Hymns and Hymnody

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HYMNS AND HYMNODY. The separatist May-flower Pilgrims brought to Plymouth a book titled The Booke of Psalmes: Englished both in Prose and Metre (1612), by Henry Ainsworth. The Massachusetts Bay Puritans brought with them a version of the 150 psalms by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins. Eventually perceived as too inaccurately translated, in 1636 the Puritans began creating a psalmbook more suited to their ideology. In 1640, The Whole Book of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, eventually known as The Bay Psalm Book, became the first book printed in British America, and marked the beginnings of American psalmody. No tunes were included in the book until the ninth edition, printed in 1698, which had fourteen tunes.

Isaac Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) was reprinted in America in 1739, while his The Psalms of David Imitated (1719), with Watts's free translation of the psalms, was reprinted there in 1729. In 1712, the Reverend John Tufts published his Introduction to the Art of Singing Psalm Tunes, the first music instruction book printed in America. The second edition contained thirty-seven tunes and was bound with The Bay Psalm Book. The Reverend Thomas Prince, pastor of the Old South Church of Boston, significantly revised it; he included fifty hymns, all but eight attributed to Isaac Watts. American hymns before 1720 in the New England Protestant churches were primarily psalms sung in either common meter (composed of stanzas alternating eight and six syllables per line), short meter (two lines of six syllables each, followed by one line of seven syllables and one line of six syllables), or long meter (each line with eight syllables), employing the same few tunes repeatedly. A technique known as lining out, in which a leader would read a line and the congregation would then sing it, was developed in England in the 1600s for a mostly illiterate people who lacked psalmbooks. It evolved in America, assisted by educated New England ministers who had studied music. A controversy developed among colonial churches involving "regular" singing of the psalms as written and the lining out method of singing, eventually giving rise to singing schools. The American singing school movement, begun in New England around 1720, arose from schools organized by local ministers. They later turned into social events held in taverns and private homes. American folk hymns derived from secular folk songs set to sacred texts by rural singing school teachers. John Wyeth's Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second (1813) is the earliest singing school tunebook to contain a significant number of folk hymns. Folk hymns from the oral tradition were published in numerous shape-note tunebooks. These employed diamonds, squares, ovals, and triangles to represent different notes. Two such systems of notation were published, one by William Smith and William Little in 1798 (The Easy Instructor) and one by Andrew Law in 1803 (The Musical Primer). Smith and Little's book, which used staff lines, was the more popular. This system of reading and singing became quite popular, especially in the antebellum South, at least partially because of the publication of John Wyeth's Wyeth's Repository of Sacred Music (1810). Shape-note singing endures as Sacred Harp singing.

The text of many hymns was considered too severe for American children and so compilations of Sunday School songs became quite popular around 1860. They emphasized the joys of heaven, the love of Christ for the person singing, and the satisfaction gained in living the Christian life.

Camp meeting songs, or spirituals, were a type of folk hymn associated with camp frontier meetings of the early and middle 1800s. They drew a broad mix of people from a vast area, including slaves, whose music was an important ingredient in the mix. The songs often employed the text of such well-known hymn writers as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, and were characterized by free rhythms, a chorus, simple harmonic progressions, and the use of minor keys.

By the 1880s, Sunday School songs had given way to the gospel song. The American gospel song developed within the framework of the evangelicalism emerging from the urban north, and was characterized by simplicity, an emphasis on personal experience, the absence of adoration and worship, and an admonition to turn away from sin and sorrow. Gospel songs had fewer stanzas than camp meeting songs, and were always sung in a major key. Frances Jane Crosby was a prolific gospel hymnist, producing more than nine-thousand texts. During the latter half of the twentieth century, gospel hymnody became more popular along with the rise in fundamentalism and Pentecostalism.

Early in the twentieth century, a revival of hymn writing occurred in the United States. Some of the greatest hymns in the English language were written after 1965 during the period known as the New English Renaissance. In 1922, the Hymn Society of America was founded and it continues to encourage the composition of new works. At the turn of the twenty-first century, churches have debated traditional versus contemporary styles of worship, a debate encompassing the types of music used in worship services.


Bealle, John. Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

Ninde, Edward S. The Story of the American Hymn. New York: Abingdon Press, 1921.

Christine E.Hoffman

See alsoBay Psalm Book ; Camp Meetings ; Music: African American, Gospel .