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WONDERFUL WORDS OF LIFEHymns in American Protestant History and Theology
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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Chapter OneThe Defining Role of Hymns in Early Evangelicalism
Mark A. Noll
In May 1731, the English Congregationalist Philip Doddridge wrote to his older colleague in the Nonconformist ministry, Isaac Watts, about a midweek worship service he had recently conducted in a barn for "a pretty large assembly of plain country people." Doddridge's text was from Hebrews 6:12 - "That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises." After the sermon Doddridge sang with his humble congregation a hymn by Watts that began,
Give me the wings of faith to rise Within the veil, and see The saints above, how great their joys, How bright their glories be.
The effect of the singing was the occasion for Doddridge's letter: "I had the satisfaction to observe tears in the eyes of several of the auditory, and after the service was over, some of them told me that they were not able to sing, so deeply were their minds affected with it."
Although this incident took place in an out-of-the-way venue with a congregation of no special account, Doddridge was nonetheless registering a sea change in Western Christianity. Ordinary believers had begun to find their voice, and that voice was expressed in song. Watts was the founder of the new hymnody that the people were beginning to sing, but Doddridge, with hymns like "Awake, my soul; stretch every nerve" and "O happy day, that fixed my choice," was an important contributor too. Soon both Watts and Doddridge helped open the way for leading evangelicals like John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards, who proclaimed that true Christianity meant not just intellectual recognition of Christian dogma or formal acknowledgment of the church, but the experience of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Oceans of ink have been spilled in analyzing virtually all aspects of the evangelical movements that arose from that insistence. Only rarely, however, has the significance of song been given its full place in this story. Yet nothing was more central to the evangelical revival than the singing of new hymns written in praise of the goodness, mercy, and grace of God.
Hymns in the Early Evangelical Movement
For the early generations of evangelicals, hymn singing became almost sacramental. It was the one physical activity that all evangelicals shared, and it was the one experience that bound them most closely together with each other. In fact, it is difficult to discover any significant event, person, or structure of early evangelicalism that did not involve the singing of hymns. It is likewise difficult to discover any significant experience of singing where the hymns had not been freshly written by the evangelicals themselves (or by Isaac Watts who befriended them and whose hymns they embraced enthusiastically from the start).
Venue, time, social locale, and place hardly made a difference. Hymn-singing played a critical role during the Moravian revivals in the late 1720s, far in the eastern German lands, that eventually exerted a great impact in Britain and North America. Jonathan Edwards was one of New England's earliest promoters of Isaac Watts's hymns, and his paradigm-making account of the 1734-1735 revival in Northampton, Massachusetts, specified hymn-singing as a key element of this awakening. The critical role in early Methodism that was played by Charles Wesley as hymn writer and John Wesley as hymn publisher is very well known. Yet observers at the time made more of Methodism singing than do historians - in the words of one American Congregationalist who wanted his colleagues to move more quickly in imitating the Methodists: "We sacrifice too much to taste. The secret of the Methodists lies in the admirable adaptation of their music and hymns to produce effect; they strike at once at the heart, and the moment we hear their animated, thrilling choruses, we are electrified." After George Whitefield had preached to huge crowds in Philadelphia in 1739, Benjamin Franklin noted how "one could not walk through Philadelphia in the evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street." Hymns composed in Welsh and Gaelic fueled the evangelical revivals in Wales and Scotland. And hymnody provided a lifeline during the forced migrations of African-American evangelicals. The hymns that were sung, moreover, constituted for almost all evangelical subgroupings what John Wesley wrote in 1780 about his landmark Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists - these hymns were "in effect a little book of experimental and practical divinity ... [a] distinct and full ... account of scriptural Christianity."
An indication of how important hymn singing became as a result of promotion by evangelicals like Wesley can be found in modern bibliographies. One of the most extensive and helpful of such guides is The Hymn Tune Index, which catalogues the tunes in published works from the mid-sixteenth century to the early nineteenth. Although other factors were involved in accelerating the rate of hymnbook publication - like a general upsurge in publishing, the growth of population, and the energetic contributions of American printers - the gross figures are still impressive. From 1701 to 1740, English-language publishers brought out an average of approximately sixty hymn tune books per decade. From 1741 to 1780, the years when evangelical movements began to emerge, the number per decade doubled to about 120. From 1781 to 1820, when evangelicalism began to exert a pervasive effect on the religious life of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the new United States, the number of hymn tune books brought out each decade skyrocketed to about 310. Such enumerations indicate the shape of a cultural, as well as a religious, revolution.
The Religion of the Evangelical Hymns
The hymns of the early evangelical movement proclaimed a rich understanding of Christian faith, but also a somewhat restricted one. Although most of the major hymn-writers of the eighteenth century composed verses on the nature of the church, the sacraments of baptism and communion, the configuration of events at the end of time, as well as the particular convictions of their own subgroups, the hymns that were sung widely, that were reprinted time after time, and that won their way deep into the heart of popular evangelicalism did not concern these potentially divisive subjects. Rather, the enduring hymns featured the need of sinners for Christ the savior, the love of God in Christ, the saving power of Christ, the refuge and healing found in Christ, the joy of redemption in Christ, and the hope of eternal life in Christ. All efforts to illustrate the themes of the most popular evangelical hymns must be arbitrary, but Stephen Marini's catalogues of the hymns that were most often reprinted across the evangelical spectrum has made possible a greater degree of specificity. His database for hymnals published from 1737 to 1960 is used by other contributors to this book and is presented in Appendix I. For this chapter, a different Marini compilation is used that was drawn from eighty-six Protestant hymnals published in North America from 1737 to 1860. In the first instance, these hymns illustrate the strong bonds that religious song constructed across the Atlantic, since the vast majority were composed by English authors of the eighteenth century. Even more importantly, the texts of the most often reprinted hymns in this list illustrate forcefully the character of evangelical faith, or at least the depiction of this faith that ordinary evangelicals chose to sing about in many different places and through many decades.
The eleven hymns reprinted most often in the books canvassed by Professor Marini (there was a tie for tenth place) included four by Isaac Watts ("Come we that love the Lord" [Come we], "Am I a soldier of the cross" [Am I], "When I can read my title clear" [When title], and "He dies the friend of sinners" [He dies]); two by the Methodist-turned-Moravian John Cennick ("Jesusmy all to heaven is gone" [Jesus] and "Children of the heavenly king" [Children]); one each by the Cambridge Baptist Robert Robinson ("Come thou fount of every blessing" [Come thou fount]), Charles Wesley ("Blow ye the trumpet blow" [Blow]), the London Baptist Samuel Stennett ("On Jordan's stormy banks I stand" [Jordan]), and the maverick Methodist Edward Peronnet ("All hail the power of Jesus' name" [All hail]); and one anonymous hymn from the influential Collection by the London Baptist John Rippon from 1787 ("How firm a foundation" [How firm]).
If the popular hymns shied away from some controversial subjects, they were not in the least timorous about affirming the full sinfulness of humanity and the desperate need for a Redeemer.
My grief a burden long has been, Because I was not saved from sin. The more I strove against its power, I felt its weight and guilt the more; Till late I heard my Saviour say, "Come hither soul, I am the way." (Cennick, Jesus)
Realism about the sinful state continued after conversion, for even those who favored perfection did not deny the powers of human corruption:
Nothing but sin have I to give: Nothing but love shall I receive. (Cennick, Jesus)
More generally, the life of faith was regarded as a battle requiring constant divine support:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here's my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for thy courts above. (Robinson, Come thou fount)
In almost all evangelical hymns the love of God in Christ for ordinary women and men was central, which is why so many of the hymns of Isaac Watts were so popular for so long.
He dies! - the Friend of sinners dies; Lo! Salem's daughters weep around: A solemn darkness veils the skies; A sudden trembling shakes the ground.
Here's love and grief beyond degree: The Lord of glory dies for men! But lo! what sudden joys we see, - Jesus, the dead, revives again! ...
Break off your tears, ye saints, and tell How high our great Deliverer reigns; Sing how he spoiled the hosts of hell; And led the tyrant Death in chains. (Watts, He dies)
For the work of God on behalf of sinners, the merits of Christ's death were central, whether for the Baptist Robert Robinson: Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wand'ring from the fold of God: He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed his precious blood. (Robinson, Come thou fount)
Or the Methodist Charles Wesley:
Jesus, our great High Priest, Hath full atonement made. (Wesley, Blow)
Many of the hymns depicted joyful responses to the work of God more than detailed description of it:
Sinners! whose love can ne'er forget The wormwood and the gall, Go - spread your trophies at His feet, And crown Him Lord of all. (Perronet, All hail)
Blow ye the trumpet blow! The gladly solemn sound Let all the nations know, To earth's remotest bound: The year of jubilee is come; Return, ye ransomed sinners home. (Wesley, Blow)
The men of grace have found Glory begun below; Celestial fruits on earthly ground From faith and hope may grow. (Watts, Come we)
Come, thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy grace; Streams of mercy, never ceasing, Call for songs of loudest praise. (Robinson, Come thou fount)
The hymns also say much about the life of faith, and in realistic terms. In response to the question whether "I" should "be carried to the skies / On flowery beds of ease?" the answer was unequivocal:
Sure I must fight if I would reign: Increase my courage, Lord; I'll bear the toil, endure the pain, Supported by thy Word. (Watts, Am I)
The standard expectation was that life would be difficult, but also that God-in-Christ would make it possible to go on with hope.
Fear not, brethren; joyful stand On the borders of your land; Jesus Christ, your Father's Son, Bids you undismayed go on. (Cennick, Children)
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply; The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine. (Rippon, How firm)
The end in view, repeated in many hymns, was an eternal life of joy and peace gained through final identification with Jesus Christ:
Jesus, my all, to heaven is gone, he whom I fix my hopes upon; His track I see, and I'll pursue The narrow way, till Him I view. The way the holy prophets went, The road that leads from banishment, The King's highway of holiness, I'll go, for all His paths are peace. (Cennick, Jesus)
Fixation on heaven was strong in the most popular evangelical hymns, but that fixation was grounded in broader doctrines of the Christian life.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to his foes; That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I'll never, no, never, no, never, forsake. (Rippon, How firm)
On Jordan's stormy banks I stand, And cast a wistful eye To Canaan's fair and happy land Where my possessions lie. O the transporting, rapturous scene That rises to my sight! Sweet fields arrayed in living green, And rivers of delight. (Stennett, Jordan)
When I can read my title clear To mansions in the skies, I bid farewell to every fear, And wipe my weeping eyes. (Watts, When title)
A few other themes were adumbrated in these hymns, for example, the reliability of Scripture: "How firm a foundation ... Is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!" (Rippon, How firm) But for the most part, the hymns that were most often reprinted held to their narrow focus on the great acts of redemption that disturbed complacent sinners, turned them with longing to Christ, encouraged them in the life of faith, and joined them to Christ eternally.
The Broader Connections of Hymnody
The eighteenth-century upsurge in hymnody constituted an index for many aspects of the new evangelical era. As only three of many possible indications of what hymn singing revealed, we will examine how hymns mediated between differences of class and race, how hymns offered a public voice to women, and how they functioned to pacify intra-evangelical disputes.
If hymn singing was one of the strongest trans-Atlantic evangelical activities, it also provided one of the few bridges between the classes and the races. Samuel Davies in America, for example, took a particular pleasure from the fact that converted African Americans and American Indians became adept at singing his and other hymns of the evangelical revival.
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