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Skill Level: Beginner
Key of D minor
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What Wondrous Love Is This is a Christian folk hymn, sometimes described as a "white spiritual", from the American South. Its text was first published in 1811, during the Second Great Awakening, and its melody derived that of from an English popular ballad. Today it is a widely known hymn included in hymnals of many Christian denominations.
The hymn's lyrics were first published in Lynchburg, Virginia in the c. 1811 camp meeting songbook A General Selection of the Newest and Most Admired Hymns and Spiritual Songs Now in Use. The lyrics may also have been printed, in a slightly different form, in the 1811 book Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Original and Selected published in Lexington, Kentucky. (It was included in the third edition of this text published in 1818, but all copies of the first edition have been lost.) In most early printings, the hymn's text was attributed to an anonymous author, though the 1848 hymnal The Hesperian Harp attributes the text to a Methodist pastor from Oxford, Georgia named Alexander Means.
Most sources attribute the hymn's melody to the 1701 English song "The Ballad of Captain Kidd", which describes the exploits of pirate William Kidd. The melody itself predates the Kidd usage, however, possibly by more than a century. The tune came the colonies under the title "The Dying Words of Capt. Robert Kidd, A noted pirate who was Hanged at Execution Dock, in England." (Quite a long title, and I'm not sure how his name got changed to Robert.) "What Wondrous Love is This" was preceded by "Through All the World Below" in its usage of the tune.
David Kidd has published this amazing site dedicated to the history of this melody:
In the early 1800s, when the lyrics to "What Wondrous Love Is This" were first published, hymnals typically lacked any musical notation. Camp meeting attendees during the Second Great Awakening would sing the hymns printed in these hymnals to a variety of popular melodies, including "The Ballad of Captain Kidd", which was well known at the time; this is likely how the text and melody came to be paired. The text and melody were first published together in The Southern Harmony, a book of shape note hymns compiled by William Walker. Sources disagree, however, about which edition of The Southern Harmony first contained the hymn, giving contradictory dates of 1835, 1840, and 1843. The three-part harmony printed in The Southern Harmony was arranged by James Christopher of Spartanburg, South Carolina. In a later printing of the hymn, William Walker noted that it was a "very popular old Southern tune".
In 1966, the United Methodist Hymnal became the first standard hymnal to incorporate What Wondrous Love Is This. What Wondrous Love Is This is now a widely known hymn and is included in many major hymnals, including the Baptist Hymnal, Book of Praise (Presbyterian), Chalice Hymnal (Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)), Common Praise (Anglican), The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopalian), Lutheran Book of Worship, New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ), Presbyterian Hymnal, Voices United (United Church of Canada), The Worshipping Church (interdenominational), Worship (Roman Catholic), and A New Hymnal for Colleges and Schools (interdenominational).
The hymn is sung in Dorian mode, giving it in a haunting quality. Though The Southern Harmony and many later hymnals incorrectly notated the song in Aeolian mode (natural minor), even congregations singing from these hymnals generally sang in Dorian mode by spontaneously raising the sixth note a half step wherever it appeared. Twentieth-century hymnals generally present the hymn in Dorian mode, or sometimes in Aeolian mode but with a raised sixth.
The song's lyrics express awe at the love of God and are reminiscent of the text of John 3:16. The following lyrics are those printed in the 1811 hymnal "A General Selection of the Newest and Most Admired Hymns and Spiritual Songs Now in Use;" a number of variations exist, but most are descended from this version.
What Wonderous Love is This? Dm Am G Am What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul! F G Dm What wondrous love is this, O my soul! G Am Dm What wondrous love is this Am Dm That caused the Lord of bliss Am G F G Dm Am To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul, F G Am G Dm To bear the dreadful curse for my soul! 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. Ye winged seraphs fly, bear the news, bear the news! Ye winged seraphs fly, Bear the news!-- Ye winged seraphs fly, like comets through the sky, Fill vast eternity with the news, with the news! Fill vast eternity with the news! Ye friends of Zion's king, join his praise, join his praise; Ye friends of Zion's king, join his praise; Ye friends of Zion's king, With hearts and voices sing, And strike each tuneful string in his praise, in his praise! And strike each tuneful string 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. 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.
Below are the lyrics to Ballad of Captain Kidd, as sung by Pete Seeger (1964).
1964 Pete Seeger on Golden Ring CAPTAIN KIDD 04KSgr My name is Captain Kidd, as I sailed, as I sailed My name is Captian Kidd, as I sailed My name is Captian Kidd, God's laws I did forbid And most wickedly I did, as I sailed, as I sailed Oh, my parents taught me well, as I sailed, as I sailed My parents taught me well, as I sailed My parents taught me well To shun the gates of Hell But against them I rebelled, as I sailed, as I sailed Well, I murdered William Moore, as I sailed, as I sailed I murdered William Moore, as I sailed I murdered William Moore And I left him in his gore Forty leagues from shore, as I sailed, as I sailed And being cruel still, as I sailed, as I sailed And being cruel still, as I sailed And being cruel still The gunner I did kill And his precious blood did spill, as I sailed, as I sailed Well, my repentance lasted not, as I sailed, as I sailed My repentance lasted not, as I sailed My repentance lasted not, My vows I soon forgot Damnation was my lot, as I sailed, as I sailed To execution dock I must go, I must go To execution dock I must go To execution dock, Lay my head upon the block And no more the laws I'll mock, as I sail, as I sail Source: "Golden Ring", FSI-16, 1964