Worship through song seems to have always been a part of human culture, and hymnals—compilations of written guides to such worship—also go back a long way. Manuscripts exist of hymns performed to Egyptian and Greek gods more than 4,000 years ago. The Psalms themselves could be considered a hymnal and are used as such even in some modern congregations. Hymnals can be seen as a collection of the church's experiences—its prayers, hopes, and triumphs.

Denominational hymnals in Europe and North America usually contain hymns written in all kinds of situations by all kinds of Christians—Martin Luther, African American slaves, John Wesley, and many others. In the past, hymnals in mission churches overseas were full of transcribed Western hymns. Today, ethnomusicologists are busy recording the sound and sense of indigenous Christian hymns and compiling them for local congregations.