Hymn Guide: Tell Out My Soul

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Tell Out My Soul is an elegant and fun-to-sing paraphrase of Mary’s Song from Luke 1:46-55. Written in 1961 by Anglican Priest Timothy Dudley Smith, the hymn draws its title and opening line from the New English Bible published in the same year. The New English Bible was controversial for its use of contemporary idioms. However, it did provide to hymnody a fresh set of words and ideas for the paraphrase of Biblical texts.

The hymn is typically sung to WOODLANDS, an energetic tune composed in 1916 by English school music director Walter Greatorex. We can sing it any time, but it is especially fitting on the feasts associated with Mary: Annunciation (March 25), Visitation (May 31), Mary the Virgin (August 15), or Christmas (December 25).

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Verse by Verse

Verse 1

Mary’s song is usually called the Magnificat, the first word in its Latin form. And the typical English translation begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This hymn does not use the word “magnify” but seeks to illustrate the idea of magnification in setting forth and declaring the greatness of the Lord.

Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord!
Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice
Tender to me the promise of his word
In God my savior shall my heart rejoice

Because of how Smith wrote the lyrics, we who sing the hymn can fully join in Mary’s words and sing them for ourselves. As God did for Mary, he also has showered us with “unnumbered blessings,” including the “promise of his word” and his own presence as “God my savior.”  Thus with full “voice” shall “my heart rejoice.”

Verse 2

The second verse begins with the same phrase as the first (“Tell out my soul”), followed by a variation on God’s greatness. This repetition, which recurs in every verse, contributes much to the hymn’s appeal. The repetition makes the hymn easy to learn. It also reminds us who sing to put our whole heart and voice into our worship and praise.

Tell out my soul, the greatness of his name!
Make known his might the deeds his arm has done
His mercy sure, from age to age the same
His holy name, the Lord the mighty one

Verse 3

In congregational settings, it works well to give the second and third verses to women and men, respectively. This creates variation in sound and highlights critical details in the text. Women’s voices in the second verse highlight the “might” of God and the “deeds his arm has done” (see Luke 1:49-51). Men’s voices in the third verse highlight the “proud hearts” and “stubborn wills” that God “puts to flight” (see Luke 1:51-52).

Tell out my soul, the greatness of his might!
Pow’rs and dominions lay their glory by
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight
The hungry fed, the humble lifted high

The last line of the third verse is one of the hymn’s best, both because of the alliteration of “hungry” and “humble” and also because, musically, the word “humble” is sung at the peak of a rising line.

Verse 4

The hymn concludes with a statement of confidence in God’s faithfulness. His promise is “firm,” his mercy is “sure,” and we sing “Tell out my soul” twice.

Tell out my soul, the glories of his Word!
Firm is his promise and his mercy sure
Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord
To children’s children and forevermore.

The reference to children and grandchildren in the last line not only makes the hymn great for children’s choirs but also emphasizes God’s covenant faithfulness to his people throughout generations. It links Mary’s unexpected pregnancy and her praise of God to our families and the praise by which we train the next generation in the faith.

The Venerable Bede, a medieval Anglican scholar, wondered what Mary thought before she sang her song. Bede imagines Mary thinking this: “The Lord has exalted me by a gift so great, so unheard of, that language is useless to describe it, and the depths of love in my heart can scarcely grasp it. I offer then all the powers of my soul in praise and thanksgiving.” Applied to this hymn, Bede suggests that we sing with gusto, using all the power of our souls to pour out praise to God.

On Video

The first video offers a traditional choral rendition with organ at Belfast Cathedral, conducted by Philip Stopford. Note that the second and third verses are each given to women and men, respectively. The second is entirely different. It is a slow and contemplative arrangement with an original tune by Australian Hadyn Jones, accompanied by guitar.

Image: The Virgin in Prayer, by Sassoferrato, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

August 14, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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