« Prev The Eighteenth Century Next »

The Eighteenth Century

In spite of the fact that Luther had little influence on English literature in the early Reformation his hymns came to their own in England in the middle of the XVIIIth century. In the meantime, although the English people used the stern canons of Calvin, they began to feel the want of a more lyric hymn. While German Protestantism had developed at once a rich hymnody there was actually no English hymnody until the XVIIIth century. Isaac Watts, a representative of the English Independents, may be justly considered the real founder of modern English hymnody. He was the first to understand the nature of the want, and by the publication of his Hymns in 1707-1709 and Psalms (hymns founded on psalms) he led the way in providing for this want. His immediate followers were Simon Browne and Doddridge; and later in the century Grigg, Miss Steele, Beddome and Swain succeeded them. Of these writers Watts and Doddridge are certainly preeminent, the hymns of the former are of unusual fervor and strong simplicity, and those of Doddridge while perhaps more artificial in general than those of his predecessor Watts are nevertheless distinguished by their graceful style.

About 1738 came the "Methodist" movement which afterward became divided into three sects, the Arminian under John Wesley, those who adhered to the Moravians,115115The Moravians were a vigorous religious cult established in Herrnhut, Saxony. and the Calvinists of whom Whitfield was the leader. Each of these factions had its own hymn writers, some of whom did, and others did not, secede from the Church of England. These are the years when a renewed strong current of influence from Germany is felt. The translation movement first sprang up in the middle of this century when Count Zinzendorf and A. G. Spangenberg came to England116116In 1737 and 1741, respectively. and established a branch of the Moravian Church there. The Gesangbuch, the first of the hymn books for the congregation at Herrnhut, had been published in 1735 by Count Zinzendorf. The Moravians in England began to translate many of the hymns contained in the German Moravian Hymn Book.117117Cf. p. 11. 31 These translations, however, were for the most part poor, mere doggerel, but in later editions they were somewhat improved, especially in the one revised in the XlXth century by James Montgomery, the well known hymn writer, who was for a long time a member of the English Moravian Church. Among these many English hymn writers at this time whether writing entirely from English sources, or influenced by German ideas and philosophily or merely translators of the German hymn, the Wesley brothers are deserving of the first place.

After determining upon missionary lives John and Charles Wesley embarked on October 14, 1735, for the new colony of Georgia. Among their fellow passengers were twenty-six Moravian colonists, who in all the changes of weather, especially during storms, made a great deal of hymn singing. John Wesley was much impressed with the fervor and piety of these hymns and with their spiritual possibilities. One of the German sources which had great influence upon Wesleyan hymnody was Freylinghausen's Geist-reiches Gesang-Buch (Halle 1704 and 1714). John Wesley introduced hymn singing into the "companies" formed in Georgia and his first hymn book appeared as a Collection of Psalms and Hymns. Charles-Town 1737, without his name. Of the seventy lyrics in the book, one half are from Watts, fifteen of the remainder are hymns of the Wesleys, five of which were translated from the German by John Wesley. In his third collection printed in England in 1750 the immediate impression the hymns produce is that of foreignness because of the many lengthy stanzas and the unusual metres. The reason for this is the fact that the authorities insisted that the melodies sung at Herrnhut be kept, irrespective of the language in which they might be sung. Although Charles Wesley knew no German, and therefore derived his impressions of the Moravian hymnody indirectly, nevertheless he caught much of its tone and manner and its atmosphere of confiding love. In all he wrote about 6500 hymns, through a large portion of which may be traced this Moravian influence.

Of great value to English hymnody are the contributions of the Calvinistic Methodists, and few writers of hymns have had higher gifts than A. M. Toplady, the author of "Rock of Ages." His hymns have the same warmth, richness and spirituality as German hymns, and are meditations after the German manner, owing direct obligation to German originals. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century came the practice of hymnodists of altering without scruple the compositions of other men, notably Latin and German hymn writers, to suit their own doctrines and tastes, with the result all too often of spoiling the originals thus altered, though English hymnody was undoubtedly enriched by this process of adaptation.

« Prev The Eighteenth Century Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection