The debate over “modern” church songs and the “classic hymn” is nothing new. It seems with every generation in the church a new style or genre emerges. For some; new sounds, arrangements, and the artful poetic verbal imagery are welcomed as fresh and contemporary… for others there is a sense of loss for the “classics” which they are so familiar with. While the worship wars have for the most part ceased, we are still faced with music and lyrics that may be “different” than what we grew up with or are use to. This debate is nothing new, it goes all the way back to the late 1600’s.
Up until that time John Calvin had urged his followers to only sing “metrical psalms.” English Protestants followed the same advice. Each Psalm would have a certain number of syllables. This is how the church sang, only Psalms and only one way.
Then in 1674, a little boy was born… Isaac Watts. His father was an imprisoned Pastor because of his sympathies with the Nonconformists, and was later freed. Isaac learned Latin by age 4, Greek at age 9, French that he used to converse with his neighbors at age 11, and Hebrew at age 13. With an opportunity on scholarships to go to Oxford or Cambridge which would have led him to the Church of England, he choose rather to study at a Nonconformist academy.
Isaac was not very impressed with the songs that were sung in church at his time. His father told him that if he didn’t like it, to write his own music…and he did. The first hymn he penned as a teen was “Behold the Glories of the Lamb!” This first song would launch him into writing over 600 hymns, 52 books on theology, and a textbook on logic that would be used in universities for the next 100 years.
Isaac wanted to see more passion and modern connectiveness with those who were singing. He once said, “Where the flights of his faith and love are sublime, I have often sunk the expressions within the reach of an ordinary Christian.” He wanted all people to be able to sing, not just the pious and educated of his time.
By composing hymns that while rooted in scripture, were not “exactly” scripture as was the Churches tradition of his time, he was harshly criticized. Someone once said, “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts’ flights of fancy,” protested one detractor. Others dubbed the new songs “Watts’ whims.”
While Watt’s never rejected the metrical Psalms of his day, he sought to bring a modern view and vocabulary to the common people for congregational singing. This is a great lesson for us. Worship is not better because it is old, and it is not better because it is new. We need both. We should honor our roots and foundations, as well as reach forward with new songs of praise, Psalm 33:3, Psalm 40:3, Psalm 98:1.
As Worship leaders and song writers, we should strive to write and share songs that are worthy of singing again and again, and have a longer shelf life than the “latest hit worship song.” Isaac surely did this.
He would go on to Pastor London’s Mark Lane Independent Church, but would battle with psychiatric problems towards the end of his life, and would die a life long bachelor, who was once rejected because of his “homely” and frail appearance. Isaac’s life and ministry was not in vain. He would leave lessons and a legacy.
Isaac would leave us over 600 hymns, 52 books on theology, and a textbook on logic that would be used in universities for the next 100 years. He would write the first ever Children’s Hymnal, would have his works published by Benjamin Franklin in the United Sates, and would be called by John Wesley, “a genius.”
Whether we are singing the “hymns” of old or hymns of our day, as long as they sing of the glories of the gospel, the worth of the Son, the promise of forgiveness, the cross, and the blood, and remind us of our home in heaven, we will do well to sing with all our hearts!
May Isaac’s observation of some churches in his time, not be said of ours…”To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”
The next time you sing, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” “Alas, and did my Savior bleed?” or “Joy to the world,” remember from whence these songs were wrought and savor the Savior to whom we sing!