The Golden Age of Hymns: A Gallery of the Hymn Writers' Hall of Fame
The poets who put words in our mouths.
July 1, 1991
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
The homely scholar who moved congregational singing into a new era
Ye monsters of the bubbling deep
Your Master’s praises spout;
Up from the sands ye docclings peep,
and wag your tails about.
Such was the state of psalm singing in churches when Isaac Watts was young. He complained about the quality of the songs, and his father challenged him to write something better. The following week Isaac—about age 20—presented his first hymn to the church and received an enthusiastic response. The career of the “Father of English Hymnody” had begun.
At Isaac’s birth in 1674, his father was in prison for his Nonconformist sympathies (that is, he would not embrace the established Church of England). Young Isaac showed genius, studying Latin, French, Greek, and Hebrew by age 13. Several wealthy townspeople offered to pay for his university education, which would, however, lead him into Anglican ministry. Isaac refused and at 16 went to London to study at a leading Nonconformist academy. Upon graduation, he spent six years as a private tutor. In 1702 he became pastor of an influential Independent church in London, which he served for the rest of his life.
Described as slight, pale, and somewhat homely, Watts suffered rejection from a Miss Elizabeth Singer. One source says that “though she loved the jewel, she could not admire the casket [case] which contained it.”
Serious illness in 1712 brought Watts to the home of Sir Thomas Abney, and there he remained for life, tutoring the children and pastoring his nearby church when he was physically able. Poor health caused him to abandon the ministry for about four years, but he pastored for fifty and was admired as a teacher.
In 1707 Watts published a collection of 210 hymns, entitled Hymns and Spiritual Songs, one of the first English hymnals. Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament came in 1719. Watts considered that the psalms “ought to be translated in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day.”
He thus composed freer translations that emphasized the gospel. “Joy to the World,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “I Sing the Almighty Power of God” are just a few of his 600 hymns. Watts wrote “Jesus Shall Reign,” the first “missionary” hymn, decades before the modern missionary movement. He actually moved church singing into a new era.
Watts was a scholar of wide reputation. He wrote nearly thirty theological treatises; essays on psychology, astronomy, and philosophy; three volumes of sermons; the first children’s hymnal; and a textbook on logic that was used at Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge. For his work, the University of Aberdeen conferred the Doctor of Divinity degree upon him.
After battling illness for his last thirty years, Watts died in 1748. A monument was erected in Westminster Abbey. Samuel Johnson observed: “Few men have left behind such purity of character or such monuments of laborious piety.”
John Newton (1725–1807)
A “wretch” who found “Amazing Grace!”
John Newton was nurtured by a devoted Christian mother who dreamed that her only son would become a preacher. But she died when John was a child, and he followed his sea-captain father to a sailor’s life. John didn’t care for the discipline of the Royal Navy: he deserted ship, was flogged, and eventually was discharged.
He then headed for regions where he could “sin freely,” and ended up on the western coast of Africa, working for a slave trader who mistreated him. Newton’s life during that period bore the appearance of a modern Prodigal Son’s: “a wretched looking man toiling in a plantation of lemon trees in the Island of Plaintains … clothes had become rags, no shelter and begging for unhealthy roots to allay his hunger.” After more than a year of such treatment, he managed to escape from the island, in 1747.
The following year his ship was battered by a severe storm. Newton had read The Imitation of Christ,, and during the life-threatening voyage he became a Christian.
Ironically, Newton then served as captain of a slave ship for six years. He gradually came to abhor slavery and later crusaded against it.
Newton became greatly influenced by George Whitefield and the Wesleys. He married his long-time sweetheart and began studying for the ministry and preaching in whatever vacant building he could procure. Known as the “old converted sea captain,” he attracted large audiences. He was ordained within the Anglican Church, and in 1764 he took a curacy in Olney.
Newton felt dissatisfied with the hymns of the traditional psalter. He began writing his own, many autobiographical in nature, including “Amazing Grace!.”
He also befriended poet William Cowper, and they collaborated to produce Olney Hymns, which became the standard hymnal of evangelical Anglican churches. The hymnal, which includes Newton’s hymns “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” was reprinted in England and America for the next century.
In his old age, it was suggested that Newton retire because of bad health and failing memory. He replied, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!”
William Cowper (1731–1800)
Despite recurring mental illness, he wrote hymns on God’s providence.
William Cowper’s poetic achievements are remarkable in light of the fact that mental illness plagued him all his life.
The son of the chaplain to King George II, William worked as a lawyer for several years. At age 32, he was nominated to a position that required a public examination. He grew fearful of that and tried to commit suicide three times—and nearly succeeded. During his stay of eighteen months in the asylum at St. Albans, however, Cowper was converted while reading Romans.
After his release, Cowper resided in Huntingdon with the family of a Reverend Unwin. Upon Unwin’s death, John Newton came to comfort the family, and he convinced Mrs. Unwin, her children, and Cowper to move to Olney where he lived.
The period at Olney was a time of healing and spiritual growth for Cowper. Newton urged Cowper to serve Olney’s poor, probably in an effort to take Cowper’s mind off his depressions, poor health, paranoia, and fears of damnation. He also convinced Cowper to write hymns for the parish’s prayer meetings. The result was Olney Hymns (1779), which contained 348 hymns—68 by Cowper, who suffered a relapse and was unable to finish his work.
Three of his best-known works are “There Is a Fountain,” “Safely through Another Week,” and “O for a Closer Walk with God.” His famous hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” was written about the time of another bout of mental illness, during which Cowper again attempted suicide. Despite this, John Newton said of him, “I can hardly form an idea of a closer walk with God than he uniformly maintained.”
Cowper did not begin his literary career until age 50. His translations of Homer and poems such as “John Gilpin” placed him at the forefront of English poets, and it is the literary Cowper now listed in reference books.
But perhaps Cowper’s most meaningful works were the hymns written during fits of despair. It is said that on his deathbed he stated, “I am not shut out of heaven after all.”
Anne Steele (Theodosia) (1716–1779)
The disabled woman who became “by far the most gifted Baptist hymn writer” of her day
Anne Steele was the eldest daughter of William Steele, Baptist pastor at Broughton, England. Anne was baptized into her father’s church at 14 and early demonstrated a gift for writing.
But many misfortunes beset young Anne’s life. Her mother died. As a teenager, a fall from a horse rendered her permanently invalid. Just hours before their wedding ceremony, her fiance drowned in the river where he was bathing. This final painful incident probably gave rise to one of her best-known hymns, “Father: Whate’er of Earthly Bliss.”
Steele, who spent most of her days in the quiet seclusion of her father’s house, has been described as “cultured, pious, and beautiful.” Her father’s diary noted on a November day in 1757, when she was 41, that “Nanny sent part of her composition to London, to be printed. I entreat a gracious God, who enabled, and stirred her up to such a work … to make it useful, and keep her humble.” Perhaps it was this emphasis on humility that compelled “Nanny” to write under a pen name, “Theodosia.” The proceeds of all her works were donated to charity.
Anne Steele never married, and her already feeble health was aggravated by the shock of her father’s death in 1769. Despite her many trials, Steele wrote 144 hymns and 34 psalm versions. She published Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional in two volumes in 1760, and a third was produced after her death. Her hymns received wide acceptance, and her poems were reprinted in America. More than a century after her death, it was written that she “stands at the head” of Baptist hymn writers.
James Montgomery (1771–1854)
Often in jail, this activist wrote “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”
In 1818, the inhabitants of the Georgian Isles in the South Seas turned from their worship of idols to the Christian faith. The London Missionary Society thought it appropriate that special hymns be written in honor of this milestone. “Hark! The Song of Jubilee” was one of those hymns, authored by James Montgomery.
This controversial newspaper editor had long championed foreign missions and Bible distribution. His passion had personal roots; James’s parents had given their lives for the gospel in the West Indies.
James had once studied to be a missionary, attending a Moravian seminary in London. He found poetry, however, more absorbing than his studies.
Not long after the sudden death of both parents on the mission field, James left school and began to cultivate his literary gifts. At age 23 he was appointed editor of the weekly Sheffield Register in London, a position he would hold for thirty-one years.
Montgomery became an activist for numerous causes, particularly the abolition of slavery. His radical views earned him fines and imprisonment on at least two occasions. In 1797 he published a collection of poems written behind bars, Prison Amusements.
Eventually his philanthropic and literary achievements were recognized; he was invited to lecture at the Royal Institution and received an annual pension from the British government.
Montgomery is best remembered for more than 400 hymns, most of them written in the early 1770s when he was serving as a pastor in Liverpool. A few came later, such as “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” which first appeared as a poem in his newspaper on Christmas Eve of 1816. He published his collection as Montgomery’s Original Hymns.
Many hymnologists give him a place after Watts and Wesley, and a substantial number of his works are still in use, particularly in Baptist hymnals.
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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