Great Eighteenth-Century Hymnists

Two men from the eighteenth century have had a more comprehensive influence on church music in the ensuing ages than any others, with the possible exception of Johann Sebastian Bach. They are Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.

Watts (1674-1748) is actually considered the father of English hymnody. Born in Southampton, England, he was a precocious child who learned to read almost as soon as he could speak and wrote verses while still a young boy. He was firmly attached to the principles of the Nonconformists, for which his father had suffered imprisonment, and was therefore compelled to decline the advantages of the great English universities, which at that time received only Church of England students. He attended instead of the Dissenting academy in London. In 1705 he published his first volume of poems, Horae Lyricae, which was widely praised. His Hymns and Spiritual Songs appeared in 1707; Psalms, in 1719; and Divine Songs for Children, in 1720. He became pastor of an Independent Church in London in 1702 but was so frail due to ill health that much of the time the work of the parish was done by an assistant. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Wesley (1708-1788) has been called “the poet of Methodism.” Born in Epworth, England in 1707 he was educated at Westminster School and Oxford University, where he took his degree in 1728. It was while a student at Christ Church College that Wesley and a few associates, by strict attention to duty and exemplary conduct, won for themselves the derisive epithet of “Methodists.” He was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1735, and that same year he sailed with his brother John as a missionary to Georgia. They soon returned to England. He was not converted, according to his own convictions, until Whitsunday, May 21, 1738. On that day he received a conscious knowledge of sins forgiven, and this event was the real beginning of his mission as the singer of Methodism. His hymns can generally be classified as hymns of Christian experience (“O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”); invitation hymns (“Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast”); sanctification hymns (“O for a Heart to Praise My God”); funeral hymns (“Rejoice for a Brother Deceased”); and hymns on the love of God (“Wrestling Jacob”). He was not a singer alone, but as an itinerant preacher, he was a busy and earnest co-laborer with his brother. After his marriage, in 1749, his itinerant labors were largely restricted to London and Bristol. Incredibly he wrote more than 6,500 hymns.

Impact: Their hymns have encouraged believers and spread the Gospel message for more than two centuries.

Matt Price

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