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 ...

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