Why neither Dr. Watts’ Imitations of the Psalms, nor his other Poems, nor any other human composition, ought to be used in the Praises of the Great God our Savior
A Metrical Version of the Book of Psalms, examined, with wise and critical care, by pious and learned divines, and found by them to be as near the Hebrew metrical Psalms, as the idiom of the English language would admit, ought to be used.
By Rev. Thomas Clark, V.D.M.
Christian Reader, if thou art really a Christian by sweet experience, as Saul of Tarsus was made, then thou surely standest in awe of the divine law, revealed in the holy Scriptures, the only rule of truth and practice, by which all men shall be finally judged. Thou hast been made like him in all humility to bow before the Most High God, and to say as he said, “Lord what wilt thou have me to do” (Acts 9:6), i.e. in thy public praises. Wilt thou have me to praise thy blessed name with elegant words of human composure, by some esteemed far superior to the best version of the Book of Psalms? Or wilt thou have me to praise thy holy majesty with the sacred words of unerring Revelation? If this is thy serious enquiry, then let me offer thee some, reasons why it appears a moral duty for thee to avoid the use of human compositions, of uninspired men, in praising God; and to use the Psalms of God’s own institution and appointment in worshipping him.
That we ought to avoid the use of human compositions in praising of God appears clear from the following reasons.
1. Uninspired songs unwarranted from Scripture.
1. It is unwarrantable. You can find no commandment of God on divine record (that I know of) requiring you to use any Imitation, or any human composure, instead of that Book of Psalms God hath given you. Nor can you learn that ever God inspired any of his own Apostles to alter or change the Psalms, or to make or use any imitations of them in divine worship, under pretense of their being more agreeable to New Testament times.
They must, in their own conceit, be very wise indeed and have a very high opinion of their own abilities can contrive hymns or imitations of Psalms, preferable to those that eternal, divine, and unerring Wisdom hath contrived and given you. Would to God you and I had grace sufficient to sing the 150 sweet Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (being the titles of the three arrangements) which the all gracious God hath in his love and piety bestowed upon us, without wandering through the world after the swarms of human compositions now extant. You know all the Hymns, all the Antiphones, Missals, Holidays, and Breviaries, brought into the Romish church, one century after another, was still done by some new pretender to a higher pitch of zeal, for improving the worship of God. But for you or I to come before God in solemn praise with any human invention or imitation, I am afraid we shall meet with those awful interrogatories, “Who hath required this imitation at your hands?” (Isa. 1:12), and by what authority doest thou these things? And who gave you this authority? And what will you answer when thus, questioned? May the Lord keep you and I from being wise above what is written for our rule in the holy Oracles.
2. Uninspired songs are needless, superfluous, and superstitious.
2. To use such an imitation in divine worship is entirely needless, superfluous, and perhaps superstitious. There is no occasion, no necessity for it in the world. The Book of Psalms God gave you, is abundantly sufficient, as it stands, for all the sacred purposes of devotion and praise. It is without spot or wrinkle. It has the stamp of divine authority, and to lay it aside and bring in this imitation, is like offering strange fire on God’s altar, as did Nadab and Abibu (Lev. 10:2). And although temporal judgments are not now perhaps so abundantly poured out on those who dare to reject God’s own Psalms and bring imitations in their room and stead; yet, I greatly fear, spiritual judgments are upon those that use them. For, as Zacherias was struck dumb for his unbelief of the divine message, so are they struck dumb in the House of God—their tongues cleave to the roofs of their mouths; they either cannot, or will not sing, even this imitation itself. No, with sorrow I have seen it, they are left to wander vainly in their own counsels, with their own imitations, and are dumb before the Lord, in many worshipping assemblies, all except a few conciliators, or singing, boys and girls in the gallery. When I hear them, I should surely think I had happened in a Mass-house in Dublin, did I not recollect that I was yet in a professed Protestant country. Had there been any real deficiency or imperfection in God’s Book of Psalms, then such an imitation might have had some show or appearance of necessity; but that is very far from being the case, for God’s Psalm Book is holy, just, spiritual, and perfect. A little shifting and changing from God’s Book to an Imitation Book, may for a while please the carnal heart, but God has commanded you not to meddle with them that are given to such changes.
These Psalms which God in old time gave to his Church, were found sufficient for the use of the kings, priests, prophets, and saints of God in Israel some thousands of years. And in the use of them our forefathers, martyrs, and reformers obtained much communion with God, and great pleasure and felicity. And what would you have more? We had an abundance of Psalms bestowed on us by a gracious and good God. But alas! For our want of understanding of them, our great want of love to them, and our sad want of faith and zeal, to sing these songs of Zion with due propriety and perseverance.
3. Uninspired songs are divisive to the Body of Christ.
3. You may not use said imitation because it tends to grieve and offend God’s people, and destroy the amiable peace of the Church. The using it brings pious people into this sad dilemma: either they must sit still, and see their own God’s Book of Psalms neglected and rejected, and say nothing—which would be contrary to that solemn charge that God gave them, to holdfast the form of sound Words, and contend earnestly for every article of faith—or else they must speak up against the superfluous use of the imitations and expect to be railed upon for it. Must riot this greatly grieve them? Can pious people avoid being grieved and offended to see such tumult, noise, and wild disorder raised in the ivory palaces of the Prince of Peace; and all about an imitation of God’s Book of Psalms, which we had no need of. Will you then use it, while in so doing you expose yourself to that dreadful curse? “Offences must needs come, but woe to that man through whom they come. It were better for him that a millstone was hanged about his neck and he cast into the sea, than offend one of these little ones.” (Mat. 18:6).
No doubt, sometimes pious persons, through temptation and corruption, take offence when none is given nor intended to be given them. But that is very far from being the case here; because, they see before their faces these treasures of wisdom and knowledge, the Book of Psalms, broken, torn, militated, and massacred to please carnal men, and they see the havoc made on them in God’s own house, upon his holy Sabbath day. They see twelve of them condemned to perpetual silence, as unworthy even of imitation; their voice must never more be heard in God’s Tabernacle—that is, the 43, 52, 54, 59, 64, 70, 79, 88, 108, 137, and 140. These Psalms are the sincere milk of the Word, and to see them torn from the mouths of the babes of grace, is a sight of great cruelty. No doubt they can get them to read in prose, but they cannot any more, in many worshipping assemblies, get them to sing as in the days of old; for now everyone hath a doctrine and a psalm or a hymn. There’s Wesley’s Hymns, Whitefield’s Hymns, Spalding’s Hymns, Mason’s Hymns, and Dr. Watts’ great bunch of Hymns, imitations, etc. Can they be blamed for being grieved and offended, while they see such wild disorder forced into the house of the God of order and peace, and all for the sake of a new thing, that we stood not in the least need of? To grieve them is to grieve the Spirit of God that dwells in them. What impudence is it in any poor, conceited, uninspired man, to form a poem, and then stamp it with the sacred name of Hymn?
4. Uninspired songs in worship bring reproach to God’s Word.
4. Because using said imitation in God’s worship, is a conniving with, and becoming art and part guilty with such as reproach and blaspheme that part of God’s holy Word, called the Book of Psalms.
Dr. Watts, in his preface to that edition of his imitation and Hymns, printed for Rivington, London, 1768, page five, says, “The dull indifference—that sits on the faces of a whole assembly while the Psalm is upon the lips must tempt to suspect the minds of most of the worshippers are absent or unconcerned—I have been long convinced that one great occasion of this evil arises from the matter and Words to which we confine all our songs.” Did you ever read another author that had the daring impudence to charge the crime of sinners’ dull indifference in worship upon matter and Words that God has put in his Book of Psalms? I suppose not. If the divine matter and sacred Words of the Psalms have that dangerous influence upon worshippers, he asserts, did not God do us a great hurt to put such a dulling book in our hands? Was not this instead of a fish to give his children a scorpion? And will Dr. Watts’ imitation of such dulling matter and Words remove the dreadful crime? Does not trial, made by twenty years experience, loudly proclaim the contrary to all the attentive world, who see so few sing God’s praise, either in their families or churches? In old time, a pious king, who often complained of dullness and darkness in God’s worship, says, “I will never forget thy precepts, for with them thou hast quickened me” (Ps. 119:93). Luther used to call the Psalms “God’s little Bible,” and a “summary of the Old Testament.” I read of a girl, aged five years, whose conversion was begun while she joined her parents in singing these Psalms one morning, as was the daily custom of the family before breakfast; she persevered in piety till she was 80 years old, and died in triumph.
He further saith in his preface, “Some of them” (the Songs of Zion) “are almost opposite to the spirit of the gospel,” that is the Spirit of God. How can any man imagine that any part of God’s Word can be either almost or altogether opposite to his Spirit? None but Deists pretend to find any opposition between God’s Word and his Spirit, nor between one part of the Word and another. The seeming oppositions in Scripture have been long since clearly explained and reconciled in many pious and sacred books, particularly in a Latin treatise called Lux in Tenebris.
Again, in said preface, he says, “When our souls are raised a little above the earth, in the beginning of a Psalm, we are checked on a sudden in our ascent towards Heaven, by some expression fit only to be sung in a worldly sanctuary.“
Surely God’s kind design in giving us these Psalms was that they might be a happy means to promote our ascent towards Heaven. And can God so far miss his gracious design, that any of them will check us in our ascent? The most base songs that ever were composed by lewd ballad makers, could not be charged with a more barbarous spiritual murder, than this of driving a poor soul back, when it had happily got on its ascent towards Heaven.
Another reproach expressed in said preface is, “When we are just entering into an evangelical frame, yet the very next line perhaps, which the clerk parcels out to us, hath something in it so extremely Jewish and cloudy, that it darkens the sight of God the Saviour.”
How base this reproach, while it is certain, that a great personage, in old times, looked through the Psalms, and through all the Jewish cloudiness in them, and by them got a sweet and clear sight of God the Saviour, so that being thereby raised up from his dejections, he with the voice of devout joy and gladness sings:
My comfort and my heart’s delight thy testimonies be
And they in all my doubts and fears are comforters, to me. (Ps. 109:24)
One of the greatest heroes that ever commanded an army, who never lost a siege nor a battle, joyfully celebrates the commendations of all revealed truth, of which the Book of Psalms is a special part, saying, “Thy Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105).
Another slander asserted in said preface is, “While we are kindling into divine love by meditations of the loving kindness of the Lord, within a few lines some dreadful curse against man is proposed to our lips, ‘that God would add iniquity to their iniquity’—which is so contrary to the new commandment of loving our enemies—our hearts are as it were forbidden the pursuit of the song, and the worship grows dull of mere necessity.“
The God of truth says, “all Scripture” (the excluded Psalms not excepted) “is given by inspiration of God and is profitable” (1 Tim. 3:16); but if Dr. Watts’ saying here be true, that part of it is detestable. For here again the matter and the words of the sweet Book of Psalms is accused of quenching divine love kindling in the worshippers, being so dreadful and so contrary to the new commandment of loving our enemies. But you know they are ill, very ill, acquainted with the law, that see not a clear consistency between its curses and its precepts. Could any man be justly reckoned guilty of breaking the new command of love to his enemy, while he faithfully warned him that if he went on robbing and murdering, an ignominious death would be his portion? As little is it contrary to said new commandment, for God in his Book of Psalms to warn and tell us that if we live a lewd life, adding sin to sin, and die unconverted, he then, as a righteous Judge, will number up our crimes, adding one after another, in the numbering of them, till the sum be fully deserving eternal woe. Who knows not that this is the voice of pure and holy justice, expressed in the dreadful law curse, with a gracious design to alarm us as rational men to fly to Jesus for pardon and holiness? And though the words of the curse are translated in the form of a prayer, yet they could as well be expressed in the form of a prophecy, which they really are. Telling a sinner before hand, that if he goes on in his trespasses, adding new inquiry to his old iniquity, the iniquity of this new year to the account of the iniquities he did in the old year, then God will add to his lot, all the torments mentioned in this book.
David was a prophet and a type of Jesus Christ. The God who inspired him to write these Psalms is not to be presumptuously challenged why he inspired him to write such and such words. If David had been speaking even of his personal enemies, it would not be the voice of revenge. He fasted, mourned, prayed, and wore sackcloth for them that rewarded him ill for good (Ps. 35:14). So did Paul travail as it were in birth to have Christ formed in those, who said “his bodily presence was weak and contemptible,” and reproached him as “walking according to the flesh.” ( 2 Cor. 10:2, 10). Yet under inspiration of God, he says, “if any bring, or preach any other gospel, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8-9). Now this was not the voice of revenge, but his calmly telling the truth, that if they deviated from the gospel, God would add that to the former great account of their iniquity.
If it dull the worship so much to mention any of the wraths that await sinners, then Dr. Watts’ imitation or image of the Psalms will dull the worship too, and should be expelled. For in the 7th page of said edition, he sings:
“On impious wretches he shall rain,
Tempest of brimstone fire and death;
Such as he kindled in the plain
Of Sodom, with his angry breath.”
Although the sacred words and divine matter, be here erroneously blamed for causing the “worship to grow dull of mere necessity,” yet I aver, that the blame lies in the unbelief, carnality, and enmity of depraved human nature, which is so high in command, that it not only makes the worshippers grow dull and weary of the song, but it actually arrests negroes, peasants, merchants, soldiers, colonels, generals, governors, kings, and queens at home in their own apartments on the Sabbath day. For months, for years, they can have no inclination to public worship; they avoid the Kirk as a pest house: So great is the power, so extensive the command of these accursed corrupt dispositions of the human soul.
Depraved men of all ranks have been the willing slaves to the wide extended empire of enmity these five thousand years. Yet they know it not, nor will they believe the mournful truth, though one rise from the grave and tell it. Are there not some persons upon whom God has bestowed very large, and affluent fortunes of wealth, who are yet under the bonds of so strange an aversion, that they have not been twice at public worship these seven years? Nor have given one shilling of all that wealth, to support the worship of that great God, on whose bounty they live, and in whose raiment they glitter like tinselled butterflies?
5. Uninspired songs diminish from God’s Word.
5. Because while you use not the Book of Psalms itself, only an imitation of it, you expose yourself to all the curses that divine law and justice denounces against such as add to, or diminish from his Word.
If you connive with the daring diminishers, for by using it, you as really bar the Book of Psalms out of use and practice in public worship, as really as if you had gone and hired the bookbinder to omit binding it in with the canonical books of the Bible. For what avails it to have it bound in among the sacred books in prose, while it is never sung? The other canonical books were given by God to be read, but the Book of Psalms was given us for a double use, to be both read and sung, in faith. Now, it is entirely expelled and abolished from being sung, and an image or imitation of it is put in its room, in the House of the Lord. It is awfully dangerous for you to be one of that number who conspire to diminish twelve psalms from God’s system of Psalmody. “Thou shalt not add to the Word that I command thee, nor diminish aught from it.” (Deut. 4:2). “If any man shall take away from the words of this book, God shall take away his part out of the Book of Life.” (Rev. 221:19). “Thou sawest a thief” (that robbed the church of twelve psalms) “and thou didst join with him”—“I will reprove thee.” (Ps. 50:18,21).
My dear reader, see how the diminishing or taking away goes on in two instances among many. You have six precepts in the Assembly’s Version of Psalm 4:4-5, which are as follows:
“Fear and sin not, talk with your heart
on bed, and silent be.
Off’rings present of righteousness,
and in the Lord trust ye.”
In the imitation it runs thus:
“When our obedient hands have done a thousand works of righteousness;
We put our trust in God alone, and glory in his pard’ning grace.”
Is not every one of the said six moral precepts here passed over in silence? And the very sweet warrant for sinners presenting the Redeemer’s righteousness, as a sin offering to God taken away? And a song left us about a thousand works of righteousness done by our own hands (though strictly speaking, all our righteousness is filthy rags)?
I have not yet had time to examine this imitation strictly as to its orthodoxy, but I observe in the Assembly’s Version, it runs thus in Psalm 51:2-3:
“Me cleanse from sin, and throughly wash
from mine iniquity.
For my transgressions I confess;
my sin I ever see.”
How widely different is the imitation of these verses:
“Shouldst thou condemn my soul to hell,
And crush my flesh to dust;
Heaven would approve thy vengeance well,
And earth must own it just.”
Is not this a dangerous doctrine? How can a soul be condemned to Hell after conversion! God says no such thing in the original. This imitation represents David speaking as an unpardoned soul, though God had sent Nathan to tell him he was actually pardoned. How unjust would it be after that pardon to damn him to Hell? What Heaven is it, would approve such damnation?
No doubt the Dr. affirms that he is far from reproaching the sacred Book of Psalms, for he says, page eight, in said preface, ”Far be it from my thoughts to lay aside the Book of Psalms in public worship. Few can pretend so great value for them as myself, but it must be acknowledged still that there are a thousand lines in it which were not made for a church in our day to assume as its own.“
But by means of his degrading and reproaching the Book of Psalms, it is now laid entirely aside, for above twenty years past. It is as effectually laid aside, as if he had warmly petitioned all the Synods, Councils, and Associations on this continent, and obtained their solemn vote for its exclusion. And as surely laid aside as if he had petitioned all the legislatures on the continent, and got them to pass acts that none of them should be printed or sung any more, from one end of the United States to the other. For he has, in print, publicly blamed the matter and words of God’s Book of Psalms as guilty of dulling the worshipping assemblies. He charges it with checking them in their ascent towards Heaven. He degrades it as darkening their sight of God the Saviour, and condemns it as openly contradicting both the Spirit of God in the Gospel, and the new commandment. Was ever any book written or printed on this continent so vilified and blasphemed in more opprobrious language, or charged with more pernicious injury to men’s souls? And yet he pretends a great value for it!
After its reputation as a part of God’s unerring Word is ruined and abolished, then a clear large way is made for introducing his “imitation” in its place, under a great many fine characters, as being far more suitable to the various cases of the souls of Christians, far more agreeable to New Testament language and times, etc. Thus as Joab did to Amasa, he kisses it with a pretence of great value for it, and in the meantime stabs it under the fifth rib with an opprobrious reproach. And is it not dangerous, dreadfully dangerous, to connive with such reproach and blasphemy? And his diminishing not only twelve psalms from it as unworthy of imitation, but blaspheming the whole, as hindering men from ascending to Heaven, and darkening their sight of that blessed Saviour sent by God, to bring lost sons to glory. How tremendous the danger to join in such daring diminishing from the number, the reputation, and the use of God’s Book of Psalms! How awfully hazardous to join in adding and using a new imitation in room thereof, that is so unwarrantable, so superfluous, so destructive to the peace of the church, and offensive to the children of God! How aggravated the sin to commit all this in the face of God’s curses, his four times repeated curses, that are more loud than ten thousand thunders: “Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” (Prov. 30:6). “All liars shall have their part in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone.” (Rev. 21:9). “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law, and all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deut. 27:26).
Reasons for the Exclusive Use of the Psalms in Public Worship.
But now, that we ought to use God’s own Book of Psalms in praising his name, is clear from these reasons:
1. The express command of God.
Because God commanded us to praise his name with the Words of David and Asaph (2 Chron. 29:30). We have two instances of persons inspired to make and sing a song, on two special occasions, viz. Moses and Deborah. But after the eternal Spirit spoke all the words of the Book of Psalms by his holy chosen penmen, it appears that he did it for this special purpose, that we should serve him in solemn praises, with those most suitable words, devised by his own unerring wisdom. In Psalm 102:18, God declares that, “This shall be written for the generation to come, and the people who shall be created, shall praise the Lord.” God wrote out the Book of Psalms, that with them the generations to come into life, even in the New Testament times, should praise the Lord with these very words.
The pious and learned commentator, Henry, on Psalm 145:1, thus explains it, “‘I will bless thee forever and ever.’ This intimates that the Psalms he (viz. the Psalmist) penned, should be made use of in praising God by the church, to the end of time.”
It is rational to suppose, that while we essay to pay unto God the tribute of praise and glory, which we owe to him, night and morn in our families, or in public assemblies, on the first day of the week, that we pay it to him in language which he himself devised. Must it not be the most agreeable to the majesty of Heaven!
Other books of divine revelation are given us to be read and to be meditated upon, but the Book of Psalms is given us that we may not only read it and meditate on it, but sing it also with the spirit and understanding, with devout fervour and divine delight, in the assemblies of his saints, on his holy Sabbaths, as as in private families.
Historians say that the English Parliament, having convened about one hundred pious and learned divines, at Westminster, London, to compile a Confession of Faith, Catechisms, Larger and Shorter, Directory for Public and Family Worship, and Form of Presbyterian Church Government, about the year 1643, laid before them an imperfect draught of this Version of the Book of Psalms, made by the pious Sir Francis Rouse, Baronet of Old England, recommending it to their serious examination: who, with laborious and pious care, altered, corrected, and approved it, unanimously, and returned it to Parliament, and both houses, also did then approve and Authorise it to be sung in families and churches, throughout that kingdom.
The pious and learned Samuel Rutherford, Professor of Divinity, in the University of St. Andrews, and the other Scots members of said Westminster Assembly, then sent said authorised Version north to the General Assembly of the national church of Scotland, at that time sitting at Edinburgh, whose committees had it under consideration several years, and having further corrected and amended it, the General Assembly did approve it, and authorise it to be sung in families and churches, as did the Scots Parliament also authorise it throughout that realm.
The great and learned Dr. Ridgley, in his Body of Divinity, page 572, speaking of the Metrical Version of the Psalms, says, “That which comes nearest the original, is the New England and Scots (i.e. the said Assembly’s Version), which, I think is much preferable to the former.“
So after near seven years’ labour and critical care spent on it by both Assemblies and Parliaments, it may be called the Assemblies’ Metrical Version of the Book of Psalms; and they have brought it so very close to represent the same ideas of things, the same doctrines, precepts, etc. as the Hebrew Psalms, wrote also in Hebrew Metre, that those who use it may with great propriety be said to praise the Lord with the words of David and Asaph etc. according to the commandment before cited (2 Chron. 29:30).
2. The universal practice of the Church—Scripturally & historically.
Another reason why we ought to use the Assembly’s Metrical Version is because in using it we follow the pious example of the flock of Christ, the saints in Scripture, etc. We are commanded to go forth by the footsteps of that happy flock (Cant. 1:8). This is and was their good old way to praise the Lord. We have the laudable example of the pious king Jehosaphat (2 Chron. 20:21). He appointed singers unto the Lord, who, with his army on their march to battle, sung the divine words of David, saying, “Praise ye the Lord, for his mercy endureth forever,” etc. (Ps. 136:1). And when they returned so victorious, to render thanks to God, we have reason to suppose they used the same Psalm Book.
About two hundred years after, when penitent Israel returned from Babylonish captivity, and were laying the foundation of the temple, “They sang together by course in praising and giving thanks to the Lord” in the words of David, “For his mercy endureth for ever toward Israel.” (Ezra 3:11; cf. Ps. 136:1). On both these new occasions they sung no new composures of their own, but the Book of Psalms being completed, they found in it a psalm that suited them very well and God accepted them in it, and hath made a record of it in the volumes of his, for our learning and instruction.
In New Testament times, John, the beloved disciple, in divine vision, saw and heard those who had escaped the strong powers of Antichrist’s delusions praising the Lord with the words of David, “Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest.” (Rev. 15:4; cf. Ps. 86:8-10). This he saw and heard in the Heaven of the New Testament Church.
Likewise, at the final fall of Antichrist, the New Testament Church, on that new and glorious occasion, sings no new imitation or composition of human device, but sings the Words of God’s old Book of Psalms, “Praise our God, all ye his servants, and ye that fear him, both small and great” (Rev. 19:5; cf. Ps. 134:1). Nor do we hear of any dullness appearing on their faces, while they confined their songs to this old matter and words of David and Asaph, or other parts of that book known by the common name of the Book of Psalms to the Churches, ever since they were revealed (Luke 20:42; Acts 1:20).
Historians say that for the first three hundred years after Christ’s incarnation, the Christian churches sung the praises of God in the words of the Book of Psalms, each nation in its own language, till the fourth century, then they would no longer confine their songs to the matter and words of God’s devising, in the old Book of Psalms, but new compositions were made, and new benches of Canonical Singers or Cancillators, were set up in their churches. Exorcists and other superstitions were also then invented. Tertullian says that “after celebrating the Lord’s Supper they sang a hymn, either out of the Bible or one of their own composing.” It seems reckoning their own hymns as good to use as the Bible ones. Paulus Samosetanus set up some on Easter day, “to sing an hymn to his own praise in the church.” (Euseb. Lib. 7. page 281). Thus men fond, very fond, of their own new inventions in religious worship, as they are fond of new fashions of dress, are still set on changes. God says, “Meddle not with them that are given to such changes.” The Bible and the histories of past ages hold up to us many sad spectacles of men’s most egregious and criminal folly in setting up new modes of worship, which they addressed to God under various pictures, both in his praises and other parts of his worship, perhaps—during eleven hundred and sixty years gross idolatry, for which they were smitten with many terrible judgments, until the Reformation in 1560.
Then our reformer, spirited by God, returned to use a metrical version of the Book of Psalms in the praising of God, made by some of the ministers, I suppose, but used no imitations that I know of, there, from Anno 1560 until November 14th, 1645. That the Assembly’s version was authorised in England, by both Houses of Parliament, as a part of that uniformity in worship, then practised by our pious ancestors. Nor could all the powers of Hell, nor bloody tyranny of Charles II and his brother—for twenty eight years—compel them to recede from the use of this version of the Psalms, or any other part of that happy system of Reformation in religion to which they had attained, and to which they had laudably sworn an adherence by Solemn League and Covenant. It is said about sixty thousand of them suffered the loss of eleven millions, by fines. Many were banished to Holland and America, after wandering long on the mountains. Numbers suffered in jails and dungeons and in fields, and on scaffolds eighteen thousand suffered. Yet, these pious martyrs sang this version through all these dangers, and on the verge of dissolution, with their dying breath and devout joy, and were accepted of God.
The first noble and devout settlers in New England, whose true piety will be dearly esteemed by the religious, to the latest annals of America, they sang this version in their families and churches with Heavenly fervour and divine delight. How forbidding then is it for us to neglect or reject this version, wherewith our pious ancestors praised the Lord, and found acceptance through the merits of Emanuel?
“Thus saith the Lord, stand ye in the ways, and see and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein and ye shall find rest for your souls; but they said we will not walk therein.” (Jer. 6:16).
3. The Psalter—an anatomy of the soul and a compendium of all divinity.
We ought to use the Assembly’s version of the Book of Psalms because it best suits the various cases of Christian souls in our times, and is most for edification.
Christian reader, commune with thine own heart awhile, and ask what case it is in, then search this Book of Psalms, and see if thou canst find a sentence in it that suits thy case. Dost thou find by recollection that thy sins are more than thou canst number, and heinous in their nature? That thou art therefore in the utmost danger of eternal fire, and greatly afraid night and day? Then read, Psalm 38:4, Psalm 40:12, Psalm 119:20. The Lord sent unto thee a word of salvation.
“I for thy sacrifices few
reprove thee never will,
Nor for burnt-off’rings to have been
before me offer’d still.” (Ps. 50:8)
“Thou hast received gifts for men,
for such as did rebel;
Yea, ev’n for them, that God the Lord
in midst of them might dwell.” (Ps. 68:18)
Does thy sinful inclinations still grievously prevail against all thy prayers, resolutions, and vows? See Psalm 65:3:
“Iniquities, I must confess,
prevail against me do:
But as for our transgressions,
them purge away shalt thou.”
Ps. 50:7, “God, even thy God, I am.”
Is thy spiritual willingness and strength for reading, praying, hearing, and keeping the Sabbath, greatly decayed and gone? Is this thy case and thy grief? So it was with David. Ps. 20:15; 102:23. See a word of salvation sent to thee.
“A willing people in the day
of pow’r shall come to thee,
In holy beauties from morn’s womb;
thy youth like dew shall be.” (Ps. 110:4)
“With whom mine hand shall stablish’d be;
Mine arm shall make him strong.” (Ps. 89:21)
Art thou almost overcome with spiritual deadness in any religious duty, which is a great trouble to thee? See Psalm 138:7:
“Though I in midst of trouble walk,
I life from thee shalt have.”
Art thou laid sick on a bed of languishing, and got exceedingly weak? See, so far as it tends to the interests of true religion in thy soul, he will perform this promise that suits thy case.
“God will give strength when he on bed
of languishing doth mourn;
And in his sickness sore, O Lord,
thou all his bed wilt turn.” (Ps. 41:3)
Hast thou long prayed for a certain mercy thou standest in need of, to thyself or to thy friend, and yet there appears no sign of a gracious answer: so that thou fearest greatly God will never regard nor answer thy languid prayers for that mercy?
“All day, my God, to thee I cry,
yet am not heard by thee;
And in the season of the night,
I cannot silent be.”( Ps. 22:2)
“The prayer of the destitute
he surely will regard;
Their prayer will he not despise,
by him it shall be heard.” (Ps. 102:17)
Art thou strongly solicited by Satan or by some person, to do what is called a little sin, or a secret sin, or to neglect some particular duty, to the great dishonour of God, and hurt of thy soul? See the promise of Christ to the sinner that looks to him:
“On him the foe shall not exact,
Nor son of mischief wrong.” (Ps. 89:22)
Is thy soul much grieved because thou seest little or no signs of true piety in any of thy relations, and it often grieveth thee?
“All ends of th’ earth remember shall,
and turn the Lord unto;
All kindreds of the nations
to him shall homage do.” (Ps. 22:27)
Although thy frugality and industry has been constant, and thy prayers frequent for thy daily bread, yet still thou remainest oppressed in deep poverty?
“For he the needy shall preserve,
when he to him doth call;
The poor also, and him that hath
no help of man at all.
The poor man and the indigent
in mercy he shall spare;
He shall preserve alive the souls
of those that needy are.” (Ps. 72:12-13)
Does thy wonted familiar friend in whom thou trusted, and who did eat of thy bread, now lift up his voice against thee unprovoked? His tongue stabs thy good name as an envenomed dart, behind thy back, perhaps, laying grievous things to thy charge, which thou knowest not? Then see Ps. 38:11 & Ps. 41:8-9.
“Thy way to God commit, him trust,
it bring to pass shall he.
And, like unto the light, he shall
thy righteousness display;
And he thy judgments shall bring forth
like noontide of the day.” (Ps. 72:5-6)
The Book of Psalms is well suited to many other cases, and as Gerhard, an eminent divine, says, “They are a glass of divine grace, representing to us the sweet smiling countenance of God in Christ, a most accurate anatomy of a Christian soul, delineating all its afflictions, motions, temptations, and plunges, with their proper remedies.“
The learned Ainsworth, in his preface to it, says “David, by manifold psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, sets forth the praises of God…and these his Psalms have ever since by the Church of Israel, by Christ and his Apostles, and by the saints in all ages, been received and honoured as the Oracles of God…Sung in the public assemblies, as in God’s Tabernacle and Temple, where they sing praise unto the Lord, with the words of David and Asaph, the Seer.”
And though the Reverend and learned Dr. Watts hath in great mistake, wrote the above reproaches on the Book of Psalms, (I suppose under a fit of temptation) yet I still hope he was a very pious man. His writing on Logic, and some other subjects, will be of permanent advantage to the learned, and would do lasting honour to his name; but the best of men are but men at the best.
A Supplement to the Ploughman’s Letter
In answer to some inquiries on Psalmody by his young friends
By James Harris (1827)
My dear young friends: It being more than three years since I wrote last to you, I will now offer you a few more ideas on Psalmody, especially as there is a call at present for someone to write, and none that I have spoken to, will undertake it.
The first thing I will begin with, is the conduct of Dr. Watts in leaving out verses, and making the Psalms shorter. The first I shall notice, is the 18th Psalm, which is 19 verses shorter. The 22nd is 7 shorter; the 35th is 22 shorter; the 89th is 11 shorter; the 105th is 25 shorter; the 119th is 82 shorter; the 136th is 16 shorter. In these 7 Psalms there are 182 verses left out. And if it were only so many dollars short of what it should be, it would be worthy of particular notice in settling an account properly. Nevertheless, one of these verses left out is of more value to the Church than thousands of dollars. The 136th Psalm which is so much curtailed, was sung at the dedication of the Temple; and the cloudy Pillar filled it while thus exercised (2 Chron. 5:13). Also they sang the same at the laying of the foundation of the second Temple (Ezra 3:10-11). And while they sang the same Psalm, their feelings were very different. Some were weeping; others were shouting for joy. This shews us that the foundation that Wattonians build so much upon is false, viz. that we should make our songs of praise according to our frame. If the Israelites had acted on the Wattonian principle, they would have made two songs at least, and set aside the 136th Psalm which God had given them. But the Israelites’ principles and practice were somewhat like those of the Seceders; and that is, to endeavor to bring their hearts and frames up to what God has given in his own songs of praise. To take it the other way, we must have as many songs as singers. This principle at once destroys all social praise. Strange, that they lay that for a foundation, which will destroy social praise altogether; but no stranger than true.
If anyone had a right to make an appropriate hymn, Christ might have made one to sing on the cross; as such an event never did take place in time, nor ever shall. But he set us an example to take the Word of God as the matter of our songs of praise and prayer also; for he made use of the Psalms of David in both. And we think that his prayers and praises were accepted of God; and why not ours, if we exercise faith on his Word as he did? In Exodus 15 we find that Moses and the children of Israel sang one song, notwithstanding the different feelings of so great a number, being more than 600,000 warriors. Nor did Miriam make an appropriate hymn, but sang the very same words that the rest did. It would be a terrible restriction on modern worshippers at a Camp Meeting, to be confined to God’s Word for their songs of praise, especially the Psalms of David. They would take Christian liberty, as they call it, to sing as they please; without having respect to any command, human or divine.
You may see the evil of altering God’s Word as Dr. Watts has done, as the Dr. acted in the same way that the serpent—or the Devil in the form of a serpent—did (Gen. 3:4-5). In the 4th verse he added “not;“—”ye shall (not) surely die.” In the 5th verse he added “and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Our first parents taking it with this alteration, and acting on it in this way, it became the ruin of the whole human family. Yet Wattonians would have us to take the book of Psalms as Watts has added to, and diminished from it. Arid can we expect any better effect to result from our using it in that way, than what attended our first parents using it in the same way? It made them fly from the voice of God and hide themselves, and caused them to shun the light. A correct history of the Church will show a similar effect on those that treat God’s Word in this way. When God’s Word is altered as the Serpent and Watts have done, it is no more the Word of God, but the Word of them that altered it.
A translation of the Scriptures is not considered any alteration of the Word Of God. But Dr. Watts has made the 109th Psalm 25 verses shorter, and in, place of setting forth the righteous judgments of God on the wicked, he patches up 6 verses which he calls “love to enemies” Certainly this is acting in the very way that the Serpent did, as mentioned above in Genesis. God told our first parents, “in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die:” the Serpent said “ye shall not.” God says in the 109th Psalm that he will let his wrath fall on the wicked: Watts says, Christ will bless. The last line of the 4th verse in Watts is, “And blest his foes in death.” I defy anyone to show such an idea in the 109th Psalm.
For Dr. Watts to bless those whom God curses is as sinful as to curse those whom God blesses. And to bless, where God curses is Serpent or Devil like, be it Watts, be it what, or be it who it may. To be more merciful than God is, is what we are not commanded. Did God approve of those that kept back their sword from blood in destroying those Canaanites, who were devoted to destruction? (Numbers 33:55). Did not Hiel pay dear for building Jericho? (1 Kings 16:34). Did not Saul lose the kingdom of Israel for sparing Agag? (1 Sam. 15:18-35). It does not become the servants of God to say or do contrary to what their master saith; and all who do themselves act, or try to get others to act, contrary to the command of God, shew plainly that they are acting under another master.
Dr. Watts might as well have said, “I bless you, ye Scribes, Pharisees, Hypocrites,” as to have said what he did in the 109th Psalm; as the same characters are mentioned there as in Matthew 23:13. And in the 109th Psalm, from the 1st to the 6th verse, and in the 20th verse, it is in the plural number, and so will not all be applicable to Judas, but to all of that character.
I should like to hear what spiritual meaning a Wattonian would give to Leviticus 22:24: “Ye shall not offer unto the Lord that which is bruised, or crushed, or broken, or cut; neither shall ye make any offering thereof in your land.” I think that a lamb that had passed through between the cog-wheel, and the Trunnel-head of a Grist Mill, would not be more bruised, crushed, broken, and cut, than Dr. Watts has bruised, crushed, broken, and cut the 109th Psalm; and yet the Wattonians prefer it to a sound offering.
When I first began to study the subject of Psalmody, I would read a portion of the Psalms, and then the exposition of Mr. Henry, after which I would compare Watts’ Psalms with the exposition. I soon found that he did not pretend to keep any regular order. But when I came to the 109th Psalm I found that the dogs had left more of the carcase of Jezebel, than Dr. Watts had left of that psalm. Indeed it cannot be said that it is the 109th Psalm; for there is not the skull, and feet, and palms of the hands there, as there was of Jezebel, when they went to bury her.
God commanded Ezekiel, “When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die, and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thine hand.” (3:17-18). Now, has Dr. Watts, in the 109th Psalm said unto the wicked man that he shall surely die? Or has he given him warning of his danger, and so delivered his own soul? Or rather has he not reversed it, and said that he shall not die? We are bound to obey those commands of God which have no reason annexed to them, much more when they have, as set forth in the above mentioned chapter. Blood will be required at all such Watchmen, as lead their hearers on to such dangerous undertakings, as to reverse God’s Word, either in principle or practice. For Dr. Watts to pretend to have the example of Christ for his blessing Christ’s enemies in the 109th Psalm is as much as to say that the will of God in his Word, is not the will of Christ. This plan would undo the whole plan of salvation; for if we do not believe that the will of the Father, and the will of Christ is the same, we have no sure ground to stand on. Christ, when on the cross, did not pray for the characters mentioned in the 109th Psalm but for such as were forced to crucify him. The Roman soldiers did not hear his trial before Pontius Pilate perhaps, and so did not know his innocence. We cannot think that he meant the Scribes and Pharisees who were his malicious foes, when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” These knew more than the Roman soldiers did, and of course knew what they themselves did. It was not so with the soldiers; “Now, when the Centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.” Christ’s prayer on the cross was a Mediatorial prayer, and must agree with another of his prayers, “l pray for them; I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.” (John 17:9). These two prayers are perfectly consistent with each other; and those characters in the 109th Psalm are, of course, not prayed for in his mediatorial prayer. Yet Watts saith in the last line of the 7th verse,
“And blest his foes in death.”
In Rouse’s version it is:
“And let his pray’r be turn’d to sin,
When he shall call on thee.”
Dr. Watts saith in his Preface to his Psalms, “Blessed he God we are not confined to the words of any man in our public solemnities.” Now what did Dr. Watts mean by this? In the first place, he gives us his principles, as it respects his not being under the control of any man; for you must know that Dr. Watts was a proper Independent, subject to no set of men. This information I had from Mr. Edmonds, a very respectable clergyman of the General Assembly Church in South Carolina. He said that he was personally acquainted with Dr. Watts, and knew his manner of life and knew him to be Independent in principle and practice. He was too proud to acknowledge any man fit for him to associate with in public solemnities. No wonder that he thought thus of men and their performances, when he thought that the Divine Songs were not fit for him to use, until they came through his correcting hand. And he thanks God for this liberty! It may be inquired how he came by this liberty. Perhaps it was promised, and given him, by the same one that promised to give to our Saviour the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them!
According to the Dr.’s own words, we are not confined to his psalms or hymns. Suppose that we should put in practice the thing that the Dr. says he had in view, viz. that the Clerk should substitute some other word, than the one in the line given out, according to his pleasure; and that he should say, ”’Curse” instead of “Bless,” would it not show that the Clerk had too much in his power? Or were he to reverse it, as the Dr. himself did and put “bless,” for some other “unpleasant word” which God himself had given, would it not be a very material thing? Have the Clerks in our legislative bodies, or in our courts of law, this privilege? If they had, could they not make a paper read what they pleased, and destroy itself? And why not the same in a song of praise? With this privilege, a good Clerk in any denomination, could slip in a word when he wanted, and so make it suit his own principles, be he Arminian, Deist, or anything else.
But if the Dr. means that we are not confined to the words of any inspired man, such as David, Asaph, etc. then he will appear in his true character as a Deist, who would have all other books as well as the Psalms modelled by himself and others of the same cast, to their own mind. The liberty, which Watts gives to the Clerks, is the same that he took himself, where he says in his Preface to one of the Psalms, “In some places, among the words, Law, Commands, Judgments, Testimonies, I have used Gospel, Word Grace, Truth, Promises, etc.” Were not these the Words of an inspired man that he was taking this liberty with? Certainly they were; and a very important part of revelation where they are found, if any part can be more so than another. Watts doth this under a pretence of its being more agreeable to the New Testament. This is to sugar over his Deistical Pills, The truth is, there is no part of divine revelation, but what is in New Testament language; for instance, the first promise that was given to our first parents, that the Seed of the Woman should bruise the head of the Serpent, was in New Testament language, or the same language that was used in the New Testament. It is said in 2 Cor. 11:3, “As the Serpent beguiled Eve,” etc.; and in Rev. 12:9, “that old Serpent“—that is, the same one that was to have his head bruised, according to the first promise. If Watts had said that he had substituted European for Asiatic language, it would have had some color of common sense, but the way it is used by him and his friends makes nonsense. If there had been any part of the Old Testament language that was not known under the New, then there might be some ground for Watts to go on; but until that is shown, we will hold our opinion of his unmeaning language. But I shall let scholars decide this matter, for I am none.
The word “law” which Watts has thrown out, and substituted some other one, as more suitable to the New Testament, is used 31 times in the New Testament. I wonder how often Watts would have a term mentioned in the New Testament, to make it New Testament language. The Word “truth” and “grace” which Watts has substituted in the place of “law,” is not as often mentioned in the New Testament as the Word “law;” and yet Watts has the impudence to hold it forth to the world as if it were not suitable to the New Testament. I am sure there is not a term or word that is made use of in the Old or New Testament either, that is more plain and easy to be understood, than the word law is; nor will it ever, to the end of the world, become an obsolete word. And for Dr. Watts’ taking from the Word of God, words of such importance, and substituting others that are not of the same meaning, I call him a Deist. It is not necessary to constitute a Deist, that a man should deny the whole of Divine Revelation. If he admits a principle, the result of which would lead to the destruction or denial of God’s Word, he deserves the name.
Would not a man deserve the name of a thief, if he would break a lock, go into the house, take but one article, leave the door open, and allow others to go in and substitute one article for another, as a Newspaper for a handful of Bank notes, or any thing else at pleasure? Beyond any doubt he would. And has not Watts broken the lock that God himself has put on every word of the Old Testament, as well as the New? (Revelation 22:18-19). And has he not confessed in his Preface, that he has taken five important words, and substituted others of his own devising; and allowed the Clerks of Congregations the same privilege? Now suppose that Watts has only thrown away the tenth part of the book of Psalms, which is a very moderate calculation, that the next, who would undertake the Digest; would only leave one tenth of the Psalms; that a third would throw away the five books of Moses; that a fourth would throw out Kings and Chronicles; then, at this rate, the whole of God’s Word would be laid aside, or stolen, or lost. Would you think that he who broke the lock, and made the first grab, would be free from guilt? Certainly not.
The Dr. says, “where any unpleasant word is found, he that leads the worship may substitute a better.” The unpleasant and better words are as the notion or sentiment of him that leads the worship is. We will suppose the leader to be a man under the reigning power and dominion of sin. Then any word that would awaken his conscience or shew him his dangerous situation would be an unpleasant word; and any word that would encourage him in sin and lull him asleep, or countenance his erroneous sentiments, would be a better word. For every man and every thing loves that which is agreeable to their own nature, and hates that which is contrary thereunto. From this it would appear that it is of importance to have a good Clerk to lead the worship.
I have spent some time in examining Dr. Watts’ psalms and other human compositions, and endeavored to point out some things in them that unfit them for an offering unto God, with hope of acceptance; but I might have saved myself the trouble, had it not been that I wished to shew others, that human composition was wholly unclean from its nature. Every beast that was designed to be sacrificed as an offering unto God, had to be examined to see if there was any blemish in it before it was offered. But those beasts, such as dogs and swine, were not to undergo any examination, because every thing of the kind was forbidden. So human composition, like dogs and swine, needs no examination, as to whether it has any blemish in it or not, for it and all such are utterly unclean, in God’s account, when presented in the room and place of divine songs. He that offereth such sacrifices “is as if he cut off a dog’s neck.” (Isa. 66:3).
If erroneous sentiments should render a man’s work unpopular, I think that Dr. Watts’ productions should not be so popular as they are. He says in a letter to Dr. Coleman “I think I have said everything concerning the Son of God which Scripture says; but I could not go so far as to say with some orthodox divines, that the Son is equal with the Father.” Dr. Watts ought to have told us in what, and how much, the Son is below the Father. In the year 1725 Dr. Watts came out openly against the doctrine of the Trinity. No wonder that he disregarded the doctrine of God’s Word, when he disregarded the Word itself so much, that he could dispose of it as he thought proper. The amount of his Preface to his Psalms, and what he actually did, is this, that he thought himself capable of making a better Psalmody for the Church, than God himself had done.
* “In 1783, there appeared a thirty-three page pamphlet by a conservative Albany minister, the Reverend Thomas Clark, titled ‘Plain Reasons Why Neither Dr. Watts’ Imitations of the Psalms…Nor Any Other Human Composition, Ought to be Used in the Praises of the Great God.’ Clark’s arguments took the form of an answer to the query from a ‘young Minister’ about using Watts’s Psalms of David Imitated. His points exemplify the objections raised by many Old Lights.” (John Ogasapian, Church Music in America, 1620-2000, p. 30).