Running from Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday, the 40-day period of Lent marks the period Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness and, today, is largely associated with self-deprivation and penitence.


The hymns traditionally sung during Lent largely reflect those themes and, unsurprisingly, have an air of doom-and-gloom about them. Not all are minor-key misery fests, however, and there are some gems to be found in the Lent section of any hymnbook. Here are five of the best hymns for Lent…

Best hymns for Lent

O thou who dost accord us

The roots of ‘Innsbruck’, the tune to which ‘O thou who dost accord us’ is sung, can be found in ‘Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen’ (Innsbruck, I must leave you), a song by the early Renaissance Dutch composer Heinrich Isaac. Later, JS Bach later took Isaac’s tune and harmonised it for his own purposes, giving us the version we familiar with today, and including it as a chorale in his 1727 St Matthew Passion.

The English hymn’s words, a translation of the Latin hymn ‘Summi largitor præmii’, were first published in 1859 in Verses by a Country Curate, the work of teacher and clergyman John William Hewitt.

Be thou my guardian and my guide

This much-loved Lent hymn is the work of two Isaacs. As is so often the case, the tune – known today as ‘Abridge’ – came first, published by Isaac Smith, a precentor and draper from East London, in c1770 in his Collection of Psalm Tunes in Three Parts. And then, in 1842, came the words by Oxford-based priest Isaac Williams, as found in his Hymns on the Catechism.

A colleague of Cardinal Newman, Williams wrote many hymn texts, though few remain popular today. Following a typical Lent theme, ‘Be thou my guardian and my guide’ expresses a desire to be saved from sin and temptation and, coupled with Smith’s rather charming major-key tune, is affecting in its simplicity and directness.

Christian, dost thou see them

If ‘Be thou my guardian’ issues a gentle plea to be led away from potential demons, ‘Christian, dost thou see them’ is about bashing them firmly on the head – ‘Christian, up and smite them’, is how the first verse instructs us to deal with ‘the troops of Midian’ (a reference to an enemy of Israel in the Old Testament, but also a more generic term for those who hold untoward thoughts).

Those words are by John Mason Neale, a 19th-century academic and priest whose many other hymns include ‘A great and mighty wonder’ and ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’. Also suitably full of blood and thunder, the D minor ‘Gute Bäume Bringen’ tune was written by the German Peter Sohren in the late-17th century.

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Take up thy cross, the Saviour said

A more uplifting outlook is expressed in ‘Take up thy cross’, which promises strength and support against adversity for those follow the right path. In this instance, the words come from the US, published in 1833 in Visions of Death, and Other Poems by Charles Everest, a Connecticut rector.

The anonymous ‘Breslau’ hymn tune was originally published in As Hymnodus Sacer, a German collection dating from 1625, and was arranged by Felix Mendelssohn, no less, two centuries later.

Forty days and forty nights

Written in 1856, the hymn 'Forty days and forty nights' by Nottinghamshire rector George Hunt Smyttan devotes its first two verses to describing Christ’s period in the wilderness with memorable lines such as ‘Prowling beasts about thy way, Stones thy pillow, earth thy bed’.

Over the following four verses, we are encouraged to share in his suffering and reap the rewards for doing so. The colourful nature and optimistic outlook of Smyttan’s words are, alas, not matched by ‘Heinlein’, the 17th-century melody to which they are usually sung – a workaday effort in D minor, it does at least conjure up the gloomy mood of the season.


The hymn is not, incidentally, to be confused with the 1956 Muddy Waters song ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights since my baby left this town’, which is about something entirely different.


Jeremy PoundDeputy Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.