HYMN-WRITERS AND THEIR HYMNS.
Psalms of praise were the first-fruits of creation. Hymns were the earliest utterances of human nature in the morning light of the world—man's first responses to the voice of his Creator—the earth's first echoes to the music of the heavens, when "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy." This world's first love was told in hymns. Music first broke forth in psalms. The earliest recorded essays of human language are in spiritual song. Spiritual songs were the delight of the world in the days of her youth; they have been her solace during her advance towards maturity; and they will brighten the eventide and close of her life. The antediluvian age seems to have had its darling household songs. In patriarchal times the father's blessing was sometimes poured forth in lofty hymnic measures. In the youth-tide of her national life Israel gave out her joys of deliverance in sea-side hymns. She was once shut up between the mountains, the sea, and her infuriated enemies. In her distress God divided the waters before her, and the tribes went safely through the depths. Their foes, essaying to follow them, were overwhelmed in the flood; and while charioteer and horseman were struggling with the waves, and the sea was uttering a loud requiem over the sinking hosts, the redeemed multitude confidently stood on the
shore, and mingled their hymn of triumph with the sound of the waters.
Sing unto the Lord,
For He hath triumphed gloriously!
The horse and his rider
He hath cast into the sea!
The Lord is my strength and song,
And He is become my salvation.
Who is like unto Thee,
O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like Thee—
Glorious in holiness,
Fearful in praises,
The Lord shall reign for ever and ever!
The song which thus first rose "o'er Egypt's dark sea" rose again, ever and anon, along the desert and in the land of promise. Israel kept up the circlings of her religious dances to the song of Moses and the music of Miriam. In the fulness of her meridian strength, her psalms were her delights as she went up to the house of the Lord, and plaintive hymns have been the solace of her faithful children all through the weary periods of her decline. The primitive and purer literature of even those false or corrupted systems of religion which sprung up against the early claims of the true Messiah take the hymnic form, as if that form must be the most natural, the most sacred, and the most happy mode of religious utterance. The foundations of the Christian Church, too, were laid amidst the hymnings of her first converts. She owes the preservation of her spiritual life, and the continued purity of her belief, in a large measure, to the service of song; and how many of her generations have left hymns as the only living memorials of their character and works. '' Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" form the native language of Christianity. The religion of the new covenant is the happy religion. It calls its people to "rejoice evermore, and in everything to give thanks." When it is allowed to exert its proper and full influence on the human character, it regulates the affections, without destroying man's capacity for delight; it composes and cheers the soul; it banishes mere levity, and checking all vicious and boisterous mirth,
it fills the mind with serene joy, and gives a tone of cheerfulness to the manners and to the voice. But how many have mistaken the Christian's calling! The Christianity of some has been seemingly made up of depressing recollections of the past, gloomy views of the present, and dark apprehensions of the future. And if an inward joy is ever felt, such people think it their duty to repress it, or at least not to give it expression, but rather to keep up an aspect in unbroken accordance with the gravity of their notions. They are not of this world, they say, and therefore they have no smiles for those around them, no songs for themselves. Theirs are melancholy manners, austere looks, and voiceless lives—a religion which threatens to extinguish all gladness, to dark the face of nature, and to destroy the very relish of life. But does not the Saviour call His people to open a cheerful face upon the world, and to cheer it with grateful hymns? "Let your light so shine before men," says He, "that they may see your beautiful works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." "Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, and clear as the sun?" Is it not the Messiah's spouse, the Saviour's Church? And who should be as cheerful as the sunlight, if Christ's people are not? "Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant tljing it is to behold the sun; which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race." All nature is glad when the day-spring opens. The sparkling sea, the lucid rivulet, the fluttering leaf, the colours and the tones of creation, all tell how the sunbeams cheer the world. All see the light, and all bless the light-bearer. And what is so cheerful in its character and influence as the Christian religion ?" Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart." Revelation opens aroimd the Christian solemnities holy enough to chasten his spirit, but it throws a light upon God's character and will which inspires the believer with sacred cheerfulness. All the principles and all the feelings which now command him dispose the Christian to form the habit of turning the bright side of things towards himself—the habit of keeping Divine goodness in sight, of marking the blessings of every moment as it passes, and of communing with a happy future, until he learns to speak to himself "in psalms and
hymns and spiritual songs, singing, and making melody in his heart unto the Lord." And when praise thus lives in the heart, it will express itself in pleasant music and lively measures. The peaceful conscience and merry heart will have songs for the outside world. And when all Christians breathe this happy spirit of their religion, the Christian Church will he the beautiful embodiment of a happy godliness, and will be ceaseless in its service of song.
But as the rise and advance and decline of the human race, or of human empires, or of religious systems, may somewhat answer to the stages of an individual life—or as the history of a single life may picture the course of the world, or the career of a people—so those favourite modes of utterance which the world or any one of its communities have used, as distinctive of the different stages of its course have their answering types in the most-loved forms of individual expression. Childhood loves to lisp its joys in a hymn. Manhood, in its times of purest and most exalted feeling, speaks to itself in hymns. Hymns, too, most naturally weave themselves into the language of declining life, and often supply the departing soul with its most happy words.
There is scarcely anything that retains a more permanent influence over human thought and feeling in the present life than the hymns and songs which the soul drinks in during our childhood. The simplicity of children makes them capable of being swayed through life by the earliest lessons. The little one's mind is so retentive that first impressions are most lasting and powerful. The first supplies of knowledge find the deepest and most secure lodgment in the soul; and especially when the knowledge comes in an agreeable form, as in the rhythm and rhyme of simple hymns. These are entertained for life, and often live to make themselves felt in spite of all the changes and distracting circumstances of the later course. There has been many, many an instance like those which, a few years ago, were recorded in a pastoral address to a Christian Church. The minister was guarding his flock against the danger of betrayal into hardness and bitter feeling by those trials which spring out of the seeming unequal distribution of good and evil in the world. "I am free to tell you," said he, "that sometimes in the course of my life, I have been powerfully tempted to hardness when the thought has been insinuated, that my share in life has been wearisome toil and frequent depression, while others have been lapped in ease and plenty, though apparently not a whit more deserving than myself; and I confess that now and then the temptation has been so timed that my soul has gone too far through the process of transformation into something like cold iron or steel. But one gentle corrective has always prevented the hardening process from being complete. When I have been all but shut up to the curse of a stony heart, some stanza from one of the simple hymns or 'divine songs,' which used to touch and soften me in childhood, has come up from its home in my memory, and like a divine charm has soothed and melted me into childlike tenderness, simplicity, and love. Verses that seemed to have been lost for years have suddenly sprung into life again, and brought so many good recollections in their train, that my rugged nature has yielded at once, and all within and all without have responded to the music of the hymn, as the face of nature answers to the genial sunbeams of spring. And I have met in the course of my life with many others whose experience might be taken as a reflection of my own. One remarkable instance, however, somewhat varies from the rest; inasmuch as it shows how the well-timed recur rence of verses once fondly cherished by the young memory and heart, may give the deciding touch to the wandering soul, and convert a prodigal from 'the error of his way.' A good man in declining life told me that the first book in which, as a child, he took an interest, was a small edition of Watts's ' Hymns and Divine Songs' for children. Each hymn was headed by a woodcut, and one especially was his favourite. It represented a little boy, something like himself, as he thought, leaning at an open window, looking with a calm happy face on the setting sun, which was throwing his parting light upon a quiet country scene. Many of the hymns, and that one in particular, had been read often, until they lived in his soul. But as he grew up, the impressions were worn off by more exciting and less pure thoughts and pursuits. He fell into a course of dissipation and vice, and seemed for a time to be given up to sin, and devoted to ruin. Worn down at last, and threatened with consumption, he was ordered into the country for change of air; and after some time spent in quietness and retirement, far away from the scenes of old temptations, he wandered out one evening about sunset, and hanging pensively over a gate, he watched the sun as it sunk behind the copse, and was throwing its last beams upon the silent and peaceful hill-side. There was a hush upon his spirits, and suddenly, as if sketched by an unseen hand before his inward eye, the little picture which used to interest his boyish mind lived again, and the hymn which it illustrated seemed to be spoken sweetly to his heart—
And now another day is gone,
I'll sing my Maker's praise.
The tear started. He had seen many of his days go, but as yet his Maker had never heard an even-song from his lips or from his heart. What an ungrateful life his had been! The 'remembrance was grievous.' But his heart was broken, and there and then the softened man made his vows of return to God, and offered the prayer which was answered in blessings which filled both the mornings and evenings of his mature life with hymns and songs of thanksgiving and praise."
And how important, and holy, and happy is the office of psalms and hymns in the service of human nature amidst the struggles and toils, the conflicts and victories, the sorrows and joys of mature life. Their mission has been to the multitude as well as the individual heart. How often has the popular use of a few songs swayed the thoughts and feelings of a nation, or quickened, united, directed, and ruled the energies of a people, or permanently given a distinct character to an entire race. Facts would sustain the philosophy of the man who said, "Let me furnish a nation with its songs, and I will govern it." Psalms and hymns, too, have many times afforded the secret of union, and' harmony, and strength, and consolation to persecuted households, down-trodden tribes, and oppressed populations. They have been as food to the famine-stricken crowd, and as waters in the wilderness to fugitive churches. How often have they cheered the souls of congregated confessors in Roman catacombs, in the recesses of Eastern deserts, in the fastnesses of Swiss mountains, and in the Highland glens and moorland hoilows of Scotland. The psalm and choral chant have sometimes nerved the host for battle on behalf of home, and conscience, and truth. The Divine Spirit Himself has recorded an exemplar "hallelujah victory." Jehoshaphat's appeal for Divine hdp against the enemies of goodness and faith was answered by a revelation of God's order of battle. "And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the Lord, and that should praise the beauty of holiness as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the Lord, for His mercy endureth for ever. And when they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushments against the children of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, which were come against Judah, and they were smitten." The singers were victorious; the spoil was gathered to the music of psalms. "And on the fourth day they assembled themselves in the valley of Berachah, for there they blessed the Lord; therefore the name of the same place was called the valley of Berachah unto this day. Then they returned every man of Judah and Jerusalem, and Jehoshaphat in the forefront of them, to go again to Jerusalem with joy, for the Lord had made them to rejoice over their enemies." Yes, and since then many a Christian army has kept up the strain, and have made prayerful hymns and hymns of praise their battle songs. Nor has Jehoshaphat's victory been the only "hallelujah victory." It was probably repeated once on the "Welsh border, and has had its antitpyes in the history of Protestant struggles for freedom on many a storied field of Europe.
And how much of their youthful freshness, and manly courage, and constitutional vigour, and public spirit, nations owe to the habitual use of their national anthems, who can tell? How France has glowed at the sound of a popular hymn! how Scotland kindles at an old psalm or song which embalms the name of her hero! and how Englishmen's hearts swell and come together when they sing
or when they uncover and unite in the grand old strain,
God save our gracious Queen! It is most pleasant to the Christian, however, to trace the influence of devout psalmody in the shaping of a people's happily distinct character. Among the most blessed results of faithfully-administered truth to a teachable and obedient people, is their perpetuated fondness for "psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs." Nor can there be any richer or more agreeable fruits of the Holy Spirit's work upon human masses than a popular love for psalmody, the culture of sacred music in the people's homes, and the habitual enjoyment of favourite hymns continued from parents to children, and renewing its freshness among children's children. Will the old, Scotch version of the psalms ever cease to be music to those who owe so much to the covenanting fathers who first sang them? Will the spiritual songs of the first Reformers ever die out from the mind and heart of Germany? The cheerful character and influence of the primitive churches left memorials for many generations among the hymn-singing populations of many spots in Europe. Richard Baxter's labours at Kidderminster were crowned with many a holy song. He toiled and prayed until from every house within his pastorate there was daily the all but ceaseless voice of psalms and hymns. He was literally "compassed about with songs of deliverance." Vital piety makes people cheerful, and their cheerfulness naturally expresses itself in devout and merry rhyme and metre.
Perhaps no district in England has a population so deeply and widely imbued with religious thought and feeling as the county of Cornwall. As a whole, the Cornish folk may be called a religious people, and their great love for sacred music, and especially hymn singing, may be at once a cause and effect of their sustained religious life. Nowhere has the gospel of Christ wrought more happy changes; nowhere has it left a more permanently cheerful impress; nowhere could an entire population so generally illustrate obedience to the apostolic rule, "Is any merry? let him sing psalms." No one who has seen them can forget the lines and knots of merry creatures who preserve a kind of elegant appearance amidst their rough work, in open sheds, and among heaps of tin and copper ore on the surface of the Cornish mines. Who could forget these girls' standard and style of beauty? and who that has heard them will ever forget the music of their hymns, as they sing in concert, while they ply their hammers, that music at once so reverent, so earnest, and so lovely? They seem to have hymns appropriate for all times and seasons, and sometimes their stanzas have been beautifully timed. A few of the more gay and thoughtless of a large group had been indulging a laugh at one good Christian girl, whom they charged with inconsistent conformity to the world because she wore a pair of tasteful ear-rings. The jeers were meekly borne for awhile, but at length the persecuted girl lifted up her voice in song, and quietly taking the jewels from her ears, she placed them on the block before her, and demolished them with a stroke of her hammer, singing as she did it a stanza from a favourite hymn—
Neither passion nor pride Thy cross can abide,
But melt in the fountain that streams from Thy side.
Her persecutors were silenced, and blushed as she sang out her hymn of submissive but triumphant faith. The same spirit of holy song is breathed by the men, who cheer the deep caverns in which they toil with heartfelt psalmody. The road-side and the cottage hearth, the engine-house, the stream-works, the moorland, and the barren earn, the unpretending chapel, and the quiet grave-yard, are all hallowed in turn by the melodies and harmonies of this hymn and anthem-loving race. Seldom have the hearts and voices of a race been more graciously blended in the service of Him who said, by the spirit of prophecy, "In the midst of the church will I sing praise unto Thee."
The claims of Christianity as the religion of universal man, and its adaptation to all races and people, circumstances and times, are beautifully illustrated by the fact, that those happy features of character which it impressed upon the Cornish families are the same with those which distinguish the Christianized tribes of Southern Africa. On the testimony of a venerable misssionary, who was the first to open the gospel to the Little Namacquas, that popular love of sacred song which is so peculiar to the Keltic masses in Western England, became the habitual feeling and distinctive pleasure of the converted African tribes. Hymn singing in both cases seemed to be the natural action of public religious life. Spiritual songs, says the African evangelist, were soon interwoven with their daily existence; all their movements seemed to be made to the music of hymns; and how many a time I have listened to their voices of an evening, as they walked homeward from the field or the bush singing some favourite hymn, as a kind of spiritual march. I remember having my heart deeply touched once as I hearkened to the happy bands psalming it, and responding to one another while approaching the village. I caught the strain of an old Dutch hymn—
Faith loves the Saviour, and beholds
His sufferings, death, and pain;
And this shall ne'er grow old nor cold,
Till we with Him shall reign.
It was the song of Southern Africa's first love. The first-fruits of Ethiopia's praise to God; the tuneful earnest of what an ancient hymn foretold. "Princes shall come out of Egypt, Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God. Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth; 0 sing praises unto the Lord; Selah!"
But what Christian psalmody has done for nations, and races, and tribes, it does for many an individual man and woman. What hymns have been to the multitude they have been to many a solitary Christian soul. To the gentle and to the simple,' to the great and to the small, to the bond and to the free, to the strong and to the weak, to the cultured and to the rude, divine songs have served to brighten and bless the different stages and turns of personal history. Many of the ruling spirits of the world, men whose names will be always landmarks in history, have had tender fondness for psalmody and holy song. There have been royal psalmists, imperial songsters, and courtly hymnists. Many a great leader of his generation, while he has been guiding the world's mind and heart amidst the dangers of revolution, and through the deep and broad processes of moral and religious renewal, has cheered his own soul with favourite hymns. Hymns have been his chosen expressions of joy in success. Hymns have been his solace in moments of darkness and depression. Luther and his companions, with all their bold readiness for danger and death in the cause of truth, had times when their feelings were akin to those of a divine singer who said, "Why art thou cast down, 0 my soul?" But in such hours the unflinching Reformer would cheerily say to his friend Melancthon, "Come, Philip, let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm ;" and they could sing it in Luther's own characteristic version—
A sure stronghold our God is He,
A timely shield and weapon;
Our help He'll be, and set us free
From every ill can happen.
And were the world with devils fill'd,
All eager to devour us,
Our souls to fear shall little yield,
They cannot overpower us.
Later Reformers in our own land have been equally remarkable for their love of sacred music, and their aptness at using it for the encouragement of the multitude, and their own secret comfort amidst their sufferings and toils.
Some of the noblest intellects, too, the most cultured and refined of their race—men whose thoughts and feelings are embalmed in an undying literature, have had each his own cherished psalm or tenderly-loved hymn. And the psalm or hymn has been called up in every time of need; as if it had a comforting power which no other voice could bring. The great Niebuhr was lovingly attached to von Lowenstern's hymn—
Christ, Thou the champion of that war-worn host.
And might be heard now and then refreshing his own soul amidst its intense labours and researches by murmuring the metrical prayer—
And give us peace ; peace in the church and school,
Peace to the powers who o'er our country rule,
Peace to the conscience, peace within the heart,
Do Thou impart.
So shall Thy goodness here be still adored,
Thou Guardian of Thy little flock, dear Lord;
And heaven and earth through all eternity
Shall worship Thee!
And what was the solace of Niebuhr has been the consolation of many a commanding and highly cultured mind. The hymn of joy and the hymn of plaintive appeal have ministered strength and peace, in sweet alternation, through all the scenes of mental action.
And how often has the master mind, the truly great soul finished its brilliant and successful course with a closing hymn! Saintly and useful men like Rowland Hill have died on consecrated ground with the music of a hymn in their souls. But minds of another class also have ended their course with songs. Walter Scott's last utterances were stanzas of favourite ancient hymns. It is stated that Cobden departed repeating that grand old strain, rendered from the German by John Wesley— i
Thee will I love, my joy, my crown,
Thee will I love, my Lord, my God:
Thee will I love, beneath Thy frown,
Or smile—Thy sceptre or Thy rod:
What though my flesh and heart decay,
Thee shall I love in endless day!
And our own Prince Albert "the good," breathed as his last song, while his spirit mounted—
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee!
And how many thousands after thousands in the more retired and obscure scenes of life have had psalms and hymns of victory on their dying lips.
Indeed, the holiest and best of people, those who have done most to make the world happy, have hallowed every stage of life, every turn in their history, every relation which they have sustained, and every time and season of their mortal pilgrimage with " thanksgiving and the voice of melody." Their record is above; but neither they nor their hymns can be forgotten below. Many of their names are recorded in the following pages; and some of their hymns are interwoven with the outlines of their character and the memorials of their history.
And perhaps the lover of sacred melody will learn to love hymn-writers and their hymns more deeply, and to sing with more spiritual joy, while he spends an hour, now and then, over chapters about the first hymn-book; and hymns of the latter day morning, hymns of the fathers, and hymns of old England's Christian birth-time; hymns from old cloisters, songs in high places, and songs in prison. From these he may pass to chapters about psalms in English metre, hymn menders, and songs of creation. Then come hymns about the book, songs of the Sabbath, hymns by the way, hymns on the waters, hymns of the morning, and songs in the night. Nor will the world ever lose its interest in chapters on marriage songs and birthday hymns, or hymns from beneath the cloud, hymns of Gethsemane and the cross, funeral hymns, judgment hymns, and songs of glory.
To catch the spirit, and to be enriched with the music of the first hymn-book, is to be prepared for daily " speaking to ourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord; giving' thanks always for all things unto God and the Father, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;" and a life thus spent will certainly issue in songs of glory.