The Stories Behind Your Favorite Easter Hymns

Easter hymns are beautiful celebrations of the victory Jesus won on the cross and in His glorious resurrection for our salvation. Alleluia! They are filled with bright notes and triumphant musical lines to bring all His people together in rejoicing. There are many beloved Easter hymns that are yearly staples in the worship service. Read about three favorites and their hymn histories below to rejoice with generations of Christians before you who sang these same words.

At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing: Robert Campbell

This hymn reflects the ancient Christian observance of the catechumenate. After a period of catechesis, converts joined the Church in the waning darkness of Easter dawn. Following Baptism, the neophytes were clothed with clean white garments, representing their newfound righteousness in Christ, and were ushered in the earliest hours of the morning to the assembly of believers to receive the Eucharist. The Easter Vigil, restored through twentieth-century liturgical reforms, is the modern parallel to this service and retains many of the ancient ceremonies, including a service of Holy Baptism and the reading of Israel’s deliverance through the Red Sea from Exodus 14–15, both of which help to illuminate this hymn.

Praise we Him, whose love divine
Gives His sacred blood for wine,
Gives His body for the feast --
Christ the victim, Christ the priest.
— stanza 2

 The current translation by Robert Campbell, published in 1850, entered synodical use in Worship Supplement (1969). In Lutheran Worship (1982), it was classified as an Easter hymn, reflecting the context for which it was originally written; Lutheran Service Book places it in the Lord’s Supper section to broaden its use beyond the Easter season. It is the Hymn of the Day for Easter 5 in all three lectionary cycles and is also appropriate during the Easter Vigil.

Christ the Lord Is Risen Today: Charles Wesley

In 1738, John and Charles Wesley began in earnest the work of proclaiming the Gospel to England, Ireland, and Wales. John was generally acknowledged as the organizational force behind the movement. Charles, through his gift of poetry, helped the spread of their theology more rapidly than could have been achieved through any other manner.

Lives again our glorious King!
Where, O death, is now thy sting?
Once He died our souls to save;
Where thy victory, O grave?
— stanza 4

“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” originally appeared in eleven stanzas in Hymns and Sacred Poems (London, 1739), compiled by the Wesley brothers. Originally titled “Hymn for Easter-Day,” it was written for use at the Wesleyan chapel in London, which John Wesley had converted from a deserted iron foundry.

I Know That My Redeemer Lives: Samuel Medley

Samuel Medley published more than four dozen hymn texts in his lifetime. This Easter hymn echoes the comfort and joys Medley experienced later in life. Rejecting his Christian upbringing, young Medley served in the British Navy until he nearly lost a leg after a brutal naval battle with the French in 1759. A miraculous healing the night before his leg was to be amputated brought Medley closer to his Redeemer. After his grandfather read a sermon to him by Isaac Watts and he heard the revival preacher George Whitefield, Medley became a Baptist preacher serving congregations around London, where he found eager audiences among the numerous seamen and their families.

Since he was well versed in continental theological writings, Medley may have known Paul Gerhardt’s nine-stanza hymn of 1667 similarly named “Ich weiß, dass mein Erlöser lebt,” published in 1667, which repeated the phrase “Er lebt” (“He lives”) several times.

He lives triumphant from the grave
He lives eternally to save;
He lives all-glorious in the sky;
He lives exalted there on high.
—stanza 2

The text from Job 19:25 was popular among Lutheran composers, with notable works that included an Easter cantata by Georg Philipp Telemann (“Ich weiß, dass mein Erlöser lebt,” 1717; formerly attributed to Bach) and the well-known soprano aria “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from Handel’s Messiah (1741).

Blog post excerpted from Eternal Anthems: The Story Behind Your Favorite Hymns Volume 2 copyright © 2023 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Learn more hymn histories and connect to your favorite hymn texts all Church Year long with Eternal Anthems: The Story Behind Your Favorite Hymns Volume 2.

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