America’s Hesitation Over Hymns

IN ENGLAND IN 1707, Isaac Watts published his classic collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

In the New England colonies in 1707, no church organ had yet been installed. The first singing-instruction book would not be written for fourteen more years. And Hymns and Spiritual Songs would not be reprinted until about 1720.

While the new hymns were being written and sung throughout England, many American churches and ministers opposed them. Not until well after the middle of the eighteenth century did English hymns achieve a significant place in American worship.

Why? Here is the story of hymns’ rocky introduction to American churches.

Hymns “Of Human Composure”?

In early colonial America, congregational singing consisted almost exclusively of metrical psalms. In this, as in most other matters, the colonies followed the lead of the Mother Country.

The two psalters most widely used were the Bay Psalm Book (1640) and Sternhold and Hopkins’s Whole Book of Psalms (the “Old Version,” 1562). The Bay Psalm Book had been compiled by a group of New England divines and was employed in nearly every Puritan church of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Outside the Puritan sphere, congregations relied mostly upon the Old Version, the most popular English psalm book of the time. In some Nonconformist churches there may have been no singing at all, due to objections to “conjoined” singing of believers and unbelievers.

“Hymns of human composure” were not entirely absent, however. In his Ratio Disciplinae Fratrum (1726), Cotton Mather observed that “private Companies & Families” among the Puritans would sometimes sing “devout Hymns they find for their Edification.” Mather himself wrote a number of hymns and published a collection of them in 1697. However, Mather and other American ministers generally opposed the use of hymns in the worship service, preferring to rely instead on the inspired words of Scripture in metrical form. Hymns, when used at all, were employed primarily in private devotional exercises.

Little Public Demand

Despite Mather’s preference for metrical psalmody, he made the earliest significant efforts to introduce English hymns to America. He and Isaac Watts corresponded regularly. The New England minister began publishing small groups of hymns by his colleague as early as 1712. In 1715, twenty-two texts selected from Watts’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs appeared in Boston under the title Honey Out of the Rock. This volume was likely prepared by Mather for devotional and small-group use.

Watts’s complete Hymns and Spiritual Songs went through a Boston reprint about 1720 to 1723. Benjamin Franklin issued an edition of the Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament from his Philadelphia press in 1729.

On another front, John and Charles Wesley arrived as missionaries to Georgia in 1735. Their period of service in the colonies was short-lived, but Charles wrote at least one hymn during this time (1736), and John published A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (Charleston, 1737) selected from Watts and other English authors.

Unfortunately, there was little public demand for such works. Two years after publishing Watts’s psalms, Franklin complained that he still had unsold copies of the book on his shelves. The first American edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs also met a cool reception, and a second reprint was not immediately forthcoming. Charles Wesley’s hymn had to wait fifty-five years for its first American printing, and John’s hymnal was quickly forgotten.

The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in North America for English-speaking colonists. It presented literal translations of Old Testament psalms in rhymed meter and was used in nearly every Puritan congregation in Massachusetts. In the 1700s, many churches fought over whether to allow new “human-inspired” hymns into their worship—or stick to the divinely inspired words in psalters.

The Great Awakening

The key event in introducing English hymnody into American churches occurred in 1738: the stirring British pulpiteer George Whitefield made his first preaching tour of the American colonies. Whitefield championed Watts’s hymns, which were better suited than the metrical psalms to his fervid style of preaching.

The effects of Whitefield’s visits and his use of Watts were felt almost immediately. In the next five years, at least six reprints of Watts’s hymnic works appeared from American presses.

A few pioneering congregations also began to admit Watts into the meeting house. In 1742, Jonathan Edwards reported that his Northampton congregation had taken up Watts’s hymns “and sang nothing else, and neglected the Psalms wholly.” Edwards approved of Watts’s hymns, but he persuaded the congregation to continue singing the psalms as well.

Watts was not the only English hymnist to benefit from George Whitefield’s popularity in America. When Whitefield again toured the colonies from 1739–1741, he brought with him a copy of the Wesleys’ Hymns and Sacred Poems (London, 1739); this was reprinted in Philadelphia in 1740. Two hymnals by seventeenth-century English authors, Richard Davis and John Mason, also received American editions during this period. Thus, the successful introduction of English hymnody into American churches was largely a result of the Great Awakening.

The Ascendancy of Watts

Few churches immediately introduced Watts into the service, but there was growing dissatisfaction with the Bay Psalm Book and Old Version. During the course of the next twenty years many churches began turning to Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady’s more recent New Version of the Psalms (London, 1696). But by that time the days of metrical psalmody were numbered.

During the 1760s and 1770s the number of American reprints of Watts increased dramatically. One church after another began giving up the “psalms only” and adopting “Watts entire,” sometimes supplemented by a collection of hymns from other authors.

This innovation was not always accomplished quickly or without difficulty. For example, after making a trial of Tate and Brady, the Puritan parish church of Spencer, Massachusetts, voted in 1761 to return to the Bay Psalm Book. Eight years later, the church voted to try Tate and Brady but instead continued to sing from the Bay Psalm Book, this time in combination with Watts. In October 1769, the congregation finally adopted Watts, which displaced both the Bay Psalm Book and Tate and Brady.

This pattern was followed with local variations throughout the remainder of the century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Watts’s works had become so widespread they enjoyed much the same position in American churches that the metrical psalms had held a century before.

Americanizing the Hymnal

American reprints of English hymnals gradually increased in number during the second half of the eighteenth century. There must have been some demand for them. Undoubtedly, however, these books were used primarily as supplements to Watts or as material for individual worship.

Of special significance was the 1766 publication at Newport, Rhode Island, of a collection for American Baptists, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (the “Newport Collections”). This was one of the earliest hymnals printed in America that was not simply a reprint of an English volume by one author. It was a new collection drawing on the hymns of several different writers. Many of the hymns were by Watts, but there were also hymns from other English writers, as well as some anonymous hymns that—judging from their grammar—were probably of American folk origin.

Singing Schools

Singing schools originated early in the eighteenth century in response to ministerial calls for improvement in the psalm singing of New England churches. Most of the music used in singing schools was sacred in nature. Singing schools were often held in church buildings, but the schools frequently had no direct connection to the church.

The first American singing-school tunebooks were published in 1721; these contained only psalm tunes. Beginning in the 1760s, the repertory of the tunebooks was gradually enlarged to include more complex fuging tunes and anthems for trained singers, in addition to psalm and hymn tunes that would be appropriate for congregational use. Since these books were used in music instruction, rather than in worship services, the compiler or composer had greater liberty in the choice of texts. The new English hymns served as important text sources.

Thus, such a well-known Charles Wesley hymn as “Rejoice, the Lord Is King” made its first American appearance in a Philadelphia tunebook, James Lyon’s Urania (1761). Three years later, Josiah Flagg’s A Collection of the Best Psalm Tunes (Boston, 1764) included Wesley’s “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” and “Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim,” neither of which had been previously printed in the colonies.

The most famous of the eighteenth-century American composer/compilers was William Billings. His first tunebook, The New-England Psalm-Singer (Boston, 1770), was the earliest to contain only music by an American composer. Billings published six major collections, containing over 250 original psalm and hymn tunes. Significantly, not one of these tunes used a text from the Bay Psalm Book. Watts accounted for sixty-five texts, more than any other single source. Billings also set to music English hymns by Charles Wesley and others.

The role of tunebooks in promoting English hymnody in America should not be underestimated. Through such volumes many Americans first encountered hymns that were to become part of the standard repertory. Exposure to these words in the singing school undoubtedly led some people to seriously consider using hymns in the worship service.

Subpar American Hymns

The texts of Watts, the Wesleys, Newton, and others provided fine examples of hymnic forms. But no American writer arose during the eighteenth century who could rival even the second-rank English hymnists.

One of the best early American authors was Samuel Davies (1723–61), a Presbyterian minister and champion of Watts. Some of Davies’s hymns were published in England, and a few saw limited use. However, as Louis F. Benson observed in The English Hymn, these efforts showed the “form and manner” of Watts without the “original inspiration.”

Not until well into the nineteenth century did America develop hymnists who could adequately follow the lead of the great eighteenth-century English authors.

Some of the most distinctive early American contributions to hymnody were adaptations of Watts’s psalms and hymns. Important arrangements of Watts published by Americans included collections by Joel Barlow (1785), Timothy Dwight (1801), James Winchell (1818), and Samuel Worcester (1819). These typically provided versifications of psalms which—for one reason or another—Watts had omitted in the original publications. They also altered his references to Great Britain and the English king, and sometimes replaced his versions with new translations. From the viewpoint of modern congregational singing, the most significant reworking of Watts was by Dwight, who included his own version of Psalm 137, “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord.”

Why Americans Moved Slowly

The explosion of English hymnody in the eighteenth century was relatively slow to make its impact on American churches. Why? Reasons may be summarized as follows:

1. Metrical psalmody generally retained a grip on American congregations longer than it did in England.

2. When Americans gave up metrical psalmody, they often substituted for it a different kind of monopoly (the hymns and psalm paraphrases of Isaac Watts), leaving little room for worthy hymns by other authors.

3. A number of significant eighteenth-century English works did not receive their first American printing until relatively late in the century.

4. The Revolutionary War caused a hiatus in imports from the Mother Country (not to mention anti-English attitudes).

5. Separation from the Mother Country by a large ocean meant a natural cultural lag.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, American church song was much more vigorous than it had been one hundred years before. The singing-school movement had provided a more musical basis for the singing, and the English hymn texts expressed Christian faith more appropriately than had the metrical psalms.

Eighteenth-century English hymns made a considerable impact on the American church. They broke the monopoly of metrical psalmody, provided a well-rounded repertory for Americans to sing, and offered a superior model to which future American writers could look for guidance. CH



By David W. Music

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #31 in 1991]

Dr. David W. Music is Associate Professor of Church Music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, and editor of The Hymn, the quarterly journal of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.
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