Popular Hymn Writers of the 1900s: Worship Through History

When we think of hymns we often harken back to Victorian England or the American frontier for God-honoring songs that still move us today. Truth be told, the process of writing hymns is one that continues to this day. Although the 18th and 19th centuries feature some of the greatest hymns of all time, the 20th century had its fair share as well. From professional music composers to pastors and even a few laymen, there’s no telling who will come up with the next great song to inspire generations. Here are some of the popular hymn writers of the 1900s.

Adelaide Pollard

You will probably never cease to be surprised by the ways in which God will use your life. We think we have things all figured out, only for God to wreck our plans and build something better with the debris. Adelaide Pollard was one of the 20th century’s first popular hymn writers, though she spent much of her life teaching school and yearning to be a missionary. When she was a grown woman in her forties, she thought God had been calling her to the mission field of Africa, but the funds just couldn’t materialize. At a church meeting one night, someone prayed for God to have His own way. This idea transformed Adelaide Pollard’s outlook and she quickly wrote the hymn “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.”

George Bennard

One of the common themes we see with the popular hymn writers of the past is that many of them served as ministers or evangelists. As a young boy that was George Bennard’s hope as well, but like Adelaide Pollard, his story took a turn with the death of his father. For years he toiled to keep his mother and siblings afloat until finally he was able to study and work as an evangelist. Through his studies of the cross he came to write a hymn that has remained one of the great Christian songs of history, “The Old Rugged Cross.”

Helen Howarth Lemmel

When we think of blind female hymn writers, we might first go to Fanny Crosby, but there are a few more out there. Helen Lemmel was an English woman who loved to sing and study music. After she became blind, her husband left her and her life changed forever. Years later she heard someone utter a phrase that was deeply impressed on her mind. This led to the writing of the great hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” Lemmel lived to the ripe old age of 97, during which time she put together hundreds of hymns, a feat most impressive due to her lack of eyesight and limited means.

Civilla D. Martin

While some of the famous hymn writers we know today were lonely individuals who never married or lost their families at a young age, there are some who belonged to a tight family unit that propelled their songwriting. Civilla and Walter Martin were a traveling combo that preached, wrote music, and ministered to thousands of people. Civilla especially had the gift when it came to penning hymns. Among her most famous works are “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and “God Will Take Care of You,” both written at the beginning of the 20th century.

John Wesley Work, Jr.

Most of the old-fashioned songs that we enjoy today were written by one individual whose name we know, however there are plenty of songs that have been passed down through history for a time before they were even put on paper. John Wesley Work, Jr. was an African American choir director who loved to restore and collect the old spirituals of his people. Among these old songs was a now-beloved Christmas classic called “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.” It is believed that Work added some new material as he restored the old song. Whatever the limit of his input may have been, we owe him a great debt for bringing such a fine hymn into the culture at large.

Charles H. Gabriel

There have been plenty of popular hymn writers who were relative novices or only dabbled in music, but some also made a lifelong career out of the profession. Charles H. Gabriel is said to have composed or written the lyrics for thousands of hymns during his lifetime. One of the best known works for which he wrote the lyrics is “O That Will Be Glory.” Gabriel also wrote the music for several great hymns, including a few by writers on this list. He composed “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” for Civilla Martin and also worked on Ruth Ada Habershon’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Haldor Lillenas

Most of the famous writers we have taken a look at hail from England and America, so how about a Norwegian? When Haldor Lillenas was very young his family immigrated to America and lived all over in places like Oregon and Minnesota. Lillenas loved to write music and studied the subject through a correspondence school. Eventually he joined the Church of the Nazarene and worked as a minister and choir director. His most famous hymn is “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” but his most powerful contribution is the Lillenas Publishing Company which grew over time to become one of the largest church music publishers in the world.

BB McKinney - Popular Hymn Writers of the 1900s

Baylus Benjamin McKinney was a man who wanted to “win people to Jesus through music.” So says his historical marker at Bistineau Baptist Church in Louisiana. Over the course of his life McKinney wrote hymns, talked about music, studied it, and so much more. His life work included roughly 500 hymns that he composed. Among his most famous works are the hymns “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go” and “Let Others See Jesus in You.”

C. Austin Miles

Although many of history’s most popular hymn writers knew they wanted to create music from childhood, some felt called out of what would appear to be more stable careers. C. Austin Miles was working as a pharmacist until he gave that up in his 20’s to write gospel songs and hymns. Miles was responsible for 400 hymns during the next 50 years of his life. The song that has endured the best over the years is “In the Garden.”

Ina Duley Ogdon

According to a 1964 obituary in the New York Times, Ina Duley Ogdon wrote over 3,000 hymns, anthems, and cantatas in her 92 years of life. One of her most famous hymns is “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” The song is a call to action for believers who feel lost in their personal ministry. While the Lord may call you as a missionary or an evangelist, you are not a failure for simply spreading the love of Christ in your own neighborhood. We each serve a purpose. Another note on this hymn is that the music was composed by Charles H. Gabriel, whom we discussed earlier.

Bill and Gloria Gaither

We may not have many popular hymn writers (in the traditional sense) alive today, but the ministry of Bill and Gloria Gaither has kept the tradition going these last few decades. While today’s audiences mostly know the Gaither family for its homecoming tours, the couple has a long history of writing hymns in the 20th century. “He Touched Me” and “Because He Lives” are just two of the powerful songs written by the duo.

These are just some of the highlights when we discuss the popular hymn writers of the 1900s. So many great writers, vocalists, and composers have come before us and created wonderful music over the years. That tradition continues today with Christian artists who are impacting the Christian community through worship songs and heartfelt lyrics. The K-LOVE Fan Awards is all about celebrating these musicians and entertainers. For the ultimate fan experience, join us for the year’s biggest Christian music event. Find out how by clicking on the banner below.


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