Secular hymn (genre)

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A secular hymn is a type of non-religious popular song that has elements in common with religious music, especially with Christian hymns. The concept goes back at least as far as 17 BCE when the Roman emperor Augustus commissioned the Roman poet Horace to write lyrics by that title ("Carmen Saeculare" in Latin). The idea has been recognized in popular music at least since the late 1960s and early 1970s when people began to see a pattern in songs, such as "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel, "Let it Be" by the Beatles, and "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor, which came out at about the same time.[1] "Hallelujah" (which was written by Leonard Cohen in 1984, but only became famous when John Cale covered it in 1991) has since been recognized as perhaps the quintessential secular hymn.[1][2]

Other songs that are sometimes mentioned as secular hymns include "Many Rivers To Cross" by Jimmy Cliff, "I Can See Clearly Now" by Johnny Nash, "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night, "Hey, Jude" by the Beatles, "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell, "No Woman, No Cry" by Bob Marley, "Going My Way" by Bing Crosby, "Blowin in the Wind" by Bob Dylan, "Like A Prayer" by Madonna, "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell (famously covered by Judy Collins), "Show Me Heaven" by Maria McKee, "Lean On Me" by Bill Withers, "Stand by Me" by Ben E. King, "You Can Close Your Eyes" by James Taylor, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Judy Garland, "Imagine" by John Lennon, "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty, "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong, and "Million Reasons" by Lady Gaga, and many others.[1][3]

Determining exactly what does and does not qualify as a secular hymn is obviously difficult. Professor Steve Thomsen, BYU communications professor, suggests six criteria including that the song transcends generations, that it is about redemption or deliverance, that it has spiritual overtones, that it includes metaphors referring to up or down and/or to light and dark, that its meaning transcends initial purpose, and that it has become used as a backdrop for important life events.[4] Richard Wilson suggests a secular hymn needs only to be written as an anthem with a positive theme that doesn't gloss over the difficulties of life.[3]

Neither of these definitions includes the criterion that the sound of the song should be somehow reminiscent of traditional religious hymns. Exclusion of this criterion could include songs that might not immediately draw an association with a hymn, such as "I Got a Name" by Jim Croce, "Wind of Change" by the Scorpions, and "Don't Stop" by Fleetwood Mac; one could go so far as to include "Rise" by Public Image Limited, "Cartoon" by Soul Asylum, "Fall Back Down" by Rancid, and "Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba.

Possible secular hymns that might be excluded for having too much religious content include "Every Grain of Sand" by Bob Dylan, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" by the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by Pete Seeger (famously covered by the Byrds), "Rivers of Babylon" by Melodians (also covered by Boney M), "Benedictus" by the Strawbs, and "Morning Has Broken", which was originally written as a Christian hymn by Eleanor Farjeon, but only mentions God once in the popular version by Cat Stevens (later known as Yusef Islam).


  1. ^ a b c "Music of solace for the season". Retrieved 2017-11-01.
  2. ^ Empire, Kitty (2008-12-14). "Kitty Empire: Why Hallelujah was the perfect secular hymn for X Factor's Alexandra". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 2017-11-01.
  3. ^ a b "Hallelujah and Other Assorted Secular Hymns". Wilson Picked It. 2014-09-14. Retrieved 2017-11-01.
  4. ^ Atheist, Friendly. "The Six Rules That Define "Secular Hymns"". Friendly Atheist. Retrieved 2017-11-01.