The Hymn Born in a Synagogue
The roots of early Christian worship grew in the soil of the first-century Jewish synagogue service. In Scripture and psalm, in sermon and prayer, the gathered community celebrated what God had done—and anticipated God’s mighty acts yet to come. In light of this, the well-known hymn “The God of Abraham Praise” offers a glimpse of history.
Thomas Olivers (1725–1799), the hymn’s author, was born in Wales and orphaned at age 4. Apprenticed early to a shoemaker, he grew to adulthood a wild, rootless man.
In his mid-twenties, however, Olivers was converted through the preaching of George Whitefield. Soon after, he became an evangelist with John Wesley. Olivers spent more than twenty years—end 100,000 miles—as an itinerant preacher. Later, he became co-editor of Wesley’s Arminian Magazine.
In the Great Synagogue
Tradition tells us that on a Friday evening in 1770, Olivers attended Sabbath worship at the Great Synagogue, Duke’s Place, London. There, as the “Yigdal” (traditional Hebrew doxology) was sung by cantor Meyer Lyon (d. 1796), Olivers was so moved that he approached the operatic vocalist personally. In the mid-eighteenth century, cantors had begun to use musical notations, especially for new and popular compositions, and Lyon graciously provided Olivers with his tune (Leoni).
The Methodist preacher then adapted the text of the Jewish doxology (which was based on the Thirteen Articles of Faith stated by famous Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides in the twelfth century). The opening word, yigdal (Hebrew for “may He be magnified”), inspired Olivers’s free rendering. The resulting work, “A Hymn to the God of Abraham,” was printed in leaflets and found instant approval in the churches.
A 12-Stanza Hymn
Here are four representative ...