Chapter OneThe Defining Role of Hymns
in Early Evangelicalism
Mark A. Noll
In May 1731, the English Congregationalist Philip Doddridge wrote to his
older colleague in the Nonconformist ministry, Isaac Watts, about a midweek
worship service he had recently conducted in a barn for "a pretty
large assembly of plain country people." Doddridge's text was from Hebrews
6:12 - "That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through
faith and patience inherit the promises." After the sermon Doddridge
sang with his humble congregation a hymn by Watts that began,
Give me the wings of faith to rise
Within the veil, and see
The saints above, how great their joys, How bright their glories be.
The effect of the singing was the occasion for Doddridge's letter: "I had the
satisfaction to observe tears in the eyes of several of the auditory, and after
the service was over, some of them told me that they were not able to sing,
so deeply were their minds affected with it."
Although this incident took place in an out-of-the-way venue with
a congregation of no special account, Doddridge was nonetheless registering
a sea change in Western Christianity. Ordinary believers had begun
to find their voice, and that voice was expressed in song. Watts was
the founder of the new hymnody that the people were beginning to sing,
but Doddridge, with hymns like "Awake, my soul; stretch every nerve"
and "O happy day, that fixed my choice," was an important contributor
too. Soon both Watts and Doddridge helped open the way for leading
evangelicals like John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan
Edwards, who proclaimed that true Christianity meant not just intellectual
recognition of Christian dogma or formal acknowledgment of
the church, but the experience of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Oceans of ink have been spilled in analyzing virtually all aspects of the
evangelical movements that arose from that insistence. Only rarely,
however, has the significance of song been given its full place in this
story. Yet nothing was more central to the evangelical revival than the
singing of new hymns written in praise of the goodness, mercy, and
grace of God.
Hymns in the Early Evangelical Movement
For the early generations of evangelicals, hymn singing became almost
sacramental. It was the one physical activity that all evangelicals shared,
and it was the one experience that bound them most closely together with
each other. In fact, it is difficult to discover any significant event, person,
or structure of early evangelicalism that did not involve the singing of
hymns. It is likewise difficult to discover any significant experience of
singing where the hymns had not been freshly written by the evangelicals
themselves (or by Isaac Watts who befriended them and whose hymns
they embraced enthusiastically from the start).
Venue, time, social locale, and place hardly made a difference.
Hymn-singing played a critical role during the Moravian revivals in the
late 1720s, far in the eastern German lands, that eventually exerted a great
impact in Britain and North America. Jonathan Edwards was one of New
England's earliest promoters of Isaac Watts's hymns, and his paradigm-making
account of the 1734-1735 revival in Northampton, Massachusetts,
specified hymn-singing as a key element of this awakening. The critical
role in early Methodism that was played by Charles Wesley as hymn writer
and John Wesley as hymn publisher is very well known. Yet observers at
the time made more of Methodism singing than do historians - in the
words of one American Congregationalist who wanted his colleagues to
move more quickly in imitating the Methodists: "We sacrifice too much to
taste. The secret of the Methodists lies in the admirable adaptation of their
music and hymns to produce effect; they strike at once at the heart, and
the moment we hear their animated, thrilling choruses, we are electrified."
After George Whitefield had preached to huge crowds in Philadelphia
in 1739, Benjamin Franklin noted how "one could not walk through
Philadelphia in the evening without hearing psalms sung in different families
of every street." Hymns composed in Welsh and Gaelic fueled the
evangelical revivals in Wales and Scotland. And hymnody provided a lifeline
during the forced migrations of African-American evangelicals. The
hymns that were sung, moreover, constituted for almost all evangelical
subgroupings what John Wesley wrote in 1780 about his landmark Collection
of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists - these hymns were
"in effect a little book of experimental and practical divinity . [a] distinct
and full . account of scriptural Christianity."
An indication of how important hymn singing became as a result of
promotion by evangelicals like Wesley can be found in modern bibliographies.
One of the most extensive and helpful of such guides is The Hymn
Tune Index, which catalogues the tunes in published works from the mid-sixteenth
century to the early nineteenth. Although other factors were involved
in accelerating the rate of hymnbook publication - like a general
upsurge in publishing, the growth of population, and the energetic contributions
of American printers - the gross figures are still impressive.
From 1701 to 1740, English-language publishers brought out an average of
approximately sixty hymn tune books per decade. From 1741 to 1780, the
years when evangelical movements began to emerge, the number per decade
doubled to about 120. From 1781 to 1820, when evangelicalism began
to exert a pervasive effect on the religious life of England, Wales, Scotland,
Ireland, and the new United States, the number of hymn tune books
brought out each decade skyrocketed to about 310. Such enumerations indicate
the shape of a cultural, as well as a religious, revolution.
The Religion of the Evangelical Hymns
The hymns of the early evangelical movement proclaimed a rich understanding
of Christian faith, but also a somewhat restricted one. Although
most of the major hymn-writers of the eighteenth century composed
verses on the nature of the church, the sacraments of baptism and
communion, the configuration of events at the end of time, as well as the
particular convictions of their own subgroups, the hymns that were sung
widely, that were reprinted time after time, and that won their way deep
into the heart of popular evangelicalism did not concern these potentially
divisive subjects. Rather, the enduring hymns featured the need of sinners
for Christ the savior, the love of God in Christ, the saving power of Christ,
the refuge and healing found in Christ, the joy of redemption in Christ,
and the hope of eternal life in Christ. All efforts to illustrate the themes of
the most popular evangelical hymns must be arbitrary, but Stephen
Marini's catalogues of the hymns that were most often reprinted across
the evangelical spectrum has made possible a greater degree of specificity.
His database for hymnals published from 1737 to 1960 is used by other
contributors to this book and is presented in Appendix I. For this chapter,
a different Marini compilation is used that was drawn from eighty-six
Protestant hymnals published in North America from 1737 to 1860. In the
first instance, these hymns illustrate the strong bonds that religious song
constructed across the Atlantic, since the vast majority were composed by
English authors of the eighteenth century. Even more importantly, the
texts of the most often reprinted hymns in this list illustrate forcefully the
character of evangelical faith, or at least the depiction of this faith that ordinary
evangelicals chose to sing about in many different places and
through many decades.
The eleven hymns reprinted most often in the books canvassed by
Professor Marini (there was a tie for tenth place) included four by Isaac
Watts ("Come we that love the Lord" [Come we], "Am I a soldier of the
cross" [Am I], "When I can read my title clear" [When title], and "He dies
the friend of sinners" [He dies]); two by the Methodist-turned-Moravian
John Cennick ("Jesusmy all to heaven is gone" [Jesus] and "Children of the
heavenly king" [Children]); one each by the Cambridge Baptist Robert
Robinson ("Come thou fount of every blessing" [Come thou fount]),
Charles Wesley ("Blow ye the trumpet blow" [Blow]), the London Baptist
Samuel Stennett ("On Jordan's stormy banks I stand" [Jordan]), and the
maverick Methodist Edward Peronnet ("All hail the power of Jesus' name"
[All hail]); and one anonymous hymn from the influential Collection by the
London Baptist John Rippon from 1787 ("How firm a foundation" [How
If the popular hymns shied away from some controversial subjects,
they were not in the least timorous about affirming the full sinfulness of
humanity and the desperate need for a Redeemer.
My grief a burden long has been, Because I was not saved from sin.
The more I strove against its power, I felt its weight and guilt the more; Till late I heard my Saviour say, "Come hither soul, I am the way." (Cennick, Jesus)
Realism about the sinful state continued after conversion, for even those
who favored perfection did not deny the powers of human corruption:
Nothing but sin have I to give: Nothing but love shall I receive. (Cennick, Jesus)
More generally, the life of faith was regarded as a battle requiring constant
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here's my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for thy courts above. (Robinson, Come thou fount)
In almost all evangelical hymns the love of God in Christ for ordinary
women and men was central, which is why so many of the hymns of
Isaac Watts were so popular for so long.
He dies! - the Friend of sinners dies; Lo! Salem's daughters weep around: A solemn darkness veils the skies; A sudden trembling shakes the ground.
Here's love and grief beyond degree: The Lord of glory dies for men! But lo! what sudden joys we see, -
Jesus, the dead, revives again! .
Break off your tears, ye saints, and tell
How high our great Deliverer reigns; Sing how he spoiled the hosts of hell; And led the tyrant Death in chains. (Watts, He dies)
For the work of God on behalf of sinners, the merits of Christ's death were
central, whether for the Baptist Robert Robinson: Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wand'ring from the fold of God: He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed his precious blood. (Robinson, Come thou fount)
Or the Methodist Charles Wesley:
Jesus, our great High Priest, Hath full atonement made. (Wesley, Blow)
Many of the hymns depicted joyful responses to the work of God
more than detailed description of it:
Sinners! whose love can ne'er forget
The wormwood and the gall, Go - spread your trophies at His feet, And crown Him Lord of all. (Perronet, All hail)
Blow ye the trumpet blow! The gladly solemn sound
Let all the nations know, To earth's remotest bound: The year of jubilee is come; Return, ye ransomed sinners home. (Wesley, Blow)
The men of grace have found
Glory begun below; Celestial fruits on earthly ground
From faith and hope may grow. (Watts, Come we)
Come, thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy grace; Streams of mercy, never ceasing, Call for songs of loudest praise. (Robinson, Come thou fount)
The hymns also say much about the life of faith, and in realistic
terms. In response to the question whether "I" should "be carried to the
skies / On flowery beds of ease?" the answer was unequivocal:
Sure I must fight if I would reign: Increase my courage, Lord; I'll bear the toil, endure the pain, Supported by thy Word. (Watts, Am I)
The standard expectation was that life would be difficult, but also that
God-in-Christ would make it possible to go on with hope.
Fear not, brethren; joyful stand
On the borders of your land; Jesus Christ, your Father's Son, Bids you undismayed go on. (Cennick, Children)
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply; The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine. (Rippon, How firm)
The end in view, repeated in many hymns, was an eternal life of joy and
peace gained through final identification with Jesus Christ:
Jesus, my all, to heaven is gone, he whom I fix my hopes upon; His track I see, and I'll pursue
The narrow way, till Him I view.
The way the holy prophets went, The road that leads from banishment, The King's highway of holiness, I'll go, for all His paths are peace. (Cennick, Jesus)
Fixation on heaven was strong in the most popular evangelical
hymns, but that fixation was grounded in broader doctrines of the Christian
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to his foes; That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I'll never, no, never, no, never, forsake. (Rippon, How firm)
On Jordan's stormy banks I stand, And cast a wistful eye
To Canaan's fair and happy land
Where my possessions lie.
O the transporting, rapturous scene
That rises to my sight! Sweet fields arrayed in living green, And rivers of delight. (Stennett, Jordan)
When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies, I bid farewell to every fear, And wipe my weeping eyes. (Watts, When title)
A few other themes were adumbrated in these hymns, for example,
the reliability of Scripture: "How firm a foundation . Is laid for your faith
in his excellent Word!" (Rippon, How firm) But for the most part, the
hymns that were most often reprinted held to their narrow focus on the
great acts of redemption that disturbed complacent sinners, turned them
with longing to Christ, encouraged them in the life of faith, and joined
them to Christ eternally.
The Broader Connections of Hymnody
The eighteenth-century upsurge in hymnody constituted an index for
many aspects of the new evangelical era. As only three of many possible
indications of what hymn singing revealed, we will examine how hymns
mediated between differences of class and race, how hymns offered a public
voice to women, and how they functioned to pacify intra-evangelical
If hymn singing was one of the strongest trans-Atlantic evangelical
activities, it also provided one of the few bridges between the classes and
the races. Samuel Davies in America, for example, took a particular pleasure
from the fact that converted African Americans and American Indians
became adept at singing his and other hymns of the evangelical revival.