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HISTORY OF HYMNS: Watts’ ‘Praise My Maker’ among Wesley’s favorites C. Michael Hawn, Jan 31, 2012
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
“I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath” Isaac Watts UM Hymnal, No. 60
I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath; And when my voice is lost in death, Praise shall employ my nobler powers. My days of praise shall ne’er be past, While life, and thought, and being last, Or immortality endures.
Isaac Watts is often called the “Father of English Hymnody.”
Watts (1674-1748) was not the first person to write hymns, but he was the first English-language poet who produced a significant number of hymns of high quality.
In the 18th century, hymns could be distinguished from metrical psalms. During the time of Watts, congregational song was dominated by strict metrical versions of the Psalms. For example, compare “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” (1561), William Kethe’s metrical version of Psalm 100, to the translation found in the King James Version. The similarities of language are striking for Kethe’s metrical rendition, the oldest continuously sung congregational song in North America.
Watts wanted to break the stranglehold of metrical psalms on congregational singing. To facilitate this he composed psalm paraphrases that were freer in their relationship to the original psalm and, in addition, “hymns of human composure”—freely composed hymns such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
“I’ll Praise My Maker” is Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 146. It was originally entitled “Praise to God for his Goodness and Truth” and published in his famous Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719).
Compare the first stanza of the hymn above to the first two verses of the psalm as found in the King James Version: “Praise ye the LORD. Praise the LORD, O my soul. While I live will I praise the LORD: I will sing praises unto my God while I have any being.” (Psalm 146:1-2)
Watts is not confined to the psalm but poetically expands it.
John Wesley played a prominent role in preserving this hymn as we know it today, slightly adapting four of the six original stanzas. Wesley strengthened Watts’ first line of the hymn which originally read, “I’ll praise my Maker with my breath.”
Watts’ original stanza two, according to British hymn scholar J.R. Watson, “was one of those stanzas which expressed Watts’ sense of human frailty,” a strong tenet of Calvinism falling under the rubric of the “total depravity of man”:
Why should I make a man my trust? Princes must die and turn to dust; Vain is the help of flesh and blood: Their breath departs, their pomp and power, And thoughts all vanish in an hour, Nor can they make their promise good.
Watts was paraphrasing Psalm 146:3-4: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”
John Wesley eliminated this stanza. Though more fitting for classic Calvinist sensibilities, the original stanza two provided an effective contrast to stanza three (now stanza two) that paraphrased verses 5 and 6 of Psalm 146. This contrast (antithesis) is a technique characteristic of the Psalter, in this case the dependence of humanity on the omnipotent Creator. The scripture reads as follows: “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God: Which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: which keepeth truth for ever.” Watts’ paraphrase follows:
Happy the man whose hopes rely On Israel’s God: he made the sky, And earth and seas, with all their train. . . .
One will note the subtle changes in the hymn as found in the UM Hymnal to accommodate a more inclusive language for humanity. Wesley included it in the first hymnal published in America, the Charlestown Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1737). Its appearance in every Methodist hymnbook since 1737 attests to its popularity. J.R. Watson noted: “In its shortened and less threatening form, this hymn was greatly loved by John Wesley, who died singing it.”
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.