Unbeknownst to the general Christian public, the American Revolutionaries were not the most unique among individuals in history without considering the religious nature of their involvement with their War for Independence. There was the Enlightenment, but for those who grew up in the world of 18th Century Boston, most folks—Evangelicals especially—would know otherwise.
Apart from the Calvinistic fervor most Bostonians had with respect to their politics (after all, these were the descendants of the 17th Century Puritans), the area which most Christians have not focused on is the musical melodies these men carried to the battlefield as they sought to fend off British Loyalty. Beside singing the classic, Yankee Doodle, another battlefield song came to prominence, which not only boosted soldier morale, but also became America’s unofficial anthem.
That song was Chester, by William Billings.
Although most folks have not heard of his name, his notoriety comes in a few different areas—ranging from his friendships with American Revolutionaries such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere to even having the ability to compose over a hundred tunes with musical training that was primarily self-taught—it is not a stretch by any human imagination to crown Mr. Billings with the title of America’s First Musical Composer.
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Even though his physique was not on par with Hollywood Standards, his musical tastes and repertoire was superb by far insomuch a few listeners could easily compare the tastes to that of Handel’s Messiah. While his musical tastes are not universally famous because he did not receive enough earnings while working as a musician, that does not mean he does not deserve the credit for the quality of work his music pieces bring to mind to either the singers or listeners.
The main point to bringing up an obscure musician who may have an eccentric personality has more do with the pieces which reflected the background of his upbringing, particularly the position of exclusive psalmody. Even though Mr. Billings was heavily involved with functioning as the church’s choirmaster and founding a music school to make even the most tone-deaf students into semi-professionals (on a side note, one must wonder if his music school could turn one such student—Kanye West—into an astute singer), the main point to bringing him up was not only to highlight his talented ability to breathe life into the Scriptures and make them not only memorable and song worthy, but also to give Christians the incentive to abandon contemporary calls to spruce up the atmosphere.
That is why this article asks about your hymns.
The word Psalter does have a nice sound to the ears of most Christians, but add the words Scotch or Genevan, and one gets the goose bumps. Not only are the tunes monotonic in nature, but also reek of tastelessness if one compares the tunes to the lyrics which are sung by the congregation. Of course this is not to demean or debase the argument for exclusive psalmody, this merely describes the attitudes held common among today’s Christians and those wanting to transition from the books back in the late 18th Century.
Enter William Billings.
Apart from his ability to write at least one good patriotic song, there are a few excellent pieces of music which were composed to accompany portions of Scripture which were not sing for the normative congregation—think about it: exclusive psalmody means only the Psalms should be sung. In this case, Mr. Billings have taken different texts of Scripture and put them to music including but not limited to the following: As the Hart Panteth (Psalm 42), I am the Rose of Sharon (Songs 2:1-11), Is Any Afflicted? (James 5:13, Colossians 3:16, & Ephesians 5:19), and Funeral Anthem (1 Samuel 2:1, Job 19:21, Psalm 88:18, Psalm 6:6, Psalm 119:25, & Job 1:21).
So much for Fanny Crosbie.
While many Christians are apt to be offended because William Billings could be regarded as the better composer than all these sappy-soppy hymn writing extraordinaire(s), the bottom line why there is superiority to his composition can be best described under three points, which will not only show out the superiority of the Psalter over hymns but the practicality it has over the hymns sung in today’s churches.
#1 The Psalter Imposes Scriptural Memorization
Apart from the biases held in favor of Mr. Billings, one should remember these composed songs he created prompts the listener to engage with the Scriptures, not just to be read aloud, but to engage with the feelings imposed by the Word of God. The fanaticism held for his music—which can be described as addicting as he was to chewing tobacco—is not solely based on the harmonies. Rather, one begins committing to the heart of the music: Scriptural Truth. On singing Psalm 42, there is an immersion between the melody and the text itself, a tune so well blended where a Christian becomes transported into the mind of King David as he originally wrote the text. In comparison to a contemporary artist—Robin Mark—there can be no comparison to which we find ourselves with a song that hardly reflects the text:
“As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs for you”
“You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship you.”
One artist, Poor Bishop Hooper, attempts to lure their audiences by claiming to be composing music to reflect the Psalms. Although they are to be credited for their good-will attempts, one does not need to go far to discover the music does not necessarily reflect neither the spirit of nor the exact wording of the text because renditions of the song reflect the artist’s personal tastes and individualized interpretation, not what the Psalm writer thought.
“No shadow of shame will darken our faces, we will be radiant, radiant with joy”
“In desperation I prayed and the Lord he listened.”
Compare its work to Psalm 34:
“I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth1. My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad2 (King James Version).”
#2 The Psalter Imposes Doctrine
Besides the Psalms which Mr. Billings worked on for the churches, a few pieces had focused on a collaboration of verses, as highlighted earlier. One of his best pieces, which was not mentioned earlier, is Who Is This? which is a collaboration of different Scriptural texts that focus on Christ’s Passion & Resurrection. Starting off with the titles of the Messiah, Billings brings the first part of his piece to a close when he begins focusing on the passion and the resurrection, which is what the piece has done.
While much of Mr. Billings tunes are rather achronological in the sense that these were neither part of the Scottish nor the Genevan Psalter, one should note that the main point to bringing up the anthem is to discuss the realities which these Psalters do, which a hymn cannot do: teach doctrine. In the anthem of Who is This? the bulk of the music emphasizes on the concept by drawing the listeners’ attention to core doctrinal truths—the titles of the Messiah, his passion, and a summary of what Christ has done for believers.
Although some folks would take to heart on the remaining portion of the anthem because Mr. Billings alludes to Scriptural doctrine, not directly quoting the text, one should note much of the anthem would be not so music worthy if the initial portion of the song did not open up with the proclamation of the Messiah’s rightful titles, which are hardly being referenced in today’s music. Moreover, to make the case a weak one because Mr. Billings is cited generally does no justice to the Psalters, which were the sources of inspiration for his music in the first place—not solely, because there are pieces cited from other sources, but predominantly because that exclusive psalmody was part of his upbringing.
#3 The Psalters Directly Praise God
Apart from Mr. Billings work, there needs to be a focus on the core truths behind the Psalters, which are these—they focus on directly praising God, something hymns (generally) will not do by any means. Even while some hymns have direct allusions to the Psalms themselves, many of those tunes are not directly composed by English-speaking individuals. To the contrary, many of the hymns sung today are direct translations from our Latin Monks, Italian Priests, and German neighbors. How many hymns close, open, or refrain their music with staunch remarks like this:
“And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).
“Who is the King of Glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!” (Psalm 24:10).
“My foot stands on level ground, in the great assembly I will bless the Lord” (Psalm 26:12).
Any Hillsong title would be a complete smash if they could pepper their lyrics with some direct quotes or allusions to their lyrics, but alas, they lack the biblical literacy the rest of the world needs that Poor Bishop Hooper would gladly take advantage for their own gains.
For anyone wondering what this means, peer no further past a Scotch Psalter.
Note: All scripture references originate from the English Standard Version.