The use of hymns in worship
There were still many Evangelicals in the eighteenth century, however, who not only did not approve of using artistic musical measures in worship, but saw little point in using man-made hymns at all. William Romaine (1714-1795), for instance, a man with great backing amongst Evangelicals, saw hymn-singing as a substitute for true worship and a grave departure from the scriptural norm. Wherever there was a lack of 'vital religion', he thought, people left off praying, singing the Psalms and hearing the Word and descended into singing [Isaac] Watts' 'flights of fancy', along with other flippant pastimes. The words of man had become more important to a backsliding church than the Word of God. Romaine thus argued that sung worship dropped to the level of entertainment when hymns were used. He was especially against church choirs who 'sing to be admired for their fine voices' and force the congregation into passivity. To counteract this trend Romaine published his own collection of biblical Psalms to be sung and provided each psalm with a short introduction and devotional application.
Cowper's and [John] Newton's hymn compositions were an attempt to carry the view of church worship fostered by Romaine further than Romaine was prepared to go. Rather than merely supplying their congregation with the Psalms of David with an introduction and commentary, as did Romaine, the Olney friends strove to provide their parishioners with sermon texts from all parts of the Bible in verse form. Romaine compiled his psalm-book to be used in the sung liturgy, whereas Cowper and Newton wrote their hymns for personal edification and instruction rather than for the more formal gathered church worshi
Neither author planned originally to have his hymns sung. Cowper's earlier hymns were composed as poems and Newton's diary entries over a period of years show that his hymns were written for exposition only. Singing hymns is rarely mentioned by Cowper and Newton except at their homes in small devotional circles and in cottage meetings. Indeed, even when the two friends do refer to singing, they often use the word in the old classical sense of reciting.5
Indeed if John Newton and William Cowper were to take part in many a late twentieth-century evangelical Sunday service, the main difference they would notice and, indeed, be shocked at, would be the vast percentage of time devoted to chorus and hymn-singing and musical interludes and the relatively short amount of time taken up by the sermon and spoken exhortations. It would be no use shaking one's head at the two friends' amazement and telling them that 'Times have changed,' and for 'times', in this sense, have not changed in any way. All these Sunday worship 'trimmings' were coming into vogue in the middle of the eighteenth century amongst certain religious groups and, although both Newton and Cowper were fond of singing, and were such good hymn-writers that their hymns are still sung all over the world today, they had an entirely different view of what a hymn was and how a hymn should be sung. Newton criticized the misuse of music and singing in church services in numerous sermons and this topic was often the subject under discussion in the two friends' weekly correspondence with each other when Newton left Olney.
Cowper and Newton were particularly against singing hymns in the main Sunday services as the unconverted present could not possibly join in. They argued that only the redeemed could partake in joint worship. If people sang of Christ's redemption who had not experienced it, what futile bluff! If the congregation sang of God's wrath to unsaved sinners and did not believe it, what folly!
Their chief criticism, however, was of the music rather than the texts. This is one reason why the Olney Hymns were published without any music or any instrumentalization. Up to the latter part of the seventeenth century there was no instrumental accompaniment in church services apart from the larger cathedrals, which had been highly influenced by German court music. There was no organ in the Olney Church and Newton would not have one. When Newton left for a parish in London, some Olney citizens campaigned to have an organ installed in the parish church. They approached Cowper for assistance in their venture, thinking that a hymn-writer would be the very man to head a campaign for an organ. Cowper told them clearly and unmistakably that he would have nothing to do with such folly.
He had already playfully poured scorn on the modern jingle-jangles of church music used with the new versions of the Psalms in an essay in The Connoisseur. In this article he was also probably taking a dig at his cousin Martin Madan and John Wesley, who were responsible for introducing some of these 'new-fashioned' tunes such as Winchester New into church services.
The good old practice of psalm-singing is, indeed, wonderfully improved in many country churches since the days of Sternhold and Hopkins; and there is scarce a parish-clerk, who has so little taste as not to pick his staves out of the New Version. This has occasioned great complaints in some places, where the clerk has been forced to bawl by himself because the rest of the congregation cannot find the psalm at the end of their prayer-books; while others are highly disgusted at the innovation, and stick as obstinately to the Old Version as to the Old Stile. The tunes themselves have also been new-set to jiggish measures; and the sober drawl, which used to accompany the two first staves of the hundredth psalm with the gloria partri, is now split into as many quavers as an Italian air. For this purpose there is in every county an itinerant band of vocal musicians, who make it their business to go round to all the churches in their turns, and, after a prelude with a pitchpipe, astonish the audience with hymns set to the new Winchester measure and anthems of their own composing.
It might be argued that Cowper wrote the above as an unconverted man and he would have changed his mind as a Christian taking part in communal worship. This is not the case at all. In his poem 'Table Talk', published in 1782, Cowper claims that one simple psalm of Sternhold and Hopkins is better than all the endeavours of later, wittier, more skilled and more polished versifiers.
5. Thus Cowper starts his longest poem, Task, with the words 'I sing the Sofa'.
William Cowper, "Table Talk," in The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, p. 24:
A. Hail, Sternhold, then! and, Hopkins, hail!—
If flattery, folly, lust, employ the pen;
If acrimony, slander, and abuse,
Give it a charge to blacken and traduce;
Though Butler’s wit, Pope’s numbers, Prior’s ease,
With all that fancy can invent to please,
Adorn the polish’d periods as they fall,
One madrigal of theirs is worth them all.
A. ‘Twould thin the ranks of the poetic tribe,
To dash the pen through all that you proscribe.
B. No matter—we could shift when they were not;
And should, no doubt, if they were all forgot.