religion was used as a tool of oppression by the bourgeoisie to exert their power onto the working class who experienced alienation due to the ills of the capitalist system. This concept of alienation is vital to our understanding of Marx’s conception of religion, which is an indication of alienation. In a nutshell, alienated people turned to religion, hoping it would give them the joy and purposefulness the capitalist system had robbed them of.


Marx and the Sociology of Music

Marx approached the cultural arts similarly to religion, using the economic material system as the base for his analysis. In his literary criticism, he theorized that music, as with all cultural art, is a mirror of reality. Thus music reflected the reality of the different social classes.

Music as a commodity

Also, Marx said ‘music has therefore been relegated either to unproductive “service” or exempted from productive relations as an essentially autonomous artistic creation’ (Qureshi, 2002; Lukacs, 2000; Adorno, 1968). When music is performed, its product, and production means are intertwined; but technology allows music to be recorded and sold as merchandise in the capitalist system, turning it into a commodity.

Adorno – Music as ideology

Marx did not flesh out music like he did with religion, as music was less central to his social thought. Theodor Adorno is regarded as the founding father of the sociology of music, who engaged much of Marx’s ideas while developing his own, although he did not formulate a clear-cut theory of music. One foremost idea that compliments our investigation of hymns was that music was an ideology instead of a “phenomenon of truth” (Adorno, 1968). Just like how religion created socially false consciousness, music had different impacts on the social classes as musical experiences befog people’s awareness of social reality.


Sacred Purpose: To Glorify God as a Form of Worship

Hymns are written and sung to glorify God as a form of worship. The Bible is full of verses to exhort believers to praise God through their music[1]. In churches, corporate worship usually has a segment of congregational singing, where worshippers participate in whole-hearted music-making as a sweet offering to God who is regarded as the ‘audience of one’ (Supicic, 2004).

Marx would totally disdain this idea of worshipping God through song. To him, religion was man-made to alleviate his alienation. Hymn singing would then be outright self-indulgence and self-deluding worship of a higher being.


Profane Purpose: To Educate

Hymns have practical and personal value; they are written for instruction, like how children learn spiritual truth through stories through songs in Sunday School. Hymns contain scripture, biblical symbols, theology and many spiritual gems. Preachers choose hymns to reinforce their sermons, and laymen turn to hymns in prayer or for encouragement. 

Marx would say that this is how the capitalists exploited hymns as a form of social control, as religious ideology spread by the ruling class is disguised as wholesome spiritual truths.

[1] Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! - Psalm 150:6. (NIV)

Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! - Psalm 96:1 (ESV)


Lyrics – Exploring Themes From a Marxist Perspective

To worship in ‘spirit and in truth[1]’, one must understand his song. Many themes in hymns provide immense sociological insight, such as Social Needs, Creation, the Life of Jesus... Here, I mention two common themes:


Central to the Christian Gospel, salvation is the promise of eternal afterlife for the sinner gained through faith in the saving power of Jesus. Hymns with this theme include Jesus Paid it all, Wonderful Words of Life, At the Cross and Hope of the World.

Marx would regard this idea of salvation as an ideology to accept worldly suffering and toil. Preaching this to the masses would cause them to treat hardship as temporal in light of eternity, turning the masses to live emotionally in heaven although they are physically on earth.


Redemption is the idea of being a sinner who is free from wrongdoing and death because of Jesus’ death on the cross. Hymns with this theme include Redeemed How I love to Proclaim it, Nothing but the blood, and There is power in the blood.

Marx would view preaching redemption as a way of oppressing the masses by the powerful to justify their power. When people believe that they do not deserve happiness because of their sinfulness, they view eternal life and everything tiny blessing as a gift from God. This justifies suffering on earth, promotes contentment and appreciation of the status quo.

[1] The Holy Bible says that worshippers need to worship in spirit and in truth in the Gospel of John 4:24.

Music in Hymns

Aside from the text, the musical qualities of hymns bring individuals into the worship experience, making hymns especially accessible to the masses when their tunes are borrowed from popular folk songs[1] (Eskew & McElrath, 1980).

In corporate worship, singing hymn texts to the tunes of familiar folk melodies accommodates the average singer during unison congregational singing by catering to their musical level, as the musical pitches of these folk melodies tend to fall into a comfortable vocal range.  

This exemplifies Adorno’s notion of how music blurs one’s perception of reality and the impact this has on social classes. Singing hymns with folk and popular tunes give all worshippers a common connection and purpose that transcends their social difference. Such lusty singing intensifies feelings of collective effervescence, deep joy and conviction of the individual towards their beliefs, and also achieves the purpose of being a form of social control and manipulation of the powerful (Adorno, 1968).

[1] Folk melodies include the Negro Spiritual Lord I want to be a Christian, the Chinese Sheng En in The bread of life for all men broken, the Indian Assam in I have decided to follow Jesus.

Distinguishing the 2 Main Types of Hymns – Liturgical and Gospel Song

Within the realm of hymns, liturgical hymns and gospel songs occupy the extreme ends of the spectrum due to their different characteristics. In fact, some argue that the gospel song cannot strictly be considered a hymn.

Liturgical hymns

The liturgical hymn’s primary purpose is to glorify one or all of the persons of the Holy Trinity – God the Father, Jesus the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit. Its music is grand and dignified with frequent chord changes, evoking feelings of devotion among its singers. The text below is the first stanza of Martin Luther’s great hymn A Might Fortress Is Our God:


      A mighty fortress is our God,

      a bulwark never failing;

      our helper he amid the flood

      of mortal ills prevailing. 

      For still our ancient foe

      doth seek to work us woe;

      his craft and power are great,

      and armed with cruel hate,

      on earth is not his equal.


As with other liturgical hymns, its text describes the attributes of God, making these hymns objective and vertical in their nature.

O Come O Come Emmanuel, O Worship the King and Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty! are more examples of liturgical hymns.

Liturgical hymns have scriptural truth or scripturally inspired text that remind people of God’s characteristics such as His sovereignty and omnipotence. Marx would comment that the singing of these hymns engaged the reader in a false sense of security, as their attention would be direction upwards toward God and His majesty, causing them to submit to God’s authority as the Almighty Creator who is in sovereign rule over all His creation. Thus singing of hymns would be a form of oppression to the masses, as they were indulging in an ideology created by the bourgeoisie. The messages conveyed through the hymn text would be likened to propaganda and a means of social control employed by the capitalists to keep the masses under control when their thoughts are occupied with things of the sacred and divine instead of the profane. 

However, singing about the magnificence and perfection of God and creation might not just direct one’s attention to a better world for solace, like how Marx says religion has the opiate effect on people. Paradoxically, singing about the glorious heavenly realm might actually stir up thoughts that trigger a yearning for social change (Marx, 1967). People may be inspired to change the status quo instead of accepting and tolerating the hardships and unfairness of life; hymn singing would then be a form of protest against their present reality indicating a desire for social change.


Gospel song

The gospel song evolved from the liturgical hymn. Around the 1890s, song leaders began to adopt the role as the master of ceremonies in church services to enthuse the congregation in preparation for worship. (Price & Reynolds, 1987). Big choirs were also formed to encourage personal involvement and participation in the service, leading to the development of the Gospel Song, which is sometimes referred to as the gospel hymn.

In contrast to the liturgical hymn, the gospel hymn is written to give a personal testimony, warning, invitation or encouragement. Musically, the gospel song is more rhythmic and lilting, stirring feelings of gusto, passion in its singers. A good example of text is the second stanza of Blessed Assurance Jesus is Mine:


      Perfect submission, all is at rest,

I in my Savior am happy and blest,

Watching and waiting, looking above,

Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

Here we notice that the text is more subjective and horizontally directed, as these hymn writers often told their stories through these hymns.

Other examples of the gospel song include All the Way My Savior Leads Me, Count Your Blessings, Standing of the Promises.


People’s expression of their thoughts shows their alienated and their protest

Marx would have been rather skeptical towards these gospel hymns too. From a Marxian point of view, the more personal and intimate qualities of gospel songs demonstrate how alienated the people are. This alienation beckons them to turn to God, whom they can turn to as their personal source of comfort, strength, guidance and hope.

Gospel songs aptly illustrate how religion is a form of protest against suffering. The more personal, evangelical, narrative and emotive gospel song was composed after the liturgical hymn that had more factual and adoration in their texts. Marx would say that this illustrates how this shift to the gospel song was a more overt expression and manifestation of the people’s dissent against their social reality. For example, in the hymn Count Your Blessings the first stanza goes:           

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed, 

When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost, 

Count your many blessings; name them one by one, 

And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

This popular hymn was written in the late 1800s by Johnson Oatman. Aside from its catchy and upbeat tune, its text reflects Oatman’s desire to rise above life’s challenges in life and to urge others to focus on God’s goodness instead of the disappointments and injustices of life (Osbeck, 1979). Marx would argue that is was penned to protest against daily toil, struggles. Gospel songs often have refrains after each stanza unlike liturgical hymns that only consist of individual unique stanzas. When congregations sing these rousing choruses in unison, the collective and individual effects are potent, just like military songs (Perris, 1985). When sung together or by groups like the Andrews Sisters, they cause battalions to suddenly rediscover their sense of camaraderie, and the individual troop experiences a surge of courage.

Indeed, the complexity of congregational singing should not be underestimated; the simple act of hymn singing undoubtedly has profound impact. Ardono’s said if music was an ideology, hymn singing creates false consciousness among the masses who are shielded from their social reality through the provision of a fantasy religious world, serving the purposes of the capitalists who want to maintain their rule of power in society.


Brief History of Hymns

In the history of church music, the role that hymns played depended very much on the denomination of the church. In the extreme example of the Calvinists in Switzerland and France, music was not welcome in church (Shepherd, 1994). Calvinists only sung the Psalms, regarding hymns as worldly and unbiblical. Issac Watts grew up in this tradition, where he regarded the metrical singing of Psalms and their poetic texts unmusical and rough. Watts eventually wrote 697 hymns; although some are still sung today, he caused much conflict and controversy within the church in his time. On the other hand, the Lutherans in Germany had a rich tradition of hymn singing (Supicic, 1987), and Luther often weaved his doctrine into hymns that his congregation sang. After Luther came the Wesley Brothers, John and Charles whose hymns are widely sung in the Methodist Circle. Today many of the denominations such as the Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Evangelicals all have their own hymnal that contains a selection of hymns, some of which are unique to that denomination. 


Hymns in the Church

Hymns were sung when believers gathered together for the common purpose to worship God. At the start of the service, before and after the sermon, hymns were sung a cappella if the adding of musical instruments was perceived as polluting the sacred (as with the Calvinistic tradition that regarded music as “popish”.  The pipe organ whose sound was grand and awe-inspiring became popular in churches in the West. Today across the world, hymns are still alive in many churches. In fact, many more hymns have been translated to the native languages of people groups in Asia where Christianity has spread. Often, hymns may be sung in a more upbeat contemporary style accompanied by various instruments; sometimes they are often sung with different ethnic flavor when tribal Christians sing hymns accompanied by their own instruments.


Hymns at Home (Mini Churches)

Families were regarded as a downscaled version of church, where elders would gather their families (their flock) together to engage in worship. These worship sessions often included reciting prayers, singing hymns, and the reading of scripture. Traditionally, men were not only the ones who took up leadership in the church, but were also to be the spiritual leaders at home. Marx would not hesitant to argue that such singing of hymns in the home was a form of reinforcing religious values outside of the church.



The Classic Example of a Marxist Hymn

Hymn writers write texts that reflect their everyday life, and hymns are a good reflection of social values. The classic example of this is the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. This hymn text is about nature and God as The creator, and its text has been borrowed by famous contemporary composers like John Rutter. Originally, its last stanza was:

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them, high and lowly,

And gave him each his estate.

This hymn was contentious, especially because it talked about social inequality being divinely ordained (Beck, 2006). Besides, it was popularly sung in schools, and children were being imbibed with these values that were deemed as propaganda. Interestingly, this hymn was actually written shortly after a tragic period of famine and social crisis, illustrating perfectly Marx’s concept of religion being used as a tool to legitimize social structures.  


Surveying Hymn Writers and their Backgrounds 

It is tricky to strictly classify hymn writers into social classes according to their ownership of the means of production. For example, Martin Luther was a highly educated monk in the politically powerful Romantic Catholic Church, so his material ownership was meager. The best example of an upper class hymn writer is John Newton[1], a slave trader. Perhaps most hymn writers would be petite bourgeoisie[2]. A brief survey of hymn writers tell us that most were not part of the elite ruling class who owned the means of production, or who were politically powerful. It is hard to classify hymn writers into their social classes. Famous writers like Issac Watts[3], Fanny Cosby[4], Chisholm[5], the Wesley Brothers and were usually poets with links to the clergy directly or indirectly. The vast collection of stories behind hymns reveal common threads connecting these writers – including experiences of physical affliction, discouragement and spiritual revelation.


While Christians would regard these hymns as divinely inspired, Marx would argue that these writers are expressing their alienation, with ill-health, tragedy, or spiritual illumination stirring in them a desire to express their feelings through writing religious text. Instead of being a willing act of devotion and worship, Marx would say that writing is an act of self-deception as the joy derived from praising God through their writing is artificial and baseless because the god they worship is merely a figment of their imagination.

Besides, since most hymn writers were not bourgeoisies, then Marx would probably comment that the ruling class had successfully propagated this ideology of religion and music, and the irony was that now people were writing their own hymns that oppressed themselves.

[1] John Newton (1725 – 1807) wrote Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound.

[2] This social class included professionals, referring to the lower middle class

[3] Issac Watts (1674 – 1748) is regarded as the father of English hymnody. He wrote famous hymns such as When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, I Sing the Mighty Power of God and O God, Our Help in Ages Past

[4] Fanny Cosby (1820 – 1915) was a blind female poet who wrote the lyrics to hymns such as All the Way My Savior Leads Me, Blessed Assurance, Rescue the Perishing and To God be the Glory

[5] Chisholm (1866 – 1960) had humble beginnings and suffered from ill health. He penned over 1200 poems and wrote the favorite hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness.



Having many versions of the Bible and it’s impact on hymns

One of the interesting trends in contemporary Christianity is the burgeoning of many different versions of the English translation of the Bible[1]. Although all these versions originate from the same Hebraic language, their differing translation styles appeal to different readers. The King James Version used to be regarded as the authentic and authoritative version of the Bible. While having many versions of the Bible fits the idea of postmodern individualism, it begets the question of how music and text will evolve without a collective consensus of a ‘supreme’ version of Scripture (Beck, 2006).

The impact on religion and hymns is interesting. Might Marx, being the skeptic towards religion, remark that these different translations are a modern day manifestation of the need to reinterpret or modernize one’s concept of God and religion to suit one’s needs? Hymns texts were revised from archaic language to modern speak[2], but giving hymn texts a colloquial facelift is a different ballgame. Perhaps he might observe alienation in modern consumer societies, and reason that this trend of turning scripture into easy reading would better fit our desire for a God who has the qualities of a companion instead of a king.


Hymns as Commodities

In 1831 when the Copyright Act included music, the dynamics of hymn distribution that flourished with the printing industry changed when owners often refused or charged high fees for their hymns to be published (Price & Reynolds, 1987). Modern day hymn writers are in a much more capitalistic and commercial situation than ever as religious institutions cannot escape from consumerism and profit making motives. What used to be composed to exalt God, educate and exhort believers has now taken on the characteristics of a good sold on the market.

Commodification fetish

One concept Marx and Adorno discussed was commodification fetish – where commodities are ascribed more value than their inherent value, mystifying them in a religious way (Qureshi, 2002). When markets are manipulated, class animosity is channeled into a greater want for that commodity. Thus in the United States, contemporary composers often visit different churches each Sunday to share their songs, after which they autograph their CDs; it is common for Christians musicians to have chart-topping CDs, or to have their songs played on the radio.

[1] These include the New Living Translation, The Living Bible and the New American Standard Bible, The Message. Often, these translations use simpler and informal language.

[2] Archaic words such as thee, art, thine, thou, shalt etc. were change to you, me, shall, will etc.


This essay has attempted to explore hymns from a Marxian standpoint of religion and music. I feel that Marx would say that hymns are closer to being opiates, than a mirror of reality. Ultimately, it is the text that qualifies a hymn as a religious song, as hymns sometimes borrow secular tunes. This inspiration for the text is drawn from a religious experience and belief, which is essentially a human attempt to lessen their alienation.

From the standpoint of music, among all the possibilities, I think the idea of hymn singing as an ideology provides the most compelling argument that Marx probably would adopt. Perhaps Marx would liken hymns to a placebo – an outwardly authentic drug that merely mimics the effects of its real drug psychologically not physiologically. Although people sincerely belief in what they sing, which is explained by the ideological and powerful effect of music, hymns have their seed rooted in religion that Marx considers as fantasy. So while opium is taken like a pill to attain happiness through religion, hymns are like placebos, people take them under the false impression that they increase one’s religiosity quotient. 


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