The Church of England did not officially approve the singing of hymns in worship until 1820. For nearly one hundred years, Dissenters and Methodists had been singing hymns. Why was the Church of England so slow to recognize the power and usefulness of “hymns of original composition” ?

Would-Be Revolutionaries

We easily forget that hymns were written and sung by men and women who lived their lives and practiced their faith on the margins of conventional English Christianity. Anglicans resented, even hated, Dissenters [those who separated from the established Church of England] and Methodists. Thus, hymn singing, which Dissenters and Methodists practiced, came to stand for all that was wrong with non-orthodox faith.

Isaac Watts was a Dissenter, a Calvinist who believed in congregational autonomy or “Independence.” While Watts was a loyal British subject, he and fellow Dissenters accepted many of the principles that had led to the Civil War in England. Anglicans had not forgotten the killing of Charles I and the establishment of the Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

During the Restoration Period (1660–1700) Calvinist Dissenters were widely regarded as would-be revolutionaries, eager to upset the peace and return England to its Puritan past. Dissenters were, accordingly, heavily persecuted, subject to fines and imprisonment. They were excluded from public employment and the university. In Absalom and Achitophel (1681), John Dryden describes the Dissenters as rabble-rousing demagogues, determined to destroy the monarchy. Thus, when the Dissenters sang hymns, those hymns were often associated with Christian extremism and even revolutionary politics.

Brawlers and Brayers

John and Charles Wesley, however, were upstanding university ...

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