Posted by: Bay Presbyterian Church | December 22, 2017

“Joy to the World”

Joy to the World

December 17, 2017

A couple of weeks ago we began talking about a struggle in the church; the two opponents being—on the one hand traditional; and on the other hand, contemporary.  It certainly is a struggle today, though, in my opinion the hard edge of the battle has softened somewhat.  Many, if not most churches have arrived at a more “middlin” ground.  Hard core, contemporary churches are singing songs like:

“Nothing but the Blood of Jesus”               1870

“Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine”           1873

“Be Thou My Vision”                                    6th Century

Of course, the instrumentation is different—maybe the pace and arrangement, but the sentiment is there—some going back to the 6th century.  I would call our service a “blended” service which is to say we are substantively both traditional and contemporary.  I like to think we take the best of both.

But when we raised the issue two weeks ago we spoke more of the traditional side.  John Mason Neale took the 8th century chant and made it into a hymn—a seven stanza hymn, as there had been seven distinct one line chants (one for each day of the week) he combined into “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Today, I want to go the other way.  We had mentioned Isaac Watts in passing as representative of the contemporary side of things.

Isaac Watts came on the scene in England in the last part of the 17th century and 1st part of 18th century.  He was a contemporary of Charles Wesley and every bit his equal in hymnody.  Watts’ father was a separatist—a non-conformist, which was a particular…we will call it denomination…but it was a grouping of people who refused to acknowledge the king as the head of the church and rejected the church of England, also known as the Anglican church.  John Watts, Isaacs’ father, had been incarcerated twice for his non-conformist ways.  Consequently, Isaac could not attend either Oxford or Cambridge, which required Anglican heritage, even though he had early distinguished himself as a theologian and logician and quite a defender of the faith.  He did attend a university and eventually was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree.

You will recall that, according to Oliver Cromwell, the non-conformist church in Watt’s and Wesley’s day, had been compelled by strict civil laws, to sing only psalms in the church.  Bring Psalter.  The Scottish church had created what is still called the metric psalter, that is hymnology in metrical verse.  Here is an example: “All Creatures That on Earth do Dwell.”  You have sung metric psalms before.

In 1719, Watts began scandalizing the church by publishing what he titled: “The Psalms of David Initiated in the Language of the New Testament.”  In this hymnal, he “interpreted” the Psalms through the eyes of the New Testament and in so doing he invented the English modern hymn and the contemporary vs traditional debate began.

One of Watts critics was a fellow non-conformist, Thomas Bradbury, who called Watts work product “Whims” instead of “hymns.”  Bradbury accused Watts of imagining he was King David, to which Watts replied:

“You tell me that I rival it with David, whether he or I be the sweet Psalmist of Israel.  I abhor the thought; while yet at the same time, I am fully persuaded that the Jewish Psalm book (Psalms) was never designed to be the only Psalter of the Christian Church.”

In 1719, in his scandalous hymnal, Watts included a piece entitled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.”  However, it didn’t really catch on until perhaps 75 years later when an American Church musician named Lowell Mason applied Watt’s lyrics to some adapted musical phrases from Handel’s Messiah.  It was retitled “Joy to the World” and Watts lyrical adaptation of Psalm 98 with Handel’s musical mastery was an effective combination and “Joy to the Word” has become internationally famous.


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