The eighteenth century saw dramatic changes in the content, and practice, of congregational song. Note, for example, how the rendering of one psalm changed.

In the Bay Psalm Book, published in 1640, Psalm 137 concludes this way:

Blest shall he be, that payeth thee,
Daughter of Babylon,
Who must be waste: that which thou hast
Rewarded us upon.

O happy he shall surely be
That taketh up, that eke
Thy little ones against the stones
Doth into pieces break.

By the end of the eighteenth century, however, this objective, biblical literalism had been moderated by a subjective spirituality, a concern for poetry, and a New Testament hermeneutic. Thus Timothy Dwight’s version of Psalm 137, published in The Psalms of David (Hartford, 1801), ends with the following stanzas:

Jesus, thou Friend divine,
Our Savior and our King,
Thy hand from every snare and foe
Shall great deliverance bring.
Sure as thy truth shall last

To Zion shall be given
The highest glories earth can yield,
And brighter bliss of heaven.

How can the strong contrast between these two versions of Psalm 137 be explained?

Metrical Psalms: No Polishing

The seventeenth century had inherited from the previous century the Calvinist tradition of singing metrical psalms. The most common metrical psalter, by Sternhold and Hopkins, was completed in 1562. But there were others, such as the so-called Bay Psalm Book, first issued in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640. These psalters reproduced the Hebrew psalms as accurately as possible in English rhyme and meter.

The preface to the Bay Psalm Book outlined the philosophy of metrical psalmody: “If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that God’s Altar needs not our polishings.… For we have respected rather a plain translation, than to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrase, and so have attended conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language, and David’s poetry into English metre; that so we may sing in Sion the Lord’s songs of praise according to his own will.”

But some, while accepting the principle of the Word of God in song, nevertheless thought it perhaps could be better done. In England many voices were raised against the psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins; for example: “their piety is better than their poetry”; “sometimes they make the Maker of the tongue speak little better than barbarism, and have too many verses in such poor rhyme that two hammers on a smith’s anvil would make better music.”

In order to improve the poetic quality of the Church of England’s psalmody, Nathan Tate and Nicholas Brady brought out A New Version of the Psalms of David, Fitted to the Tunes Used in Churches (London, 1696, revised 1698). By and large their new psalms were a great improvement on the “Old Version” of Sternhold and Hopkins. Thus from Tate and Brady we are still singing “Through All the Changing Scenes of Life” (Ps. 34), and, from the Supplement of 1700, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.”

Why Watts Broke from Tradition

As a boy Isaac Watts had objected to the poverty of the poetry of Sternhold and Hopkins. He later wrote, in the preface to his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (London, 1719): “Tho’ the Psalms of David are a Work of admirable and divine Composure, tho’ they contain the noblest Sentiments of Piety, and breathe a most exalted Spirit of Devotion, yet when the best of Christians attempt to sing many of them in our common Translations, that Spirit of Devotion vanishes and is lost, the Psalm dies upon their Lips, and they feel scarce any thing of the holy Pleasure.”

First, Watts was concerned that the poetic quality of the psalms sung in worship be improved. Second, if congregational songs were to invoke spiritual responses, then these psalms and hymns should reflect the spiritual insights of the author. Third, the way that spiritual insights and responses can be made is by interpreting the Old Testament psalms by the theology of the New Testament. Fourth, both Testaments of Scripture should be interpreted in contemporary terms. Fifth, Christian congregational song should not be confined to the biblical psalms but should also include freely composed hymns on biblical themes.

Thus Watts wrote in the preface to the Hymns and Spiritual Songs (London, 1707): “There are a thousand lines in it [the Book of Psalms] which were not made for the Church in our Day, to assume as its own: There are also many Deficiencies of Light and Glory, which our Lord Jesus and his apostles have supply’d in the Writings of the New Testament.… You will always find in this Paraphrase dark expressions enlighten’d, and the Levitical Ceremonies chang’d into the Worship of the Gospel, and explained in the Language of our Time and Nation.… ”

Liberating the English Hymn

Although Watts was an Independent, or Congregationalist, and wrote primarily for such congregations, his psalms and hymns gave English-language hymnody in general a significant new beginning. Some have therefore called him “the father of the English hymn,” which is somewhat misleading, since there were English hymn writers before him. A better title would be, to borrow from Erik Routley, “the liberator of the English hymn.” Not only did he produce superlative examples of his new approach to congregational song, he also opened the way for others to follow, notably Doddridge, Wesley, Newton, with a whole host of others.

The psalms and hymns of Watts quickly became popular and went through literally hundreds of editions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For American Presbyterians and Congregationalists, his psalms and hymns were almost the only songs they sang in their worship. Watts’s influence was so pervasive that editors of the many American hymnals and tunebooks of the earlier nineteenth century often attributed an anonymous text to Watts—presumably on the assumption had a 90-percent chance of being right!

The hymns and psalms of Isaac Watts remain central to the basic corpus of English hymnody. They transcend national and denominational barriers. Among them are “I Sing the Almighty Power of God,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Jesus Shall Reign” (Psalm 72), “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” (Psalm 90), “Joy to the World” (Psalm 98), “From All that Dwell Below the Skies” (Psalm 117), “This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made” (Psalm 118), “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath” (Psalm 146), and many more.

A Musical Controversy

The psalms and hymns of Isaac Watts had important musical implications.

First, the author chose to restrict himself to the handful of meters of the old English metrical psalms. This meant his new texts could easily be sung by congregations that already knew these basic melodies.

Second, Watts’s psalms and hymns contributed to a reform in the practice of congregational singing. In his preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs (London, 1707) he wrote: “While we sing the Praises of God in his Church, we are employ’d in that part of Worship which of all others is the nearest a-kin to Heaven; and ’tis pity that this of all others should be performed the worst upon Earth.… ” The main problem, he argues, was that only Old Covenant themes were customarily sung among New Covenant people.

But there was also a secondary problem. Watts noted that just when the congregation touched upon gospel themes in a psalm, “in the very next line which the Clerk parcels out to us,” the brightness of the gospel is clouded by the darkness of the law.

By the clerk “parcelling out” the line of a psalm, Watts is referring to the practice of “lining-out.” The clerk, or leader of the singing, would read or sing one line of the psalm, which would then be sung by the congregation. Thus the singing of a long psalm could become extremely tedious with every line of every stanza being repeated. Sometimes an incomplete thought was left hanging at the end of a line, which had to be repeated before it could be continued. It was hardly satisfying or spiritually edifying to sing in such a fragmented way.

This lining-out was referred to either as “The Old Way of Singing,” or “Usual” singing. The implication of Watts’s criticism is that he intended his psalms and hymns to be sung as complete stanzas, rather than as disjointed lines. This “new” way was frequently referred to as “Regular” singing.

Congregations, such as one in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1722, were embroiled in confict over “Regular” singing. But the new way prevailed, in South Braintree and elsewhere, and Watts’s texts, sung in a manner that made musical sense, significantly contributed to the spiritual renewal of the eighteenth century.

Music for a Revival

The Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century began in part in the Holy Club in Oxford. This Club was primarily a group of students who were concerned to bring their spiritual lives within a systematic and definable “Method”—hence the term “Methodists.”

Those associated with this group were the brothers John and Charles Wesley, who would together create Methodist hymnody; James Hutton and John Gambold, who would be involved in editing and publishing Moravian hymnals; and George Whitefield, who would edit a collection of hymns that would have wide influence. From the outset, in the early 1730s, the members of the Holy Club used hymns in their meetings and private devotions, principally the psalms and hymns of Isaac Watts.

After Oxford, the Wesley brothers spent a short time in America in the mid-1730s. During this time John edited a small hymnal, published in Charleston in 1737, mostly made up of hymns and psalms by Watts. It also included verse by his father, Samuel Wesley, Sr., and his brother, Samuel Wesley, Jr. His other brother, Charles, had hardly begun to write hymns.

On their return from America, both Charles and John had their famous spiritual experiences in the spring of 1738. Charles responded within a matter of weeks by writing the hymn “And Can It Be.” A year later he wrote a poem, “For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion.” Within the eighteen stanzas of this poem are found the lines:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My dear Redeemer’s praise!
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace.

John Wesley later took these lines to form the first hymn of A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (London, 1780).

Over the next decades Charles Wesley would pour forth an avalanche of verse, often intensely personal, always profoundly biblical, usually poetically masterful. His verse includes some superlative hymns that are among the finest in the English language. They include: “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies,” “Come, O Thou Traveller Unknown,” “Forth in Thy Name, O Lord, I Go,” “Jesu, Lover of My Soul,” “Love’s Redeeming Work Is Done,” “O Thou Who Camest from Above,” “Rejoice! the Lord Is King,” “Ye Servants of God,” and literally hundreds of others.

New Hymnals, New Tunes

The second half of the eighteenth century gave birth to an unprecedented sequence of published hymnals. Most were anthologies containing hymns by a variety of authors. Three of the most influential were those of George Whitefield (1753), Martin Madan (1760), and Augustus Toplady (1776). These hymnals contain the common forms of hymns such as Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”; the composite “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending,” based on hymns by John Cennick and Charles Wesley; and Augustus Toplady’s “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.” Other collections contained only the hymns of Charles Wesley. The remarkable Olney Hymns (London, 1779) included the hymns of just two authors: John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,” and William Cowper, the author of “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”

But there were also hymns by other writers, which continue to enrich contemporary hymnals. They include: “The God of Abraham Praise,” by Thomas Olivers, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” by Edward Perronet, and “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” by William and Peter Williams.

As did the hymns of Watts earlier in the century, the hymns of the Evangelical Revival had musical implications. Many of these hymns called for refrains and/or extensions to the basic metrical structure. They thus required different tunes, since the old psalm tunes were of a different character. A forerunner of the later eighteenth-century extended tune is Easter Hymn, associated with the text “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” It first appeared in Lyra Davidica (London, 1708) and is found in many variant forms throughout the rest of the century. It has a basic 7. 7. 7. 7. metrical structure, with “Alleluia!” added to each line:

Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!
Suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!

Hymn tunes with repeated sections were perhaps more common. Obvious examples are Miles Lane and Coronation, both associated with “All Hail the Power of Jesu’s Name.” There is even a repeated tune that comes from a Roman Catholic source in the mid-eighteenth century: Adeste Fidelis and its associated text, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Another form of repeating tune was the so-called “Fuging Tune,” which disappeared relatively quickly.

Unlike Watts, who wrote only in the common psalm meters, Charles Wesley used a wide variety of metrical forms. If his hymns were to be sung, new tunes had to be created, or existing tunes had to be adapted.

This was the period of Handelian opera and oratorio. It coincided with technological advances in the printing of music that brought about the sheet-music trade, which made the music of Handel and others popular. Thus, many of the hymn tunes sung by the Methodists of the period were miniature imitations of the Handelian aria, complete with ornaments, trills, and other grace notes!

Charles Wesley sometimes wrote with specific tunes in mind, the most notable example being “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” which was a parody of Dryden’s “Fairest Isle, All Isles Excelling.” Dryden’s verse appeared in his opera King Arthur, for which Henry Purcell wrote the music. Thus Methodists in the eighteenth century sang Wesley’s spiritual parody to an adapted version of Purcell’s music.

The Tide of 18th-Century Hymns

Toward the end of the century, Edward Miller, organist of Doncaster parish church, urged reform in the practice of congregational song in the Church of England, which was still primarily metrical psalmody. Miller observed that parochial congregations in England were somewhat careless, inattentive, and irreverent during the psalmody. But this was in marked contrast to what happened in Methodist congregations.

Miller wrote: “It is well known that more people are drawn to the tabernacles of Methodists by their attractive harmony, than by the doctrine of their preachers.… Where the Methodists have drawn one person from our communion by their preaching, they have drawn ten by their music.” Even the Church of England could not hold out forever against the tide of eighteenthcentury hymnody.

Today, many new hymnals are including fewer nineteenth-century hymns and more eighteenth-century hymns, especially those of Watts and Wesley. It seems we are rediscovering the validity of the spirituality—the “amazing grace” of these hymns. Although written two centuries ago, these hymns are still “music in the sinner’s ear.”

Dr. Robin A. Leaver is Professor of Church Music at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and teaches in the liturgical studies program at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He is the author or editor of twenty-four books on hymnody and related subjects.