The Unquiet Hymnbook in the Early United States

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Christopher N. Phillips

It’s not much to look at. Just over 13 centimeters tall, wrapped in a rough paper over scaleboard and a cheap leather spine (the paperback binding of early America), this book wasn’t even allowed to stay in the local historical society that glued shelf-marks to its cover. And yet Divine Hymns, or Spiritual Songs; For the Use of Religious Assemblies and Private Christians (New London, Conn., 1797) was an engine of social and cultural change, alongside tens of thousands of similar copies and hundreds of titles that flooded the Anglophone print market of the later eighteenth century. Those ubiquitous volumes were hymnbooks, words-only collections of a new kind of worship text that spent the eighteenth century migrating from a private devotional context to the heart of the Sunday church service. Only almanacs were produced in greater numbers; only Bibles were read more often. Yet we have been slow to recognize the historical role of these books that seemed to be everywhere, leaving them in the background of our understandings of religion, print, reading, and identity. As it turns out, many of our stories of reading, piety, and secularization (among others) can look quite different once hymnbooks are given their due.

Much of the hymnbook’s success in the latter half of the eighteenth century lies in a central tension in the genre: while the book’s various texts could fire the emotions, its paratexts—stanzas, numbering systems, indices—gave a collective sense of control, of system, and thus of rationality. In this sense, the hymnbook exerted its influence at the cutting edge of secularism in an age of both revival and reason. These books were unquiet, in the sense developed by Colin Jager, containing and distributing energies and emotions in their texts and the performances they afforded; these energies resisted control or explanation. As Jager argues, “a simple but crucial fact” often neglected in studies of early American and transatlantic religion is “that secularism is not first and foremost about religion but concerns instead power.” As religious change in the eighteenth century led to “new forms of social significance,” Jager writes, those forms readily appeared in “noisy” or “unquiet” ways, from large revival meetings to heightened individual affect.[1] And few religious practices in early America were as noisy as hymn-singing.

While singing was always a central worship practice among Reformed Protestants, from Anglicans to Huguenots to Baptists, the Book of Psalms was the congregational repertoire across the spectrum. As John Mason and Isaac Watts began to introduce contemporary, human-authored hymns into public worship in the early eighteenth century, even ministers who advocated for reform in singing practices rejected the new songs untethered by strict adherence to biblical source texts. Could clergy seriously entertain opening the floodgates of personal expression into the worship service?

George Whitefield and the Wesleys did much to lead the evangelical movement to answer “yes” to that question, using hymns widely in their preaching and church-planting efforts. Yet the Methodists’ reputation for lower-class membership and for public displays of emotion that often embarrassed their beholders gave a social stigma to hymns. A text that allowed the individual to voice his or her deeply held, possibly erotic emotions amidst a crowd of others was not so much unorthodox as unseemly; it was a major reason Misty Anderson identifies for eighteenth-century attacks on Methodistic excess.[2] Hymns went from a fringe practice of questionable orthodoxy to a mass practice of compromised respectability. To sing “Jesus, lover of my soul, / Let me to thy bosom fly” in mixed company was more than many Protestant leaders could handle.

By 1790, widespread adoption of hymns had become a foregone conclusion in most denominations, and the next decades would see the dual efforts of church authorities to standardize hymnody by publishing official hymnbooks and the proliferation of privately produced collections of texts locally and internationally sourced. Denominational seals of approval, doctrinally and liturgically organized sections, and the seeming uniformity of printed, numbered texts in a common book were all means of containing the inquietude of hymns. In this way, following Jager’s argument, these more official hymnbooks were more secular than their predecessors and competitors, even as they were still meant to give congregations and clergy what they wanted out of a worship experience. Divine Hymns inhabited an uneasy space between the secularity of officially sanctioned hymnbooks and the noisy books of revival and lay piety. While the book is known to have been adopted for worship services in at least one Maine church, the preferred use seems to have been for less formal prayer services, judging by the small, cheap, plentiful editions as well as by the texts they contained (including “Jesus, lover of my soul”).

Edited by New Hampshire Baptist lay preacher Joshua Smith (and likely one or more collaborators), Divine Hymns appeared in nearly twenty editions between 1791 and 1816, all produced outside major urban print centers and none of them textually identical to any of the others. Unnamed compilers, possibly also the publishers of various editions, took away some texts and added others with great freedom, even as Smith’s name remained (alone or with others’) on the title pages.

Hymn texts came from everywhere in the eighteenth century, and with a lack of authorial attribution in most books, compilers and church leaders often struggled to balance what was popular with what was (to their minds) appropriate. And the inappropriate could take surprising shapes:

Through all this world below,

God we see all around,

Search hills and vallies through,

There he’s found.

In growing fields of corn,

The lilly and the thorn,

The pleasant and forlorn,

All declare God is there;

In meadows drest in green,

There he’s seen.[3]

This hymn to creation, of unknown authorship and headed in the book with the odd title “Honor to the Hills,” was reprinted in numerous northern and southern Baptist collections after first appearing the 1794 Norwich, Connecticut edition of Divine Hymns. By the nineteenth century, however, it was generally pushed to sections or books of “spiritual songs,” ones popular during prayer meetings but considered unfit for church services by the books’ compilers (a distinction Divine Hymns doesn’t make). The reason why “Through all this world below” would be classified this way was its meter, or more precisely, a famous tune that matched the unusual meter, using some version of these words:

My name was Robert Kidd,

When I sailed, when I sailed,

My name was Robert Kidd,

When I sailed.

My name was Robert Kidd,

God’s laws I did forbid,

And so wickedly I did

When I sailed, when I sailed,

And so wickedly I did,

When I sailed.[4]

Needless to say, many ministers (and congregants) balked at the idea that a song written to the tune of the most famous pirate ballad of the age—and that had spawned a dizzying array of stanzas recounting deeds from the naughty to the bloodthirsty—was something that could be brought into church. The notes of “Captain Kidd” were not welcome in Sunday mouths.

“Through all the world below” is far less common, even among noisier revival collections, than “Jesus, lover of my soul”; if Methodists were unseemly associates for many Protestant leaders, pirates were more so. The presumed whiteness of these others, though, raised questions as a growing number of hymn-singers—and hymn-composers—came from African-American and Native American communities. If pirates were so problematic, could Indians be welcome? The living body of a praying Indian would likely have turned heads in many white New England congregations in the 1790s, but the dozens of communities that enjoyed Divine Hymns welcomed, usually unaware, the brainchild of a Native American into their homes, hands, and voices. While the many editions of Divine Hymns tended to include only about 200 texts each and collectively included over 600 different hymns, they all shared a core of texts from a surprising source: the Mohegan Presbyterian Samson Occom’s A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1774).

Occom’s hymnbook, developed for the use of his congregants in the “Praying Indian” towns of New England, achieved widespread regional popularity, both as a whole (it went through four editions by the time he died in 1792) and in pieces, with several texts moving from his collection into the later southern and western repertoires of books like the Sacred Harp (1844) and Southern Harmony (1835). Over 100 texts in Occom’s Choice Collection appeared in the first edition of Smith’s Divine Hymns, and that number stayed consistent at least through the 1790s, with Occom’s name even appearing alongside Smith’s on some imprints. Like many others, the 1797 New London, Connecticut edition also included a hymn written by Occom:

Thro’out our Saviour’s life we trace

Nothing but shame and deep disgrace;

No period else was seen,

Till he a spotless victim fell,

Tasting in soul a painful hell,

Caus’d by the creature sin.

A crown of thorns his temples bore,

His back with lashes all was tore,

Till one the bones might see!

Mocking they push’d him here and there,

Marking his way with blood and tears,

Press’d by sin’s heavy tree.[5]

Joanna Brooks has pointed out the importance of the image of Christ being “push’d…here and there” as evidence that Occom intended his Native congregations to identify with the suffering of displacement as well as of bodily harm that Christ endured. She also notes the use of “beautiful path” elsewhere in the hymn as central to a uniquely Native Christian spirituality, where Christ’s life and passion become a guide and companion for the individual believer’s own spiritual story. It may be surprising to a twenty-first-century reader that white New England Baptists should also be so taken by such a graphic liturgical depiction of Christ’s body in pain, but that of the Divine Hymns in this edition and across all the others, provides a picture of what texts traveled well in their time, not those sanctioned by central church leaders.

It was through cheap print and popular texts that communities such as New England Baptists forged their identities, and this medium allowed for the sharing of Native, London, Wesleyan, and many other identities. Complex histories of reading, performance, community-building, secularism, and print culture have left their traces in these overlooked anchors of print experience in the revolutionary Atlantic. Perhaps the time has come for us to survey the wondrous hymnbook, plain dress and all, and see the long drama of western secularism as inextricably involved in some of the most widely affective dimensions of revival and institutional religion.

Christopher N. Phillips is Professor of English at Lafayette College, where he teaches courses in writing, early American literature and culture, and the history of poetry. He is the author of The Hymnal: A Reading History (Johns Hopkins, 2018), and editor of The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American Renaissance (Cambridge, 2018). He is currently at work on a book with the working title Toward a Theory of Hymnic Reading.

Title image: Joshua Smith and Samuel Sleep, Divine Hymns, or Spiritual Songs; For the Use of Religious Assemblies and Private Christians (New London, Conn., 1794).

Further Readings:

Anderson, Misty. Imagining Methodism in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Enthusiasm, Belief, and the Borders of the Self. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

Brooks, Joanna. “Six Hymns by Samson Occom.” Early American Literature 38.1 (2003): 67-87.

Music, David W. “Joshua Smith’s Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs.” American Baptist Quarterly 25.1 (Spring 2006): 63-81.

Phillips, Christopher N. The Hymnal: A Reading History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

Stokes, Claudia L. The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. See especially chapter 2.


[1] Colin Jager, Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) 7, 4; italics in original.

[2] Misty Anderson, Imagining Methodism in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Enthusiasm, Belief, and the Borders of the Self (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012).

[3] Smith, Divine Hymns, 190.

[4] This version of the ballad is taken from Willard Hallam Bonner, “The Ballad of Captain Kidd,” American Literature 15.4 (Jan. 1944): 362-80.

[5] Smith, Divine Hymns, 53.

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