Henry Van Dyke penned this poem in 1907 while he was staying in the home of Harry Garfield, the president of Williams College in Williamstown, MA. Van Dyke was a guest preacher at the college at the time. He explained to his host the inspiration for his new hymn came from the local Berkshire Mountains which are located in western parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, USA. He first published the poem in his 1911 book: Book of Poems, third edition.
Van Dyke wrote”
“These verses are simple expressions of common Christian feelings and desires in this present time—hymns of today that may be sung together by people who know the thought of the age, and are not afraid that any truth of science will destroy religion, or any revolution on earth overthrow the kingdom of heaven. Therefore this is a hymn of trust and joy and hope.”
Let us consider for a moment just the first word of this poem: “Joyful.” Why didn’t he use “happy” instead? It certainly has the same number of syllables and the accent falls on the same syllable, and as the first word, there is no rhyming criteria. What is the difference between joy and happiness?
If we look at the etymology of the word joy, we find a meaning which goes beyond the passing nature of happiness. The Latin gaudium which we translate as joy, means: “to be glad, to rejoice” The meaning of joy in old English and Middle English also contained the ideas of “glee, delight, and bliss.”
The etymology of happy has a rather un-Biblical origin. Hap from the 14c meant good fortune, lucky, or a positive outcome. Fortune or luck certainly are not Biblical ideas. Over the centuries the notion of luck per se is no longer directly associated with the word. However, happy still is still circumstance oriented.
While both the words joy and happiness both occur in Scriptures, and both express positive emotions, there are differences in their broader meaning.
History of the Tune
The tune most associated with this hymn is drawn from Ludwig von Beethoven’s 9th Symphony’s last movement. Beethoven’s impact on Western music cannot be underestimated and his 9 symphonies form the foundation from which Western music grew over the ensuing 200 years. I would recommend everybody take the time to listen to all of them in sequence. When you reach the end of the last one, as the soloists and choir join the orchestra in some of the most powerfully written music, you will hear this tune sung by 100’s.
No one should ever mistake Beethoven for a believing Christian. He shared the language common during the era where “Providence,” “Creator,” or “Heaven” were often invoked. This was a highly secularized spirituality which knew nothing of sin or grace, let alone Christ and the Cross. However, within this setting Beethoven gave us the melody which has become a hallmark of Christian joy.
Here is the beginning and the ending of the modified text by Friedrich Schiller.
O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More songs full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your creator?
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must he dwell.
Schiller’s text certainly contained some of the sentiments found in Van Dykes poem which help make it the perfect setting for his own text.