To understand how hymns became, in the words of one anthologist, "the most widely-known and memorized verbal structures of the eighteenth century," we have to go back two hundred years to the roots of the Reformation in Luther's Germany and Calvin's Geneva. Luther's eagerness for the establishment of a vernacular liturgy was paralleled by his desire to establish a German hymnody. He was, after all, a fine musician in his own right, the composer of one of Protestantism's most famous and lasting hymns, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." As he put it in the preface to one of his hymn-books, "I would fain see all the arts, and music in particular, used in the service of Him who hath given and created them."
There was another arm of reform taking place contemporaneously with Luther's German Protestantism. In Zürich the priest Ulrich Zwingili had independently reached views similar to Luther's. Their theologies differed in some important respects: Zwingili was far more influenced by the rationalism of the Christian humanists than was Luther, whose overriding concern was always the relationship of the individual soul to God. And, of special significance to the development of hymnody, Zwingili rejected the expression of all sensuousness in the liturgy, prominently excluding music from the practice of worship. Zwingili died in battle when five Catholic cantons launched a surprise attack on Zürich, but his reforming spirit was strengthened and extended by John Calvin in Geneva.
Calvin, like Zwingili, believed in the repression of sensual expressions of devotion during worship, but, during the three years he spent in Strasbourg (1538 to 1541), he was much impressed by the chorale there, and became convinced of the benefits of congregational singing. In a restriction of great importance to the rise of the English hymn, Calvin insisted that the only lyrics fit for the liturgy were those of the Psalms of David. Thus, in 1562 the Psautier Huguenot by Calvin and Theodore Beza was published. The so-called Geneva Psalter established the tradition of psalmody in Calvinist and Calvinist-inspired congregations.
Henry VIII of England was no supporter of Luther's reforms; in fact, after publishing a treatise against the Reformation, he was named "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X. He was, however, eager to ensure the primacy of his reign against the encroachments of papal authority. In 1534, when Parliament forbade the payment of annates to Rome, declared the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and proclaimed Henry "Supreme Head of the English Church," the break with Catholicism was complete. In doctrinal matters, however, Henry remained deeply conservative, though he did authorize a vernacular translation of the Bible and succored humanist churchmen who hoped that an English Reformation on the order of Luther's reforms would take hold on the isle. They would find themselves disappointed. When Edward VI, Henry's only male issue, succeeded his father, two new editions of The Book of Common Prayer were issued, one of them, under a Protestant regency, was significantly influenced by Zwingilian theology, particularly in matters pertaining to the sacraments, and the exclusivity of the psalter for corporate worship was preserved.
When the Catholic Mary Tudor acceded to the throne, the position of the English reformers became untenable. Many were martyred and countless others fled to the continent, where they found refuge in Calvinist congregations. Their return, upon the accession of Mary's half-sister Elizabeth in 1558 brought Calvinist ideals--and the Calvinist tradition of psalmody--to the fore. In 1562 the first complete English psalter was published: The Whole Booke of Psalms, Collected into English Metre by T. Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others: Conferred with the Ebrue, with apt notes to sing them withall. This was the famous "Old Version" psalter of Sternhold and Hopkins that would hold sway over English congregational singing until the 18th century.
The Sternhold and Hopkins psalter went through over three hundred editions before 1700. There were other metrical psalters produced during the period--most notably the "New Version" of Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady: A New Version of the Psalms of David. But the "Old Version" retained its primacy in church use. Still, the appearance of other psalters opened the way for what would become scriptural hymnody. The freer paraphrasing of the "New Version," for example, was probably instrumental in establishing an imaginative space for hymns proper. In addition, toward the end of the 17th century, a few scriptural hymns were appearing appended to various psalters. For the most part, however, England remained wed to the Calvinist tradition of psalmody. The emergence of hymnody in English worship has its primary foundations, not in the proliferation of metrical psalms, but in the devotional poetry of the 1600s.
Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan, Herrick, and Donne were as much the forerunners of English hymnody as the metrical psalmists. Herbert's poetry, in particular was well suited for adaptation to what would develop into the hymnal meters. In 1697 there appeared Select Hymns Taken Out of Mr. Herbert's Temple, with a preface expressing that they were for the use of "Private Christians . . . in their Closets or Families" (the explicit disavowal of congregational use is significant). Later, in 1739, John Wesley would produce a hymn-book compiled of translations from German hymns and adaptations of Herbert's devotional poetry. Donne's hymns are well known; his biographer Isaac Walton writes of "Wilt Thou Forgive" that "Donne caused it to be set to a most grave and solemn tune, and to be often sung to the organ by the Choristers of St. Paul's Church in his own hearing."
By the 1690s, the appearance of hymn-books had become commonplace among some of the proliferating Dissenting groups. The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church (and a few of the Calvinist congregations, the General Baptists, for example) held fast to the psalter. But the rise of Evangelical Protestants had created a fertile ground for Isaac Watts's first collection of hymns in 1707, the Hymns and Spiritual Songs.
Watts's Hymns is divided into three parts: the hymns of Part One are based on scriptures; those included in the other two are "Hymns of meer Human Composure," that is, the free expression of a congregational relationship with God. We've come almost full circle to the dawn of the Reformation in Luther's hymns. As we've seen, Watts's verses were anticipated in the England by devotional poetry and by some of the freely paraphrased metrical psalters. Nonetheless, their appearance was an almost revolutionary break with the Calvinist and Roman traditions of strictly regulated corporate worship. Watts soon had his imitators, as well as vociferous detractors. One correspondent to the Gentleman's Magazine wrote that some hymns he quotes "will easily shew, how dangerous it is to give ear to new-fangled notions, and enthusiastic conceit; since we see by these hymns into what degree of nonsensical madness the mind of man may be thrown." It was Watts, ultimately, who set the stage for the explosion of hymnody in the 18th century; without his groundbreaking hymns, the tradition that culminated in the work of the Wesleys, Cowper and Newton, Doddridge, and others might never have taken root.