Opening Voluntary: “Elevation” – Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911)
At the Communion: Prelude on ROCKINGHAM – C. S. Lang (1891-1971)
Closing Voluntary: Nun danket all und bringet Ehr – A. W. Leupold (1868-1940)
This week at St. Mary’s, we continue with our second installment on American Hymnody by featuring the works of Isaac Watts (1674-1748), known as the “Father of English Hymnody.” Until practically the 19th century, hymnody in the North American Colonies continued to share a common evolution with English hymnody. From the beginning of the English Reformation until the time of Isaac Watts, congregational hymnody in both the Church of England and the churches of the Dissenters, whether in Britain or the North American Colonies, was limited to metrical versions of the Psalms (as we illustrated last week). The story is told that, at the age of only 15 years, Isaac Watts, child of a Dissenter family, had returned home from some particularly atrocious religious service, and was complaining loudly about the poor music and singing when his father challenged him to, “Give us something better, young man.” Before the evening of that same day, Watts had written his first hymn:
“Behold the glories of the Lamb, Amidst his Father’s throne; Prepare new honors for his name, And songs before unknown.”
The new hymn was lined out and sung that same evening at the Southampton Independents meeting and may be heralded as the start of a revolution in church music that broke the strangle-hold of exclusivity of metrical psalmody on the liturgy of the church, Anglican and Dissenting, and started the substitution of “hymns of human composure.” Although Watts was not the first to write hymns in English, he was the first to propose a new theory of congregational praise and to create a great body of material for Church use. Watts’ theories were simply that, first, our songs are a human offering of praise to God, and, therefore, the words should be our own. Second, Watts maintained that, if Psalms were to be used, they should be Christianized and modernized or as he termed it “imitated.” For the next 18 years after his first attempt, Watts wrote hymns that, when he was later a preacher, were sung by his congregations. The types and meters of the rhyming were kept deliberately simple. Watts intended, he said, “to write down to the Level of Vulgar Capacities, and to furnish Hymns for the meanest of Christians.” He subsequently published, first in 1707 and again in 1709 in a revised version, his book, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, a work that was a monumental success. This was followed not long after by his own Christianized and modernized Psalter of 1719, published under the name of The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and apply’d to the Christian State and Worship, which created singable versions of Psalms for worship that were, as he himself described them “ye ancient Psalms in ye wording of the New Testament.” Watts wrote about this collection to his friend, the famous Cotton Mather in 1717,
“Tis not a translation of David that I pretend, but an imitation of him, so nearly in Christian hymns that the Jewish Psalmist may plainly appear, and yet leave Judaism behind.”
Although not without opposition from those who felt that the Psalms should remain the only acceptable songs for public worship and who maintained that “hymns of human composure” were only suitable for home or private use, the hymns of Watts and several of his near-contemporaries gained gradual acceptance both in Britain and in the American colonies through the years of the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin reprinted Watts’ Psalms in 1729, although he complained that, nearly two years later, most copies remained unsold on his shelves. This was followed by publications of Watts’ Hymns in Boston in 1739, Philadelphia in 1742 and then New York in 1752. The Hymns initially, however, reached the Southern colonies in the year 1735 with the arrival of the Wesleys who brought English versions of both Watts’ Hymns and the Psalms with them when they arrived in Georgia in that year. It was only two years later that, in 1737, the first hymnbook (rather than psalmbook) printed on American soil entitled, Collection of Psalms and Hymns, Charlestown, 1737 was published by the Wesleys in South Carolina. Although a small work of only 74 pages, it included 70 hymns, of which half were those of Isaac Watts.
In today’s service, our hymns are works, written either in whole or part, by Isaac Watts. Three of the examples, our entrance Hymn # 50 (LONDON NEW), the Offertory Hymn #391 (WINCHESTER NEW) and the fourth stanza of the communion hymn, #321 (ROCKINGHAM) are from his Psalms and relate, respectively to Psalm 118, Psalm 100, and Psalm 19. Our final hymn, #374 (Nun danket all und bringet Ehr), is from his Hymns of 1707. The first three stanzas of the Communion hymn, #321, were written by Philip Doddridge, a contemporary of Watts, and were published posthumously in a collection of Doddrigde’s hymns in 1755.