We think of George Whitefield primarily as a preacher, but hymns were central to his vision of godly devotion and practice. Indeed, he and his associates became notorious for singing too much. One group of critics wrote in 1745, “We think the practice of singing hymns in the public roads, which . . . Mr. Whitefield and his companions in travels did, when riding from town to town, is . . . a piece of weakness and enthusiastical orientation.”
I recently read Mark Noll‘s delightful chapter “Whitefield, Hymnody, and Evangelical Spirituality” in the book George Whitefield: Life, Context, and Legacy, edited by Geordan Hammond and David Ceri Jones. (Before you complain about the price of the book, please read this.) Noll focuses on Whitefield’s popular hymn book A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship (1753), which went through dozens of editions and was used extensively among white and African-American evangelicals in Britain, America, and the Caribbean. You can see the whole 1758 edition here, in Google Books.
In preparing this volume, Whitefield was functioning as an editor and curator of songs by prominent hymn-writers such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. Following Watts’s example, the hymns featured innovative meters and poetic framing of biblical themes, rather than the older Protestant tradition of simply singing the Psalms. They included a few titles that will be familiar to most readers today: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Alas, and Did Our Savior Bleed?,” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Not surprisingly, Watts’s hymns occurred the most of any author in the collection. Beyond Watts and Wesley, the hymn writers reflected a remarkable range of Protestants, from High Church Anglicans to pietist Moravians. The authors included at least one female author, the Moravian Anna Dober, and two Catholic writers of earlier eras. The range of authors reflected Whitefield’s commitment to “evangelical ecumenicity,” Noll says.
The range of authors was wide, but they covered a narrow range of themes. The hymns primarily focused upon Christ’s work as the redeemer, and the believer’s gratefulness for salvation. Under those categories, Noll notes that the hymns employed a remarkable range of titles (many of them directly from Scripture) for Jesus, musing on him as “author of our surety,” the “bridegroom,” the “crucified,” the “incarnate mystery,” our “physician,” the “second Adam,” the “woman’s conquering seed,” and many, many other names. The most common referent for Jesus, however, was the “Lamb,” including the “bleeding Lamb,” the “martyred Lamb,” the “Paschal Lamb,” and many other variants.
Noll argues that the “center of gravity” in the hymn book was the “affectional atonement,” or the thankfulness of the saints for Christ’s substitutionary death on their behalf.
Many have compared the relative theological poverty of some of today’s contemporary worship music to the doctrinal richness of the historic hymnody of Protestantism, such as that contained in Whitefield’s book. But Noll is not uncritical of the theology reflected in Whitefield’s hymnal, either. While its focus on the atonement is striking, he notes that many other important subjects go virtually unmentioned. Given Whitefield’s itinerant ministry, it is perhaps not surprising that the hymns give almost no attention to features of institutional church life, except for the joy of Christian fellowship. But other key subjects like the Bible, the Lord’s Supper, and most any other doctrinal topic besides soteriology, are also absent.
Since Whitefield was one of the founders of the modern evangelical movement, it is no surprise that his hymnal would feature such overwhelming attention to the redeeming work of Christ. But as Noll suggests, that characteristic laser focus has sometimes meant that evangelicals extol the redeeming work of Christ, and sing about almost nothing else.
We can’t ever “move on” from the atonement as evangelicals (as if we would get so mature that we would no longer need the gospel!). But in our songs and sermons we surely do need to “add” all the fullness of Scripture, and a vision for what God plans to do in and through the church.
Sign up here for the Thomas S. Kidd newsletter. It delivers weekly unique content only to subscribers.