Wonderful Words of Life, edited by Richard J. Mouw and Mark Holl, is part of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies series and focuses on the history and significance of hymns in Christianity. It is the product of the Hymnody in American Protestantism project, a three-year study conducted by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. As part of the project, Stephen Mariani of Wellesley College compiled a list of three hundred of the most frequently published American hymns.
Hymns provide concise theology, often expressed in memorable poetic imagery; they both teach and delight. Generally grounded in orthodoxy, hymns allow greater understanding of saints throughout history and of the church universal. The work contains eleven essays divided into three sections. The first section examines the work and influence of hymn composer Isaac Watts. The second section looks at the role of hymns in the Protestant life, examining how hymns are used by evangelists, the Youth for Christ Movement, and the Catholic church and how white churchgoers are using gospel music. The third section focuses on the message of hymns that deal with various parts of Christian doctrine and topics such as death and divine rescue.
The first three chapters are devoted to Isaac Watts (1674-1748), an English Noncomformist pastor who wrote hymns central to British and American evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century. Perhaps his best-known hymn is “Joy to the World.” Watts wrote hymns on foundational, unifying doctrines: sinfulness, faith as battle, Christ’s love and redemption, and the yearning for Heaven. His hymns brought together people of various classes and races, provided a “public voice” for female composers, and promoted unity. Reformed singing had used Bible texts set to music in literal translation so that congregations might learn Scripture, but Watts appropriated the Psalms for singing through his method of “Psalm imitation,” departing from literal translation to allow a poetic, emotive rendering in English, expressive of modern Christian experience. He encouraged singers to relate Scripture to their lives, both individual and communal, with political and social references. His Psalter provides a “national” background to the narrative of the relationship between God and his people. His hymns spread from their native England to the Americas. By 1800 many Watts texts had been revised to reflect an American sensibility, including the shift from Calvinism to evangelicalism.
Chapters 4 to 7 examine...
(The entire section is 1050 words.)