Three Hymnals That Shaped Today’s Worship

THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY has been called the “century of divine songs.”

Isaac Watts wrote hymns and metrical versions of the psalms for his London congregation. During the week as his sermon took shape, he wrote a hymn to provide a congregational response to his message. Watts’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), and his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719), marked a growing acceptance of singing. They also set the stage for hymn writers who would follow.

Hymn singing was slowly accepted among the Dissenting churches—Congregational, Baptist, Quaker, and some Presbyterian. In some churches there was much opposition to the singing of hymns, and controversies arose that sometimes split congregations asunder.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Church of England allowed only the singing of metrical psalms. It used Tate and Brady’s New Version of the Psalms of David (1696), or Sternhold and Hopkins’s Whole Book of Psalms (1562). This hardy “Old Version” was still being used when Queen Victoria was a girl. Not until 1820 was the singing of hymns approved in the Church of England.

Three hymnals climaxed the move toward congregational hymn singing in the eighteenth century.

John Wesley’s 1780 Hymnal

A primer in theology, published when he was 77

The greatest contribution to eighteenth-century Christian song was made by the Wesley brothers. John was the methodical leader, administrator, and editor of the Wesleyan movement; Charles, the gifted poet. Charles wrote the hymns, and John compiled the collections, frequently editing and altering his brother’s hymns.

Beginning in 1738, the Wesleys published fifty—six collections of hymns (not including tune books) over a period of fifty-three years. At least thirty-six of these collections involved only original Wesley hymns.

The most significant Wesley hymnal was A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists. It was designed solely for members of the societies John had formed throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. The hymnbook was intended to be both a primer in theology and a guide for public worship and private devotion.

People who had joined Wesley’s societies were endeavoring to live Christian lives and were striving for perfection. This is evident in the hymns: well over half relate to the believer’s life and faith—“rejoicing, fighting, praying, watching, working, suffering, groaning for full redemption, and interceding for the world.”

For the 1780 Collection, John Wesley compiled 525 hymns: those he deemed the best hymns of Charles; a number of his own hymns; and several from other sources, including Isaac Watts. There are twenty-one translations (nineteen from German, and one each from Spanish and French) assumed to be by John Wesley himself.

Many hymns from the 1780 hymnal survive today: “A Charge to Keep I Have,” “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain,” “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies,” “Come, Ye That Love the Lord,” “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath,” “Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” and “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.”

John Newton’s 1779 Hymnal

Produced by two friends in a small church

In 1764, after his ordination in the Church of England, John Newton, the ex-slave trader, was sent to the village of Olney. He conducted Anglican services in the parish church and began a weekday service for children in which he taught Bible lessons and led the singing of hymns.

Three years after Newton arrived, poet William Cowper moved to Olney. Cowper became a lay helper in the small congregation, and Newton found a kindred soul, his intellectual equal. Cowper was skilled in poetic writing but experienced periods of deep depression.

In 1769, Newton began a Thursday evening prayer service. For almost every week’s service, he wrote a hymn to be sung to a familiar tune.

Newton challenged Cowper also to write hymns for these meetings. This Cowper did until he had a serious illness in 1773. Newton later combined 280 of his own hymns with 68 of Cowper’s inOlney Hymns.

The hymns were simply arranged in three sections:

Book I, hymns on select texts of scripture;

Book II, hymns on occasional subjects;

Book III, hymns on the progress and changes of the spiritual life.

Among the well-known hymns in Olney Hymns are “Amazing Grace!” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” “O for a Closer Walk with God,” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”

Although compiled for his own use in Olney, Newton’s hymnal became more widely known. In 1809, Reginald Heber, parish vicar at Hodnet, Shropshire, wrote to a friend: “My [church’s] psalm—singing continues bad. Can you tell me where I can purchase Olney Hymns? Any novelty is likely to become a favorite and draw more people to join in the singing.”

John Rippon’s 1787 Hymnal

It sold 300,000 copies in just 40 years

By the last half of the eighteenth century, Baptists’ opposition to hymn singing had greatly declined. Then some of the finest Baptist hymn writers emerged: Anne Steele, Benjamin Beddome, Samuel Stennett, and others.

The increased interest in hymn singing encouraged John Rippon to publish A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, Intended to be an Appendix to Dr. Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, containing 588 hymns. Rippon (1751–1836) was pastor of the Baptist church at Carter Lane, London, for sixty-three years. An influential minister, he published many sermons and served as editor and publisher of the Baptist Annual Register.

Rippon continued Watts’s practice of employing the last hymn as an application of the sermon. Since Watts’s hymns did not cover all sermon themes, Rippon enlarged the repertoire.

The Selection was designed for Baptists, and 187 (32 percent) of the hymns were by Baptist writers. However, Rippon was aware of the potential market among other Dissenters, and so he included hymns by non-Baptist writers such as John Cennick (8 hymns), Philip Doddridge (101), Thomas Gibbons (25), John Newton (19), Augustus Toplady (9), Isaac Watts (39), and Charles and John Wesley (24).

Rippon omitted some hymns’ stanzas, rearranged others, changed pronouns from singular to plural, and altered awkward expressions and weak rhymes. His four-stanza version of Edward Perronet’s “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” (including Rippon’s original fourth stanza) has become the accepted one in England and America.

In the preface to the twenty-seventh edition (in 1828), Rippon claimed that more than 200,000 copies had been circulated in England and 100,000 copies in the United States. Louis F. Benson, inThe English Hymn, states that “Rippon’s judgment and taste, his command of originals, and his editorial discretion, were such to insure lasting success.”

By William J. Reynolds

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

William J. Reynolds is professor of Church Music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and author of Songs of Glory (Zondervan, 1990).
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