Isaac Watts (1674-1748). With Charles
Wesley, among the greatest hymnodists England ever produced. Born
into a family of Dissenters, he refused scholarships to Cambridge
and Oxford rather than pledge his allegiance to the Church of England.
His dislike of the Old Version metrical psalter (he wanted
to rescue "the noble Psalmist out of the butcherly hands of Sternhold
and Hopkins") led him to compose The Psalms of David Imitated &c.
His 1707 Hymns and Spiritual Songs was instrumental in enlarging
the prospect of English corporate worship from psalmody to hymnody.
When I Survey
the Wondrous Cross
Charles Wesley (1707-1788). Easily
the most prolific of all English hymn writers, author of almost 9,000
hymns in some fifty volumes, the most famous and lasting of which
is the 1780 Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists.
O Thou Traveller Unknown
John Wesley (1703-1791) was ordained
a priest of the Church of England in 1728. "Methodism" was a term of
disparagement applied to a group of Oxonian students led by Wesley,
his brother Charles, and George Whitfield. During a 1735 expedition
to Georgia with General Oglethorpe, Wesley was deeply influenced by
the pietism of the Moravians, at one point during the stormy Atlantic
passage joining them in singing their hymns and praying. At a meeting
of Dissenters at Aldersgate, London in 1738, Wesley famously "felt his
heart strangely warmed," and soon began preaching to groups in
open-air settings. Though it was never his intention to found a church,
or even a sect within the Anglican Church, toward the end of his life
the Methodist Episcopal Church was established in America, and Wesley
made arrangements for the continuation of Methodist "Societies" in England.
Wesley thought the Old Version metrical psalms of Sternhold and
Hopkins to be "wretched, scandalous doggerel." His collaboration with
his brother Charles in producing an immense number of hymns was primarily
one of translator and editor.
Two contemporary etchings of Methodist
meetings among riotous crowds. In the lower representation the figure
at the left-front is a Methodist "preacher" being attacked. English
uneasiness with the enthusiasm inspired by the evangelicals was a
central feature of early Methodism. Hymns, as Charles Wesley wrote,
"are a means of raising or quickening the spirit of devotion, of confirming
. . . faith, of inlivening . . . hope, and kindling or increasing
. . . love to God and man." Much of English society was ill-disposed
toward the fervor that hymns could inspire.
Philip Doddridge (1702-1751). Had it not been for his friend Job Orton's
posthumous collection, most of Doddridge's hymns might never have
seen the light of day. Born into a family of non-Conformists, he,
like Isaac Watts, refused an offer to attend Oxford and enter the
service of the Church of England. Doddridge was a close friend of
the Wesleys and an admirer of Watts' hymns. In Orton's collection,
Hymns Founded on Various Texts in the Holy Scriptures, each
hymn is collated with a Bible passage, though few are paraphrases
of the kind he would have known from Sternhold and Hopkins. Rather,
it seems that the hyms were to be sung after a sermon on the text.
The Olney home of William Cowper
(1731-1800). (The façade dates from the 19th century.)
Cowper moved to Olney for the expressed purpose of worshiping within
the flock of John Newton, who served Olney as curate: "I want to be
with the Lord's People, having great Need of quickening Intercourse
and the Communion of his Saints." Cowper's yard and Newton's
were next to one another, and, as Newton wrote, "for near twelve years
we were seldom separated for seven hours at a time." Newton was strictly
Calvinist in his theology of election and preterition, unlike the
Wesleys, who held to the Arminian position that grace is available
to any who sincerely seek it. (It seems unfortuanate that Cowper,
whose periodic madness hinged upon the accessiblity of grace, would
have followed Newton on this point.) The Olney Hymns' 348 selections
contain sixty-seven hymns by Cowper; the remainder are by Newton.
John Newton (1725-1807), was a
former slave trader whose conversion was thorough and profound, almost
a case study of the sort one might find in Varieties of Religious
Experience. In 1748, during a violent storm at sea, he suddenly
found himself touched by the grace of God. A few years later he left
the seafaring life and was ordained in June of 1764, after which he
took the curateship at Olney. When his friend and collaborator William
Cowper declined into madness, he completed the Olney Hymns
alone. At eighty-two, his mind failing, he said, "I can remember two
things: that I am a very great sinner, and that the grace of God extends
even unto me." Newton wrote what is undoubtedly the most famous hymn
in the language: "Amazing Grace."
William Cowper (1731-1800), coauthor, with John Newton, of the Olney
Hymns. Throughout his life Cowper was afflicted with an intermittent
madness manifested in a belief that he was irretriveably damned. After
attempting suicide in 1763, he was confined to an institution at St.
Albans, where, as Newton wrote, on "the 26th July 1764 . . .
the Lord brought him out of the horrible pit and miry clay, set his
feet upon a Rock and put a New Song into his mouth." Most of his contributions
to the Olney Hymns were written in 1771 and 1772. In 1773 his
madness reasserted itself, and, after a dream in which he heard the
words pronounced: "Actum est de te periisti" (It is finished with
you; you have perished), he thought himself irrevocably damned, and
never again professed his faith, or even set foot in church.
a Closer Walk with God
Anne Steele (1717-1778). It's perhaps significant that I've
been unable to find a portrait of Anne Steele, though at least one
historian of 18th-century hymnody (Hoxie Neale Fairchild in Religious
Trends in English Poetry [New York, 1942]) calls her "the all-time
champion Baptist hymn-writer of either sex." Born into a family of
Particular Baptists--distinguished from the General Baptists by their
adherance to the doctrines of election and predestination--Steele
led a retired life after her fiancé drowned the day before
their marriage. Writing under the pen name Theodosia, she produced
two volumes of Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional (1760),
which included verses in Augustan couplets in addition to many in
Whate're of Earthly Bliss
Where it all began: the frontispiece to a 1619 edition of The Whole
Booke of Psalmes, by Sternhold and Hopkins. Below is an image of
one of the Psalms.
(Thanks to Michael Morgan for the loan of a Sternhold