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Brand New Edition of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Editor's Note: D&T Press just republished the classic work Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts for a modern audience as part of our Old Hymns New project. Order your copy today! The following is the introduction to the hymnal written by Matt Boswell.

“Through his hymns, his flock apprehended biblical truth with both mind and spirit. Watts’ theology became their theology; his doxology became their doxology.” [1]

Watts Dust Jacket Proof 1Hymns play an indispensable role in Christian spirituality. As portable doctrinal confessions, hymns help shape and articulate our theology. As doxological expressions, hymns provide the range of language of praise and prayer, lament and petition. Church history has built a storehouse of hymnody filled with truths for us to discover and treasures for us to find. Our current practice of hymnwriting adds to the riches left by men and women who expressed both their doctrine and piety using melody and meter, poetry and rhyme.

The eighteenth century in Britain was the golden age of hymnody [2]. In the wake of the Reformation, men and women wrote new hymns marked by the doctrines and piety of the Reforming and reviving church in order to teach the recovered tenets of our faith. Pulpits heralded the doctrines of the Reformation, but the wings of song carried the doctrines to the people.

No hymnwriter since the Reformation has been as prolific in his writing and impact as Isaac Watts, called the Father of English Hymnody. His Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs provided the hymns of the post-Reformation movement of churches. In fact, Watts wrote most of his hymns as an extension of his pastoral ministry at Marks Lane Chapel in London. Watts’ contribution echoed throughout the world, and indeed we still see the effects of his work in church meetings today. Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, the hymnal you now hold, exists as both a body of poetry and a canon of hymns, displaying the simplicity and beauty at which Watts aimed in helping people grow in their love for Jesus Christ.

The Old Hymns New initiative will republish a series of historic hymnals that influenced the worship and devotional practices of the church in order to renew the voices found within these hymnals. Many years have passed since their original publication, but we hope to revive interest in the historic songs of our faith and to serve Christians in the work of spiritual formation.

As a point of introduction to these historic hymnals, you will notice that there is no written music on its pages; rather, you will see what looks like a collection of poetry. In the early eighteenth century, hymnals didn’t contain music—simply the hymn text. Most congregations collectively knew a handful of melodies written in a traditional meters, so it was relatively easy to add new words to a trusted melody. Above each hymn you will find the phrases “long meter,” short meter,” or “common meter,” instructions to singers on the hymn’s rhythm. The meter is the number of syllables per line of the verse: meter rhymes are 8,8,8,8 (long meter); 6,6,8,6: short meter, and 8,6,8,6: common meter.

As you delve into the pages of this rich poetry, I pray that you will be blessed by the songs within, that Watts’ theology will shape your theology; that his doxology will impact your doxology.

[1] Douglas Bond, The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts (Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2013), 46.
[2] Louis F. Benson, The English Hymn: Its Development and Use in Worship (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1915), 213.