Before Watts and Wesley, Protestants pretty much sang only Psalms.
During the 1750s members of the only Presbyterian congregation in New York City argued continually among themselves about whether they ought to replace their Scottish Psalter with Isaac Watts’ hymns. A century later other groups were still unsettled over the issue: Dutch immigrants in Holland, Michigan, separated themselves from the denomination they had joined because this group used a “collection of 800 hymns, introduced contrary to church order.” “We are obliged to give you notice of our present ecclesiastical standpoint,” the immigrants wrote, “namely, separating ourselves from your denomination, together with all Protestant denominations with which we have thoughtlessly become connected upon our arrival in America.”
Why such strong feeling about the singing of psalms? Much of the fervor stems back to John Calvin himself. Calvin wrote: “When we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him” (“Epistle to the Reader,” in The Form of Church Prayers). The Reformer also helped implement the singing of psalms by vigorously promoting the Genevan Psalter, the grandfather of most later Presbyterian and Reformed psalters. (Ironically, Calvin was not quite as consistent as some of his followers: he included a number of non-psalm items, such as the canticles and the Apostles’ Creed, in his psalter.)
But the First Pretty Good Awakening needed songs with more ummph and so Wesley and Watts rapidly supplied songs designed to move singers to experience God and summon up the energy to convert.
Watts not only wrote hymns, but also paraphrases of Psalms. One of his most popular was O God, Our Help in Ages Past, a hymn based loosely on Psalm 90. Whenever I sing it, especially the fifth verse, I can’t help but think of Opening Day in Major League Baseball. Given the Phillies’ prospects this year, I should likely sing Watts’ hymn no matter how the Fightin’s do today against the Reds.
5 Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
soon bears us all away;
we fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.