A Brief Background to the 1876 Hymn-Book

by the Rev. Wilfred Little.

For an understanding of the contribution of Methodism to Christian hymnody an acquaintance with the book published by John Wesley, 1780, entitled A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists is essential.

Previously he had published A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, 1737, printed in Charles-Town, for use by the congregations in his charge in Georgia; a second with that title on return to England, invoiced on that important day 24th May, 1738 and yet another Psalms and Hymns, 1741, which passed through many editions and, enlarged by Dr. Coke, was officially commended by the conference of 1816 to be used at morning worship. In 1753 he published Hymns and Spiritual Songs Intended for the Use of Real Christians of all Denominations, drawn entirely from Hymns and Sacred Poems, published jointly by him and his brother Charles, 1739, 1740 and 1742. This book achieved over thirty editions. His Select Hymns with Tunes Annext, 1761, enlarged in 1765, contained, as he wrote, "some of the best hymns we have printed" and provided a music section, entitled Sacred Melody, which provided a tune for each hymn, indicating John Wesley's care for standards in worship.

But the 1780 Collection is described by Wesley in the Preface as a "little body of experimental and practical divinity" declaring "the heights and depths of religion".

Of this selection of 525 hymns, seven had been written by Isaac Watts, two by Henry More and one each by George Herbert, his father, Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth and the Rev. Samuel Wesley, his elder brother, schoolmaster. Nineteen were his own translations from the German hymns, one from Spanish and one, certainly, at least, edited by him, from the French. The number of original hymns contributed by John is still under debate. Dr. Henry Bett, The Hymns of Methodism, 1945, working from literary criteria, attributed sixteen to him. The rest were undoubtedly by Charles Wesley.

He later published two smaller selections, 1785 (220 hymns) and 1787 (250) under the title A Pocket Hymn Book for the Use of Christians of all Denominations; both had tunes assigned and both adhered to the subject arrangement and aims of the 1780 book.

Editions supervised by Wesley and all, to some extent, revised, appear in 1781, 1782, 1784, 1788 and 1791, although the last may not have come into circulation until after his death on 2nd March. In one instance only did he make a substitution. At No.411 in the 2nd edition, 1781, he replaced the cento beginning "Terrible God and true" with the hymn, "Sinners, the call obey". The 5th edition, 1786, assigned a tune for each hymn, all except three being taken from his Sacred Harmony, 1780/1, thus indicating that he intended it to be the companion tune book.

Following Wesley's death changes were made by the Bookroom. In the edition of 1796 there were nine substitutions, two additions by duplication of numbers, including the hymn by Addison, "When all thy mercies O my God", and twelve others in a section headed Additional Hymns. Seven of these were taken from the Wesley Tract, Hymns on the Lord's Supper. The changes of 1797 were increased to twenty eight substitutions, twelve additions by duplication of numbers, with twenty five under Additional Hymns. Authors included Addison, Hart, Bakewell and William Cowper. The Conference of 1799 intervened, appointing a committee, Drs. Thomas Coke and Adam Clarke, editor George Storey and Henry Moore, to "reduce the book to its primitive simplicity as in the 2nd edition" but granting "discretionary powers" respecting additional hymns. The work was completed in 1803 when all but four of the original hymns were restored and the number of hymns increased to 551.

A revision of 1808 discontinued, except in one instance, the device of duplication of numbers, divided six long hymns into parts, treating each as a separate hymn, providing 561 hymns. Except for the return at No.126 to the original hymn of that number, "Too strong I was to conquer sin" as in M/1780, this selection remained unchanged for 67 years.

Many Methodist churches used Psalms and Hymns, as enlarged by Dr. Coke for morning worship and there was a desire for a single book. More hymns were required for Occasions and for celebration of the Festivals of the Christian Year. A further requirement was a new copyright on account of piratical editions and these considerations led Conference to appoint Revs. Thomas Jackson and Richard Watson, (later joined by Dr. Jabez Bunting) to submit a fuller selection. The result was a Supplement of two hundred and nine hymns, while leaving the parent book virtually untouched. Published and unpublished poems of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts were freely drawn upon; fresh contributors included Ken, Merrick, Dryden, Doddridge, Anne Steele, Toplady, Rhodes and Olivers.

A large committee was appointed in 1874 to prepare the revision and enlargement issued in 1876. The Standard Hymn Book was retained in the form Wesley gave it but each hymn was critically compared with its original and forty nine were either omitted or changed in some particulars. The New Supplement of 487 hymns drew upon the great hymns of the centuries, provided one hundred and two metrical versions or paraphrases of the Psalms and a judicious selection from the contemporary hymnody. One hundred and twenty authors or translators contributed. A tune book was issued in which text and music were printed together.