What gave rise to the English hymn in the eighteenth century? What determined its form and the way it worked? Many earlier texts were transformed into congregational hymns (for example, texts from the breviary, from the German tradition, and from Herbert and Milton). Yet the hymns of Watts must be our starting point. The roots of his hymns are the roots of hymnody in English. At least four major roots can be identified.


Throughout the eighteenth century, metrical psalms continued to influence the English hymn. It’s a safe bet that the majority of the singers who sang Watts’s texts knew the bulk of the psalter by heart. We know that Wesley and his singers sang psalms in Church of England worship. The psalms were at least as familiar to eighteenth-century hymn singers as our own Christmas carols are to us.

Images and even lines from the psalms recur in the hymns. When singing “Joy to the World” (Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 98), the Sternhold-and-Hopkins “Old Version” of the psalm must have been very much in mind especially when psalter tunes were used. If modern congregations are alert to any changes in wording, we can only imagine the critical response to an entirely new hymnody.

While we pretend to discriminate, it’s often hard to distinguish hymns from psalms: in fact, the terms are often used interchangeably. Metrical psalms were updated and hymns were heavily biblical.

Isaac Watts’s arguments for the new hymnody suggest that psalms were inadequate. We may well wonder. John Dryden’s criticism of the old language of older poetry indicates that changes in the English language—as much as any innate limitations of psalmody—provoked Watts’s dissatisfaction.

Indeed, the psalms are wonderful expressions of a wide range of devotional attitudes, hardly limited by their pre-Christian composition. They are profoundly “psychological.” Like hymns, they are public and private at once, shaping a wide range of devotional attitudes, from near-despair to exultation.

The crucial difference between psalms and hymns comes clear in the explicitly Christian texts explaining and reflecting on the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the sacraments. These demonstrate how far beyond simple praise the hymn had to go as a vehicle for Christian education, for proclamation, for spiritual direction.

Even the poetry that influenced the young English hymn was itself in debt to psalmody. The voice of the psalmist, its rhythms and imagery, was a basic, universal experience of English poets and their readers. Many distinguished poets paraphrased psalms, including the same Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) who figures prominently in the history of the sonnet. John Milton and many of his contemporaries wrote psalm paraphrases. At every literary historical turn, it seems, the psalms were available as models of sacred poetry as well as congregational song.

Contemporary Poetry

As poems, hymns proceeded from the understanding of the nature and purpose of poetry common in the late sevententh and early eighteenth centuries. This understanding is not modern.

We tend to think of poetry as a private affair, very personal, a vehicle for feeling. If we read it at all, we expect poetry to be ambiguous, suggestive, perhaps obscurely beautiful. We are unlikely to trust the poets for communication or education. Prose, not poetry, is our medium for public discourse.

When we survey the works of the big-name English poets of the period 1660 to 1740—John Dryden and Alexander Pope—we may well wonder at their subjects. They wrote major poetry on theological, political, and moral issues, even literary and cultural criticism. The private self of the poet is nowhere evident. Poetic language is neither obscure nor ambiguous.

To modern ears, this sounds more like rhetoric than poetics. We might expect the hymn texts sprung from such theory to read more like speeches or sermons. (In fact, myriad sermons of the day were published and read for private or family entertainment. ) Hymns needed, like sermons, to be popularly intelligible, educational, and entertaining. They had a job to do.

But “Joy to the World” and “Amazing Grace!” don’t sing at all like sermons. Why not? Why did early hymn texts sometimes dramatically depart from the poetry of the times?

An Age of Piety

The hymn belongs to a great age of personal piety, which balanced and complemented the rhetorical theory.

The horrible religious wars and persecutions of the seventeenth century had sorely tested Christians. Mortality rates seem to have surged in this era—deaths from plague, smallpox, malnutrition, childbirth, and venereal disease. Personal piety was very much in order.

In England, popular books addressed the ways of Holy Living and Holy Dying (Jeremy Taylor, 1651), the steps of a Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan, 1678–1684), and our Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (William Law, 1729). Christians were encouraged to keep diaries and regularly to examine their spiritual account.

Thus, in the poetry of the age, the “I,” the poetic persona, triumphs, by the grace of God, over doubt and despair and anticipates joy in heaven. This explains what’s happening in many classic early hymns, like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

In his Preface to the Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) Watts described the psychology of hymns: “The most frequent Tempers and Changes of our Spirit, and Conditions of our Life are here copied, and the Breathings of our Piety express according to the variety of our Passions, our Love, our Fear, our Hope, our Desire, our Sorrow, our Wonder, our Joy, as they are refin’d into Devotion, and act under the Influence and Conduct of the Blessed Spirit.”

While Tempers, Spirits, and Passions are less familiar than modern psychological terminology, they are no less acute. They reflect an age of piety that found expression in its hymns.

European Influences

The English hymn did not develop in isolation. The larger European context helps us understand something more of the politics and the aesthetics of hymnody.

Watts admired the poetry of Madame Guyon (1648–1717) and of the Polish Jesuit Casimir. He was enthusiastic about the powerful effects the plays of Racine and Corneille worked on their readers. Neither Roman Catholic nor secular models were despised.

Watts sought to write hymns that could be sung by a wide variety of Christians. He hoped his hymns would discourage the doctrinal controversy that had torn at the fabric of seventeenth-century life. (According to legend, as an infant, he was nursed on the steps of the prison where his father was confined for Dissent from the established Church of England.)

When John and Charles Wesley put together their first collections of hymns, they supplemented the work of Watts with translations of German hymns. Many of these were Pietist texts that shared the same understanding of Christian poetry as affective, transformative, uplifting. The singer follows a script, contemplating the wounds of Christ or the love of God. The believer is caught up in wonder and devotion. Madame Guyon retained her influence on the eighteenth-century hymn, and we find William Cowper translating a number of her hymns and poems. “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” seems a fine example of classic continental Pietism.

A New Kind of Hymn Drama

Watts wrote his hymns for use in corporate worship. Both the setting and the familiar meters and tunes restrained the young hymn. However powerful the hymn’s content, the context was conservative. Indeed, Watts’s singers were (for the most part) educated, experienced worshipers.

However, with the Evangelical Revival [in the late 1730s and 1740s and beyond], the politics and practice of hymnody changed.

Methodists were sent to Church of England worship, where hymns were excluded. The congregation sang metrical psalms, set to familiar tunes. Revival hymns, as such, were for the most part extraliturgical.

Because of this, the hymn enjoyed new freedom. It was relieved of the formal restraints of the expected psalm meters and the contextual contraint of liturgical celebration. German tunes, tunes from popular song, theatrical tunes—a whole range of new formal possibilities became available. Charles Wesley both enouraged and enjoyed the new freedom.

Watts had explained in his Preface how he sought to reanimate lackadaisical believers. He wanted to shape and focus the devotion of the ordinary sort of worshipers. Wesley’s task was distinct. Many of the Revival masses were virtual newcomers to Christianity, unfamiliar with Scripture or basic doctrine. The educational charge was heavy, and many of Wesley’s hymns simply versify basic Christian education.

Ultimately, Wesley’s hymns, together with Methodist preaching, drove for conversion, for the radical reorientation of sinners. The Journals of both Charles and John record scores of conversions. Conversion was fundamental to Methodism and remains fundamental. Indeed, Charles’s hymn celebrating his own experience (today known as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”) retains the place of honor in Methodist hymnals.

The exciting new music suited the exciting new texts; together they described, recalled, and urged conversion. This new kind of hymn drama is distinct from Watts’s baroque kind. It is less studied, less painful. It is prone to the sweeping gesture and to enthusiasm. Its lasting achievement and appeal is evident in John Newton’s conversion hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

Dr. Madeleine Forell Marshall is on the faculty of the University of San Diego and of California State University at San Marcos. She has taught literature at the University of Puerto Rico, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and St. Olaf College. She is co-author, with Janet Todd, of English Congregational Hymns in the Eighteenth Century (Kentucky, 1982).