Author: Reginald Heber (1826)
Tune: NICEA (Dykes)
In 325 AD, Church leaders convened in the town of Nicaea in Bithynia to formulate a consensus of belief and practice amongst Christians. What resulted was the Nicene Creed, a document passed on through the ages as one of the pillars of church doctrine. The primary function of this creed was to establish a firm belief in the Trinity, countering the heresy of Arius, who believed that Jesus was not fully divine. It was this creed that inspired Reginald Heber to write this great hymn of praise to the Triune God, with the intent that the hymn be sung before or after the creed was recited in a service, and on Trinity Sunday – eight weeks after Easter. The tune, composed by John B. Dykes for Heber’s text, is also titled NICAEA in recognition of Heber’s text. The words evoke a sense of awe at the majesty of God, and call on all of creation – humans, saints and angels, and all living things – to praise the Godhead three-in-one.
It is uncommon when researching hymns to find one included in just about every hymnal, with almost universally similar text. And yet this is the case with Reginald Heber’s greatest hymn, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” published in 1826. The few variations are found in versions sung by non-trinitarian churches – the Mormon Tabernacle Choir changed the words, “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity” to “God in His glory, blessed Deity!” – but these alterations are few and far between. The only other changes make the language more gender inclusive: "though the eye of sinful man" changes to "though the eye made blind by sin."
It is also very difficult to find a version of the hymn that is not sung to the most well-known of John B. Dykes’ tunes, NICAEA, written to accompany Heber’s text in 1861, and named after the council which first established the doctrine of the Trinity in 325 AD. Almost every hymnal includes the tune in the key of D. A few notes about instrumentation: to emphasize the confessional nature of the third stanza, bring down the volume a bit. Also, watch out for the last note of the third phrase! Too often we repeat the first phrase, which jumps from an A to an F# at the end. But the third phrase is purposefully different, holding out on the A. Make sure to really emphasize that difference.
There are a few different styles to which the tune can be adapted:
Heber wrote the hymn specifically for Trinity Sunday, which occurs eight weeks after Easter, to be sung before or after the Nicene Creed is recited. Yet it also functions as a hymn of praise that could be used at any point in a service throughout the liturgical year. It can also be used as a processional hymn in Communion services.