- Dissenting Praise: Religious Dissent and the Hymn in England and Wales
Hymns provide one of the best texts through which to study Protestant spirituality. As the editors observe, “[h]ymns, that is, metrical compositions which depart too far from the text of Scripture to be called paraphrases, have proved to be one of the most effective mediums of religious thought and feeling, second only to the Bible in terms of their influence” (1). This collection of essays, originating as a conference sponsored by the Dr. Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies in London, confirms such a premise. The editors’ introduction frames the contour of the work by delineating the unfolding nature of dissent in England and Wales across the broad spectrum of nonconformity including Puritans, Baptists, Independents, Congregationalists, revival Evangelicals that transformed into Arminian and Calvinistic Methodists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians. “Dissent” is, of course, a broad term referring to English Protestants seeking greater religious tolerance and freedom of control from the Church of England. It was expressed through resistance to worship practices including the use of the Book of Common Prayer, the Christian year, and wearing of vestments. Tracing the historical trajectory by means of hymn texts and tunes, Dissenting Praise offers the reader concrete glimpses into both fidelity and dissent with English Protestant spirituality.
Elizabeth Clarke provides a seventeenth–century foundation for the study in the first chapter. Early nonconformists inherited the tradition of psalm singing that had been the primary diet of Christian worship since its New Testament origins. While hymns of human composition were evident at least by 1646, debate in England continued whether it was appropriate to sing them in public worship. Psalmody was not questioned since it employed the God–inspired biblical words. But hymns, written by human authors, were suspect in many quarters because of their obvious deviation from the biblical text. Additionally, many seventeenth–century dissenters resisted hymns because their usage suggested a belief in the inadequacy of Psalms, that God required the human assistance of hymn writing to enable congregational praise. Some critics unfortunately associated female hymn singing with depravity. However, by the end of the century, there was a growing acceptance of congregational hymn singing, especially in some Baptist churches.
The second chapter explores the significant influence of Isaac Watts on hymnody. The highly respected hymn scholar, J. R. Watson, articulates Watts’s deep appreciation for Scripture that is consistent with the previous generation. Specifically, Watts crafted a balance in his hymns that wed both doctrine and devotion. Faith and love for Watts were instrumental in a proper reading of Scripture. He also displayed an appreciation for metaphors recognizable as an expression of [End Page 317] God’s love to humanity. He therefore linked a deep appreciation of Scripture with a seventeenth–century commitment to the centrality of experience. Not surprisingly, his hymns functioned as a spiritual theology that frequently named the twin experiences of one’s sin and God’s inviting grace.
The next chapter examines Philip Doddridge, another early giant in dissenting hymnody. Unlike Watts, whose frail health often restricted his frequency in preaching, Doddridge initiated the practice of writing hymns to reinforce his sermons. Indeed, many of his early hymns were published in text-only editions without any indication of an appropriate hymn tune. This demonstrates the common practice of meditating on hymns for a person’s private devotion, companion to Scriptural study. Doddridge’s hymns quickly circulated due to their inclusion in his extensive correspondence with others, including George Whitefield.
Chapter Four examines John Rippon, the well–known Baptist hymn editor who reveals a significant transition in dissenting hymnody. Previously a single person authored most hymn collections. Rippon, however, demonstrates the importance of an editor gathering hymns from different sources. He and other editors frequently revised the text to better suit the needs of a particular hymnbook. This was usually related to theological concerns, but it could also include stylistic revision to improve the imagery or metaphors within the text. Rippon...