Early Protestants were split on what constituted proper congregational singing. Lutherans sang hymns; Martin Luther himself wrote important hymn texts. John Calvin, on the other hand, encouraged only the singing of metrical psalms. The English followed Calvin’s example.
English metrical psalms of the 17th century seem almost unreadable now. They must not have appealed to English congregations of that time, either. Watts later wrote, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”
He had been complaining about the same thing since his early teens. His father, a “non-conformist” preacher, finally had enough and challenged young Isaac to come up with something better. Isaac, by the way, turned down a scholarship for a university education. That would have had him ordained in the Church of England. Instead he studied at a non-conformist academy and worked with independent congregations the rest of his life.
Watts’ important collections of verse include Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1707 and Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719). His contemporaries could barely recognize the psalms in his poems and objected vigorously.
Detractors sarcastically referred to “Watts’ whims” instead of “hymns” and charged that congregations who sang them had therefore banished divinely inspired words in favor of Watts’ overactive imagination. The controversy split congregations and led to the dismissal of pastors before Watts’ views on proper piety finally prevailed.
“Joy to the World, ” from Psalms of David is Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 98. Here is the King James Version:
O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.
The Lord hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the heathen.
He hath remembered his mercy and his truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.
Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.
With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together
Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.
“Joy to the World” captures the sense of joy at the display of God’s power, but otherwise, little in the hymn text corresponds to the psalm. For example, in place of the declaration at the end of the psalm that the Lord is coming, Watts declares that he has already come.
Careful reading of “Joy to the World” shows that it is not really about Christmas. The coming of the Lord that Watts refers to is not the birth of the baby Jesus, but the return of the king, who has won the victory over sin. In other words, the hymn looks to the Second Advent.
Every hymnal I have ever seen attributes the words to Handel. Apparently the first such attribution occurred in a collection of hymn tunes, The Modern Psalmist, by American composer Lowell Mason in 1839. Mason noted that the music for the tune “Antioch” was “from George Frederick Handel.” Later scholars have determined that nothing Handel ever wrote could be the source of “Antioch.”
Mason composed some 1,600 hymn tunes. He also prevailed in something of a controversy, although his victory came much quicker than Watts’. In 1836, he cofounded the Boston Academy of Music. One of its aims was to improve the standards of church music. An earlier generation of Boston composers, led by William Billings, had written music based on the traditions of rural English church music.
Mason and his associates considered this music crude and in poor taste. Their “Better Music Movement” sought to eliminate it in favor of music that followed the “rules” of European composition. The movement succeeded in driving “shaped note” music from the cities to rural areas. Unfortunately, Mason’s own grasp of the “rules” was not sufficient for him to write especially interesting music. Nonetheless, his tunes are every bit as common in American hymnals as Isaac Watts’ texts.