Christian History Home > Issue 31 > The Hymn Explosion
The Hymn Explosion
In 1700, there were precious few English hymns. In 1800, there were hymnbooks galore. What happened?
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.”
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