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Mark Noll

The Hymn

How ordinary belivers found their voice through song

Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song
by Steve Turner
Ecco, 2002
266 pp.; $23.95

In May 1731, the English Presbyterian Philip Doddridge wrote to his older colleague in the Nonconformist ministry, Isaac Watts, about a midweek worship service he had recently conducted in a barn for "a pretty large assembly of plain country people." Doddridge's text was from Hebrews 6:12—"That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises." After the sermon Doddridge sang with his humble congregation a hymn by Watts that began,

Give me the wings of faith to rise
Within the veil, and see
The saints above, how great their joys,
How bright their glories be.

The effect of the singing was the occasion for Doddridge's letter: "I had the satisfaction to observe tears in the eyes of several of the auditory, and after the service was over, some of them told me that they were not able to sing, so deeply were their minds affected with it."

Although this incident took place in an out-of-the-way venue with a congregation of no special account, Doddridge was nonetheless registering a sea change in Western Christianity. Ordinary believers had begun to find their voice, and that voice was expressed in song. Doddridge and Watts were both expert contributors to the new evangelical hymnody. Soon they would also be supporting figures like John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards who proclaimed that true Christianity meant not just intellectual recognition of Christian dogma or formal acknowledgment of the church, but the experience of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Oceans of ink have been spilled in analyzing virtually all aspects of the evangelical movements that arose from that insistence. Only rarely, however, has the significance of song been given its full place in this story. Yet nothing was more central to the evangelical revival than the singing of new hymns written in praise of the goodness, mercy, and grace of God.

Steve Turner's ...

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