Saturday, February 11, 2012

Saturday in Epiphany 5: The Father of English Hymnody

Opening Sentence
From the rising of the sun to its setting my Name shall be great among the nations, and in every place incense shall be offered to my Name, and a pure offering; for my Name shall be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 1:11

Collect of the Day
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known o us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Psalter: Psalm 87, 90

Lessons: Genesis 29:1-20, Romans 14, John 8:47-59

Isaac Watts is remembered today as "the Father of English Hymnody." Poetically gifted, he began complaining at an early age about the lack of spirited singing in the Congregational churches in which his father preached. When his father suggested he write some better songs, Watts eagerly obliged. Ultimately, he penned over 600 hymns, mostly based on the Psalms in keeping with his Congregationalist heritage.

As a dissenter from the Church of England, Watts's father had spent many years in prison because his views did not align with those of the reigning monarch. Under Queen Anne, however, the dissenters had been tolerated and Watts's father had been given his freedom. When the queen died without an heir in 1714, Watts was understandably concerned. A succession controversy was bound to arise and Watts feared a new monarch might re-institute a policy of non-toleration. Turning, as he often did, to the Psalms for comfort, he fell upon Psalm 90, a song attributed to Moses in which God is praised for being "our dwelling place in all generations." God, said this Psalm, was our help in ages past and our hope for years to come. Standing above time, he remains the one constant in an ever-changing world, the eternal refuge for those in every generation who put their trust in him.

The rest, as they say, is history. From that Psalm, Watts penned the hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past."

The tune most often associated with Watts's text, interestingly enough, is "St. Anne" by William Croft, named in honor of the cathedral in which he then served as organist.

(JAG)

O God, Our Help in Ages Past