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THE BEGINNINGS OF HYMNODY IN AMERICA

The rise of hymnody in America ran parallel with the development of hymn-singing in England. The Puritans who came from Holland in the Mayflower in 1620 were “separatists” from the Church of England, hence they used a psalm-book of their own, published by Henry Ainsworth at Amsterdam in 1612. This was the book that cheered their souls on the perilous crossing of the Atlantic and during the hard and trying years that followed their landing at Plymouth.

Amid the storm they sang,

And the stars heard and the sea;

And the sounding aisles of the dim woods rang

With the anthems of the free.

This was also the book that comforted Priscilla, when John Alden stole in and found that

Open wide on her lap lay the well-worn psalm-book of Ainsworth.

The later Puritans who came directly from England, on the other hand, were not “separatists,” hence they brought with them the psalm-book of Sternhold and Hopkins, which was the version of the Psaltery approved at that time by the Established Church.

The wretched paraphrases of the Psalms in both the Ainsworth and the “orthodox” version of Sternhold and Hopkins eventually led to an insistent demand among the New England 348 Puritans for an entirely new psalm-book which should also adhere more closely to the Hebrew original. The result was the famous “Bay Psalmist” of 1640, which was the first book printed in British America.

The Puritan editors of this first attempt at American psalmody cared no more for poetic effect than did their brother versifiers across the waters. This they made quite plain in the concluding words of the Preface to the “Bay Psalmist”: “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 pollishings: Ex. 20, for wee have respected rather a plaine translation, than to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrase, and soe have attended to Conscience rather than Elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the hebrew words into english language, and David’s poetry into english meetre: that soe wee may sing in Sion the Lords songs of praise according to his own will; untill hee take us from hence, and wipe away all our tears, & bid us enter into our masters joye to sing eternall Halleluiahs.”

The editors scarcely needed to apprise the worshiper that he should not look for artistic verses, for a glimpse within its pages was sufficient to disillusion any one who expected to find sacred poetry. The metrical form given the 137th Psalm is an example of the Puritan theologians’ contempt for polished language:

The rivers on of Babilon

there when wee did sit downe:

yea even then wee mourned, when

wee remembred Sion.

Our Harps wee did hang it amid,

upon the willow tree.

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Because there they that us away

led in captivitee,

Required of us a song, & thus

askt mirth: us waste who laid,

sing us among a Sions song,

unto us then they said.

The lords song sing can wee? being

in strangers land. Then let

loose her skill my right hand, if I

Jerusalem forget.

Let cleave my tongue my pallate on,

if minde thee doe not I:

if chiefe joyes o’er I prize not more

Jerusalem my joye.

Nevertheless, strange as it may seem, the “Bay Psalmist” passed through twenty-seven editions, and was even reprinted several times abroad, being used extensively in England and Scotland. Gradually, however, psalmody began to lose its hold on the Reformed churches, both in Europe and America, and hymnody gained the ascendancy. The publication in 1707 of the epoch-making work of Isaac Watts, “Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” was the first step in breaking down the prejudice in the Calvinistic churches against “hymns of human composure.” In America the Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards, which began in 1734 and which received added impetus from the visit of John Whitefield in 1740, also brought about a demand for a happier form of congregational singing. Then came the influence of the Wesleyan revival with its glorious outburst of song.

Jonathan Edwards himself, stern Puritan that he was, was finally forced to confess that it was “really needful that 350 we should have some other songs than the Psalms of David.” Accordingly hymn singing grew rapidly in favor among the people.

The first attempt to introduce hymns in the authorized psalm-books was made by Joel Barlow, a chaplain in the Revolutionary War. Instructed by the General Association of Congregational Churches of Connecticut to revise Watts’ “Psalms of David” in order to purge them of their British flavor, he was likewise authorized to append to the Psalms a collection of hymns. He made a selection of seventy hymns, and the new book was published in 1786.

It was received with delight by the Presbyterians, but the Congregationalists who had sponsored it were thoroughly dissatisfied. As an example of the morbid character of Puritan theology, Edward S. Ninde has called attention to the fact that while Barlow failed to include Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of my soul” or Watts’ “When I survey the wondrous cross,” he did select such a hymn by Watts as “Hark, from the tombs, a doleful sound,” and another beginning with the lines,

My thoughts on awful subjects roll,

Damnation and the dead.

A second attempt to make a complete revision of Watts’ “Psalms of David” was decided upon by the Congregational churches, and this time the task was entrusted to Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College. Dwight, who was a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, was born in 1752. He entered Yale at the age of thirteen and graduated with highest honors in 1769. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War he was commissioned a chaplain and throughout the conflict he wrote songs to enthuse the American troops. In 1795 351 he was elected president of Yale College, in which position he served his Alma Mater for twenty years.

Dwight exhibited a spirit of bold independence when he added to the revised “Psalms” by Watts a collection of two hundred and sixty-three hymns. Of these hymns, one hundred and sixty-eight were also by Watts, indicating the hold which that great hymnist retained on the English-speaking world. Other hymn-writers represented in Dwight’s book included Stennett, Doddridge, Cowper, Newton, Toplady, and Charles Wesley. Only one of the latter’s hymns was chosen, however, and Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” was not included!

Dwight himself wrote thirty-three paraphrases of the Psalms, but they were so freely rendered that they are properly classified as original hymns. Among these is his splendid version of the 137th Psalm, “I love Thy Zion, Lord,” which may be regarded as the earliest hymn of American origin still in common use today. It is usually dated 1800, which is the year when Dwight’s work was published.

Dwight, who will always be remembered as the outstanding figure in the beginnings of American hymnody, died in 1817. The story of his life is an inspiring one, illustrating how his heroic qualities conquered despite a “thorn in the flesh.” A chronicler records that “during the greater part of forty years he was not able to read fifteen minutes in the twenty-four hours; and often, for days and weeks together, the pain which he endured in that part of the head immediately behind the eyes amounted to anguish.”

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