Evangelical Library (London) Lecture, 4th March 2002
By Christopher Idle. This address, adapted for print, is on Philip Doddridge, 1702-1751
I do not often feel like a bishop; if I do today, it is because one of Philip Doddridge’s many episcopal correspondents once wrote, ‘I shall think it a particular honour… once in my life, to take Dr Doddridge by the hand… in London’; in fact, in the lodgings of the future Bishop of Sodor and Man, in Covent Garden just behind this chapel. That today is my privilege, once in my life, and on this occasion to approach through another appropriate door; that of Westminster Chapel, old style. Those who are at home in the writings of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, or even heard him in the flesh, are never surprised to find the Doctor launching off from a logical analysis or trenchant application of Scripture into some almost ecstatic quotation from classic hymnody; a couplet, a stanza, sometimes a nearly complete hymn. To risk an early digression, it would be interesting to collate all these hymnological references. The researcher could produce a passably full hymnbook from the assembled quotations. We could see which were the Doctor’s favourite hymns, and how far he was prepared to go into the 20th century. Computers could help; perhaps they have already?
So, in preparing to preach from Romans 5 at about the same time as I was approached about this lecture on the earlier Doctor, I took up my ‘Banner of Truth’ volume (the next best thing to Dick Lucas) and saw that in his peroration at the end of the chapter, DML-J first quotes a stanza of Isaac Watts on the grace of God, and then five whole verses, or 20 lines, of ‘Grace! ‘tis a charming sound. ‘This latter is of course the work of our subject today, Dr Doddridge of Northampton, England. For good measure, that sermon ended with four more lines from Wesley. Earlier the preacher quoted a total of 20 lines from other hymns; now 29 of the last 34 lines of his printed sermon are from the hymnbook; another two are from the Bible! That may be a striking example, but is neither surprising nor unique.
‘Grace! ‘Tis a charming sound, harmonious to the ear.’ That is how they spoke, or at least sang, in the early 18th century. It is not the language of the 20th or 21st centuries, or of the New Testament. It is not one of the Doddridge ‘top five’; it is probably just dropping out of his top ten. And by the top five I mean those hymns which have been accepted across the board of churches, fellowships, connexions, denominations, and non-denominations as worthy and singable expressions of sung praise to our great, glorious and gracious Triune God.
The fact that they can be sung by Roman Catholics or members of the United Reformed Church is not a sign of failure. This notion would never have occurred to me unless it had been used as a stick with which to beat some current writers, as other means failed. I am delighted when hymns from orthodox evangelical reformed protestant origins are sung in chapels, monasteries, cathedrals, charismatic meeting-places or even on the BBC. As Doddridge’s first editor said of his hymns, ‘There is nothing that savours of a Party Spirit, or carries an appearance of designing to confine their use to any of the Sects into which Christians are unhappily divided.’ Similarly, Dr Lloyd-Jones’ favourites include texts by Anglicans, Methodists, Romans and worse. I do not need to know an author’s pedigree before I can be seen approving the words.
Dr Doddridge, like Mrs Alexander, has a top five: here they are in reverse order of popularity in hymn books still in use: No.5, ‘O happy day that fixed my choice’ – hopefully without its silly refrain. 4: ‘My God, and is thy table spread’; unique to my knowledge in its sorrow for absentees, since its author never gloats over the fate of outsiders. 3: ‘Ye servants of the Lord’ – needing attention to its second line, ‘each in his office wait’, and possibly to its seventh, ‘Gird up your loins, as in his sight’.
2nd in the list of favourites comes some version of ‘O God of Bethel/Jacob’ [hymn A on today’s sheet, as originally written]; and at No.1, a much-abbreviated form of ‘Hark, the glad sound, the Saviour comes’ [C on the hymn-sheet]. Most current books like us to omit all the verses with even numbers. Although one hymnal has 7 of his texts, two have 8, another 9, two others 10, another 13, and ‘Christian Hymns’ has 23, no other hymn of Doddridge’s comes near these five in public recognition by today’s believers. By contrast, three recent American books manage just one apiece, with its chorus. But the Anglican N Americans have 7, with not a happy day in sight. That chorus made a separate song in African-Caribbean style, (‘Jesus washed my sins away’) but by then had lost contact with the verses. (Unlike John Newton and the authors of Psalm 137 and Ecclesiastes 3, Doddridge himself never reached the Top 30.) Incidentally, the phrase ‘O happy day’ is borrowed from Isaac Watts, who uses it not of conversion but of heaven; not the first day but the last.
I began with the hymns because this is chiefly why we are here. I plan to come back to them; Erik Routley placed Doddridge at No.4 is his table of merit. James Montgomery, who came 3rd, used these words of the Nos.1, 2, & 4: ‘the piety of Watts, the ardour of Wesley, and the tenderness of Doddridge’. Prof Richard Watson (to whom I shall also return) calls Watts majestic, Wesley dramatic, and Doddridge friendly, gentle, accessible – and civilised.
But to deal with any other business, first, who was this man? His biographers range from Job Orton who knew him; via John Stoughton who kept a bicentenary in 1851; via his distant successor in Northampton, the pastor-historian-curator Malcolm Deacon, our lecturer at the Hymn Society’s conference in July this year; to Alan Clifford whose warm-hearted evangelical book ‘The Good Doctor’ is just a few weeks old. (Who can resist a subject index reading, in order, ‘Faith, Football, Free offer of the Gospel…’; Northampton Town have never won much, but the lads taught by Doddridge developed their tactical skills on the patch just behind his Academy.) I would not now be without either Deacon or Clifford; anything from Erik Routley or Geoffrey Nuttall is worth reading even where we cannot agree. I owe much to these authors and more; thanks to the Library, I have gone to primary sources where possible, but the same quotations often appeal to me as to these who have laboured longer and discovered far more than I have.
Philip Doddridge was a Londoner. He was born in this newly-rebuilt and fast-growing capital on 26 June 1702; England’s population was 5-6 million; its other great cities were Norwich and Bristol, with Tyneside and Birmingham catching up. The usual month for this lecture, June, would mark his tercentenary. He died in Lisbon, Portugal, on 26 October 1751; so last year saw an observance of the 250 years since his death. His parents were of protestant dissenting stock, who had known the tough times that were not yet over. He was their 20th child; that, it was said of someone who was a 21st, ‘is enough to make anyone famous, without anything else’. Like Charles Wesley, who was the last of a mere 18 live births and Doddridge’s junior by 5 years, Philip was so small and silent that his parents thought him stillborn. Happily, these two little boys did not stay silent long.
Only Philip and one sister survived infancy. Elizabeth became a pastor’s wife. He learned much at home; art and tradition show his mother teaching him from the illustrated Dutch tiles set Puritan- style around their fireplace. At what we now call key-stage 2 he was taught by a ‘Mr Stott, a long- since forgotten minister who kept an Academy in London’. Soon he would be aware of the new publishing sensation: the hymns of Isaac Watts. He went to London schools, but began his teenage years without mother or father. A rare personal reference in a later sermon touches on this double loss. But one of many providential happenings brought him into the fatherly care of the St Albans Presbyterian Samuel Clark; ‘Dear Phil’, he would write, which later became ‘Dear Sir’.
Dissenters then made up 6 per cent of the population; Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists in that order. (The figure is now 4-5%, but in different proportions.) Before his 16th birthday Philip was received into church membership; resisting pressure to conform to the Church of England on the one hand (which would have opened the door to Oxbridge), or study law on the other, in 1719 he entered Dr John Jennings’ academy at Kibworth in Leicestershire. With some exceptions, these dissenting institutions offered a far more demanding course than either Oxford or Cambridge at their lowest 18th century ebb; the former was described as ‘trifling’ by Joseph Butler, a more illustrious future bishop.
3 years later the academy moved to Hinckley. A year after that his tutor succumbed to smallpox; not before Doddridge had grown in faith and wisdom, influenced no doubt by Jennings’ breadth of learning and his coolness towards systems and articles which had been drawn ‘from’ Scripture but now seemed to be imposed ‘on’ it. The Bible must test and judge them all. Doddridge gives 5 reasons for opposing obligatory subscription to doctrinal confessions and articles (Clifford p.249).
I am now simplifying and selecting. We find Philip Doddridge directing his own re-opened Academy in Northampton, in what has been called the core of England and its central shire, at the age of 27; this was in 1729, and the next year he became pastor to the 342 members of Castle Hill Church, which hovered between Presbyterianism and Independency and is now (like Isaac Watts’ chapel in Southampton) part of the United Reformed Church. The Academy course covered maths, science, literature including drama, and much else; it trained men for other professions besides Christian ministry, but its ministerial students worked as hard as any. Lectures often began before breakfast, and at morning prayers one student would read a chapter of the Hebrew Old Testament, translating as he went; Doddridge then expounded, before they sang their morning metrical Psalm together, and so the day began. (Was it like that for any of you?) There could be between 30 and 60 students in any one year; over and above the fees, each young man had to provide two bedsheets and his own supply of candles. Like their tutor, they all learned to use shorthand – saving time, paper, and sometimes privacy.
This double appointment has been called the real beginning of the evangelical revival – 6 years before George Whitefield’s conversion, 9 before the Wesleys’. By the late 1700s, it could be seen that ‘the history of Nonconformity in the middle years of the 18th century is the history of Doddridge and his influence.’ [A Victor Murray]
Also in 1730, he married his beloved Mercy, and their twenty years of wedded delight in each other and in the Lord are an all-too-rare model among 18th century evangelical heroes. (Compare, perhaps, John and Mary Newton a little later.) Four of their children survived birth, infancy and smallpox; but the first, Tetsy, lived just long enough to try to teach the Westminster Shorter Catechism to the family dog. ‘Who made you?’ she demanded, but the dog looked puzzled. ‘You’ she exclaimed, ‘Dr Doddridge’s dog, and not know who made you!’ What might she have become?
The good doctor, tall, slim, short-sighted and kind, directed and taught his academy and pastored the church for two decades, and concerned himself with many wider social and scientific questions. That is the story of his life, until TB took him to Portugal in search, too late, of better health. Nearly 100 years later, another man of five great hymns and many good ones looked for health on the continent but knew in his heart he was dying; Henry Francis Lyte died at Nice in 1847, not much older than Doddridge had been. A great statue in Northampton shows atheist Charles Bradlaugh MP; Philip’s rather different monuments include the town’s main hospital which he helped to found. (and as it is now, might have cured him), and a simple gravestone in the centre of Lisbon.
I omit here the controversies; the chronic harassment from unsympathetic Anglicans, the often bitter attacks from those closest to him in doctrine, whose particular lines he would not toe; the i’s he declined to dot and the t’s he refused to cross. (When will we ever learn?) The highest extremes of eloquence were often reached when these divines were engaged in attacking each other.
That does not include Doddridge. He has been called ‘moderately orthodox’, meaning not ‘half- orthodox’ but orthodox without the ranting. For some, not good enough; he may have wobbled doctrinally in his mid-20s, but his real failing in their eyes is that like Dr Jennings he liked his students to have minds of their own and to think things through. Nor did he himself stop thinking. Isaac Watts thought highly of him; John Wesley’s journal gives a typically cool put-down after a visit to Northampton, but (also typically) he uses much of the Doctor’s work, notably in his outline for ‘A Christian Library”’, where it was acknowledged, and ‘Notes on the New Testament’ where the debt is noted as briefly as its author dared. The classic 1780 ‘Collection’ of hymns for the Methodists, edited by John, could hardly avoid featuring a handful from Watts; Doddridge is ignored. Nor did Wesley think much of his best-selling ‘Life of Colonel Gardiner’. This was Doddridge’s reward for being almost the only leading dissenter to welcome the Arminian evangelist, and thus getting himself into hot water with the Calvinists. On the other hand, his warm friendship with George Whitefield brought rich blessings to his own soul – and a polite protest from the revered Dr Watts.
Other troubles he shared with Wesley, notably when the Moravians came to town, and treated it to their own brand of charismatic pietism. The church gained some and lost some; the losses hurt Doddridge more than he ever showed in public (they often do), but the academy trained some 200 young men for Gospel ministry; and its pastor-teacher laboured tirelessly in writing. ‘The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul’ was the book that, under God, converted Wilberforce, whose own book brought others to Christ in a literary apostolic succession. With hindsight it seems a bridge from the older Puritanism to the coming Evangelicalism; 30 years or so later came one of that century’s secular classics, Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. (Today’s thought for your tear-off calendar: It is the nature of true religion to rise and progress, as it is of empires to decline and fall.) Is it one hymnwriter’s half-hidden tribute to another that in 1779 John Newton subtitled book 3 of the Olney Hymns, ‘On the Rise, Progress, Changes, and Comforts of the Spiritual Life’? The original ‘Rise and Progress’ of 1745 opens with a tribute to Isaac Watts and ends in Revelation 5: ‘Be this’, he says, ‘my last song on earth, which I am going to tune in heaven.’
Doddridge’s other great success story of the Northampton years was his popular commentary ‘The Family Expositor’, acclaimed by many including William Warburton, later Bishop of Gloucester. We may apply to Doddridge some words he applied to Archbishop Leighton’s Commentary on 1 Peter which he edited (and which later appealed to the teenage George Eliot): ‘There is a sort of criticism [comment] on the sacred writings which none but an eminently good man can attain.’ And here is his note, relevant to today, on Ephesians 5:19: ‘In your cheerful moments you are ‘speaking to yourselves’ and to each other in the ‘psalms’ with which David and the other inspired writers have furnished us, and in those new-composed ‘hymns’ of praise ‘and’ other ‘spiritual songs’, that is, songs on spiritual subjects, which the Spirit of God dictates and animates, with a variety adapted to the several occasions of the Christian life: and let it be your great care, that while you are thus tuning your voices, you be also ‘singing and chanting ‘[adontes kai psallontes] ‘in your hearts to the Lord’, without which no external melody, be it ever so exact and harmonious, can be pleasing to the ear.’
Less noticed by some historians is a 1741 sermon setting out the need of the whole world for the Gospel. That was 20 years before William Carey was born, ten miles down the road. Some have wondered if Carey had read it; he certainly had “‘The Family Expositor”’ with him in India, and not much else, in the early 1800s. Young Mr Carey had earlier walked down the path from Doddridge’s old vestry, for Baptism in the river Nene.
If, unlike Luther or Calvin, Whitefield or Wesley, Spurgeon or Ryle, the Northampton Doctor was over-fond of words like moderation, modesty, delicacy, respectable, prudent; if he did not often attract superlatives for his teaching or speaking; if we sometimes think we would have done rather better than he did in taking sides – let us also remember that he was known as ‘the eminently good Dr Doddridge’; that when seriously ill he would far rather die than sin; that while he found Owen and Goodwin magnificent but mysterious, he venerated Watts and prized Richard Baxter above all. Spurgeon recognised his peacemaking qualities: ‘I have placed next to Gill [the high Calvinist] in my library Adam Clarke [the Arminian], but as I have no desire to have my rest broken by wars among authors, I have placed Doddridge between them.’ This gem I owe to Alan Clifford, who adds a warning not to allow Doddridge’s charm to seduce us into neglecting his theology.
On Anglican/Doddridge relations, one more word. The ignorant attacks by some Church of England men never marred his fellowship with those of a better mind and heart, from curate to archbishop. But the more Doddridge looked into the Established Church (and he did look, not just look away) the more convinced a Dissenter he became. Today’s evangelical Anglicans find a mirror image here; the more they see of Nonconformity, the more persuaded they often are of the Church of England’s biblical credentials. With Doddridge, both parties may say, ‘When I see how many plausible arguments may be advanced on the contrary side, I am the less inclined to censure those who yield to their apparent force.’ (His mentor Samuel Clark even said ‘I am willing to allow a man the liberty of changing his mind without thinking the worse of him for it.’)
It is always ‘the others’ who look like the awkward squad, but we still seem to need one another. To be unconvinced by Anglicans should not mean that you are consumed by hatred for them. It is one thing to argue clearly and firmly; but if anyone on either side gives you ten infallible answers why this disputed doctrine is right, this one wrong, he is either trying to pull a fast one, or he has simply not understood the question.
Let us draw breath, or rather consult today’s map. We are walking among the hills. We have looked from a distance at where we are going. We are now setting off through the woods. What are they? Well, what was Philip Doddridge’s chief work? Surely, as a pastor-teacher in God’s church; a local congregation whose global dimensions are expressed by the printed page. But the pastor feeds his flock by ‘preaching’. Many Northampton sermons survive for us to see. To ‘read’ them today, without gestures, eye-contact, body-language, tone of voice, while limited, is still rewarding. Like everything about this man, his sermons were criticised; sometimes by his own students; significantly, he promised to try and do better. On their day, some were clearly Spirit-filled, heart-warming and highly effective.
But reading them now is often like walking upwards through our forest. Here are some fine trees, beautiful flowers, rich fruits, rare plants and woodland creatures. But you see them only one or two at a time. His sermons are doctrinal and practical. They avoid the contemporary pitfalls of mere moralising or sensational fireworks; you will not find them in many anthologies. Some contemporaries rated him very highly; he was a ‘plain’ preacher, ‘never very great, always very good’ (some of us might settle for that), but like his fellow-preachers he expected you to cope with four successive sermons on a single text, enriched with ten Bible references in five minutes. There are many abstract nouns, frequent warnings, much application, little illustration; when we find a vivid story, it is taken not from the streets of Northampton but from classical Greek, and even then, as he read it in a Puritan author. To be fair, Malcolm Deacon has found more homely touches than I have; but you have to go a long way to reach them, and to move from Doddridge to John Newton is to meet a different style altogether. From the Northampton pulpit, sentences of over 100 words are normal; for comparison, mine today are about a quarter of that length. Then Doddridge says of himself, ‘I know that all these thoughts are common and plain’. He may strike us as a bit deeper than that; but it is the homely Newton who makes us think ‘Ah, ‘now’ I see it!’
To resume my parable of walking, it is often hard to see the wood for the trees. We examine a fine specimen, its roots, trunk, bark and branches – but why, we wonder, it is growing here, of all places? What is its role in the forest, its place in the landscape or on our route? In other words, he rarely gives us the ‘context’ – like many other 18th century men, and some who try to imitate them today. The woods are still dense, the path uphill.
Our journey is enlivened of course by conversation. For this we turn to some of the wonderful letters which have happily survived; love letters, yes to girl-friend Kitty (before he met Mercy): ‘I dream of her in the night; I rave of her in the day; if my tutor asks me a question about predestination, I answer that Clarinda is the prettiest creature in the world…’ The more serious Victorian writers found all this hard to cope with, still more, the fact that the letters had been kept.
And then to Mercy, what lovely correspondence these two exchange as the years go by! When separated by his travels, they would write two or three times a week, from ‘her’ shopping list for him in London (‘Don’t forget the candlesticks, my dearest, or the spoons, or the tea’), to ‘his’ imitation of Dorset dialect – which I will not offer to imitate.
Even the mature Doddridge never lost his playful wit, a feature quite beyond Whitefield, Wesley, Toplady,even Watts (but not Cowper). It does not spill over into the sermons, of course, so we are especially grateful for such letters – such quantity, such quality, and such humanity, in writing both from and to him. Among the latter, here is John Barker (Matthew Henry’s successor at Hackney) writing from Epsom in 1739, writing ‘to renew my earnest desire that you take a reasonable care of yourself, and like a dutiful husband be absolutely ruled, managed and governed by your wife. You need not fear living too ‘long’, Doctor, and therefore pray do not live quite so ‘fast’.’ (Doddridge, the fast liver.) Or from the same, 1743: ‘I am much pleased that the Bishop of Oxford shows so much concern for the interests of religion; and… that he thinks the dissenters… have done any service against infidelity… I hear that good man has a strong sense of the excellence and importance of Christianity…’! One more, 1744: ‘I will and require, by these presents, and by the power you have vested in me, and all other powers I have, or may have, that you preach for me… July the 22nd, in the morning. If I should add, and no where else that day, I may as well keep my breath to cool my porridge.’
We are not quite out of the wood yet. But to complete my parable, the edge of the trees is in sight; the end of the sermons, and then? Here, not before time, are the hymns. The hymns which were so often built upon the sermon, and intended to summarise it, help to press it home, and turn the serious hearers into joyful, lyrical singers of their Redeemer’s praise. To come to the hymns is like emerging from the forest into the uplands; here we can breathe more freely, see more daylight, and look back at the contours and colours of the trees below us with an even greater appreciation than when we were in the dense middle of them. Without the written and preached word, no hymns worth singing; but without the hymns – a very different Doddridge to remember, and a very different lecture. Where shall we wander among these gentler slopes, these more accessible riches? He wrote nearly 400 hymns, which were collected and published posthumously by his first biographer in 1755. Other editions with more texts, corrections and variations followed.
A century ago Julian’s ‘Dictionary of Hymnology’ had Doddridge’s ‘top 9’, and then (with its usual optimism) listed 70 in common use. If that is true, it is strange that only 14 featured in the 1951 ‘Congregational Praise’, the book I got to know in my school chapel. The latest URC hymnal has 8, but Methodists, Brethren and Australians have also found’ Jesus my Lord, how rich thy grace’ (not in Julian; do you know it?) – from Matthew 25, and ending: ‘O rather let me beg my bread/ than hold it back from thee’. This is something of a landmark in social awareness hymns, and is enjoying a small rediscovery among some who may not otherwise warm to our author.
When the hymns were first sung they were simply in Doddridge’s handwriting; the ink was hardly dry on the page. They would be given out line by line, the congregation following the clerk; that is why, as with Watts, nearly every line makes some sense by itself, and rarely runs over to the next. The tunes were few and well-known, so the metres are still limited; Doddridge himself was apparently tone-deaf! Over a third are in Common Metre with a single rhyme, as in the 1st and 3rd hymns on our sheet, ‘O God of Jacob’ and ‘Hark the glad sound’. A similar number are in Long Metre, rhyming AABB, as in the 2nd and 4th hymns (dare/war/oppose/foes, etc). A handful are CM rhyming (sometimes approximately) alternate lines, like ‘O happy day’ (choice/God/rejoice/abroad); a few more LM hymns have only one rhyme per stanza, which may seem easier, but produces more flowing verses than the pairs of couplets demanded by AABB. So the great majority are in CM or LM. Julian’s Dictionary prefers his CM: some have ‘a sweetness which Watts rarely equals.’
He seems less successful in Short Metre; the remainder include six 8s, 886.D and so on, and the final one on our sheet, four 6s and four 4s, all lines rhyming. The longer the stanzas, the more likely are the lines to rhyme; the bigger the package, the more string you need to hold it together. I say this because Charles Wesley and Timothy Dudley-Smith have very few lines without their rhyming partners. That takes time, care, and skill.
One other metre is the lyrical gallop mastered by his successors in such hymns as ‘Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim’ and in ‘O worship the King’. Doddridge has it in a version of Psalm 149: ‘O praise ye the Lord, prepare a new song,/ and let all his saints in full concert join;/ ye tribes all assemble the feast to prolong,/ in solemn procession with music divine.’ Spot the difference; the later hymns have the internal rhyme, or 4 pairs per stanza (King/above/sing/love/defender/Days/ splendour/praise]; Doddridge has only two pairs. And several times he is caught out by the clock. I see him struggling over the midnight candle with a hymn which has two rhymes in verses 1 and 2, but he cannot sustain this through the hymn; it has to be ready for the morning, but Mercy suggests it is long past bedtime. In his book (1st edition], hymns 7, 28, 39 (nearly right!), 45 (half & half), 83, 99; enough to be a bit disappointing. (For a modern example, compare ‘We have a Gospel to proclaim’; if you don’t know the hymn, you are using the wrong hymn book.)
But more vital than metre or rhyme, ‘the plan’; the hymns are printed in Bible-order. That tells us the shape of his mind; not creed, calendar, church or Christian life, but Scripture. Newton and others have followed suit. It is the first ‘peculiar claim’ drawn to our attention by his great-grandson and later editor John Doddridge Humphreys, echoing but varying Wesley: ‘[the hymns] constitute a very complete system of “Bible divinity”; comprehending, explaining and enforcing a chain of the most interesting and signal texts which the enlightened judgememt of the author could select, and extending from the first book of the Sacred Records to the last.’
From Genesis to Job the 1st edition has 27 hymns including 8 from Exodus. Psalms have 44 and Proverbs a remarkable 8. Isaiah has 41 and the other prophets a further 50 (Jeremiah 16, Zechariah 7). 79 hymns are based on the Gospels and Acts, 50 of which are from John and Matthew. From the Epistles, 92 in all, led by Hebrews, 1 Peter, Ephesians and 2 Corinthians; Revelation has 12. His favourite sources are Psalms and Isaiah. Subsequent editions and additions do not affect that general picture, except perhaps in giving it further Old Testament weighting.
The five on today’s sheet are spread widely, from No.4 to No.304. The metrical styles often come in clusters; a group of LM in the Psalms or CM in Isaiah; did he sometimes stay in a groove during a sermon series, I wonder? This too may be a mark of speed; remember again, here is a pastor writing for his flock, with so much else to do and giving himself no time for revision. But notice that the Scripture texts are not stuck on to the hymns; the hymns have grown from the Scriptures.
To get a painful moment over, of course some of the lines are trite and facile. ‘Ye sons of men , with joy record/ the various wonders of the Lord’; ‘My soul, review the trembling days in which my God I sought; I cried aloud for aid divine, and aid divine he brought.’ Again like Newton, he is not writing in the study of some great house, nor on holiday, nor yet for some special conference, festival, student group or mission. The hymns have got to work first time, and be ready for Sunday morning. To be fair, some hymns get better as they go on (No. 32, ‘Behold the gloomy vale/ which thou, my soul, must tread…’). To read or pray them on our own can be very rewarding; but that is incomplete unless we also ‘sing’.
This has wider importance too. Hymns at their best work at their best ‘in church’; in ‘the great [or small] congregation’. Even today is not the ideal setting; nor is skimming through a book, nor yet poring over it in the library. The real test of Doddridge or any writer comes on the morning or evening of the Lord’s Day, or the church’s midweek meeting. It comes in the reading, understanding, and singing. That is one reason why these hymns, unlike many by other writers, are short. 20 or 24 lines are usually enough; the last on our sheet, ‘O ye immortal throng’, is added as a rare exception. With him we seldom need the dreaded words, ‘We shall omit verses 2, 3, and 7’.
The vocabulary? Here is an almost random handful of words: antidote, alternative, chronicles, comprehensive, faculties, insects, intellect, machines, magazine, materials, pregnant, silken, transcript, transitory… The hymnwriter who never has a surprising word is dull; one who induces shock in every verse will soon be just as tiresome. In keeping with his character and again like Newton who followed him, Doddridge does not push polemics into his hymns; not for him the spleen or wit of Toplady versus Wesley and vice versa. I once thought I had caught him at it; ‘Perfection! ‘Tis an empty name’; but this hymn on Psalm 119 ends with the true perfectness of God’s law: ‘There will I seek perfection too, where David’s God is known…’ Even when he gets to Simon Magus in Acts 8, a fine chance to pray the hypocrites down? Not at all! It is the sin and guile in ‘his’ ‘own’ heart for which he pleads first for exposure, then for penitence and pardon. Doddridge sounded more radical then than he does now, but occasionally reminds us that he is still an 18th century writer whose language we shall not wish to use today, still less imitate: Hymn 71, ‘When anxious cares would break my rest and griefs would tear my throbbing breast, thy tuneful praises raised on high shall check the murmur and the sigh.’
A small bypath is the study of hymn-titles, long or short. I pick a few; Hymn 141, ‘On the iniquity of sacrificing God’s children (yes, child-sacrifice] or, the evil of a bad or neglected education’. That is from Ezekiel 16, not for family reading; but a thought he shared with Charles Wesley. Or two from Amos 4, ‘Of the Providence of God, as shown in a fatal disease among the horses’, and ‘God’s controversy by fire: On occasion of a dreadful fire.’ Or John 12.32 ‘The attractive influence of a crucified Saviour’ (‘Behold the amazing sight’). Or Psalm 138,‘Singing in the ways of God’. Doddridge does not have Watts’ or Wesley’s genius for first or last lines. But to begin ‘See Israel’s gentle Shepherd stand’ is surely an invitation to read on: one which not many editors have taken up. This hymn, though dated now, is beautifully treated (as it deserves to be) among Prof. Richard Watson’s 12 pages on Doddridge in ‘The English Hymn’, 1997. If I were allowed just two books on hymns on my desert island, this would be one.
And to stay with the Shepherd, Doddridge ends his Short Metre Psalm 23 with this: ‘Dear Shepherd, lead me on; my soul disdains to fear; ‘death’s’ gloomy phantoms all are flown, now ‘life’s’ great Lord is near.’ Amen! If great minds think alike, he has both an ‘Amazing grace’, a ‘soul- refreshing’, and more than one ‘Awake, my soul’. He borrows, and he lends. And he wrote many fine hymns which are now all-but-forgotten. One is on our sheet, hymn B, ‘The great JEHOVAH!’ ‘who shall dare with him to tempt unequal war?’ Look at verse 3: Where are the haughty monarchs now/ who scorned his word with low’ring brow?/ Where are the trophies of their reigns?/ Or where their ruin’s last remains?’ Magnificent already; then in stanza 4 come Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod… and on to those last lines: ‘Trembling I seek thy mercy-seat, / and lay my weapons at thy Feet.’ Would you have put the word ‘weapons’ there? But it is just right.
He loved Isaiah, and it shows. Chapter 5: ‘The vineyard of the Lord, how fair!/ Planted by his peculiar care:/ behold its branches spread and fill/ the borders of his sacred hill’; here is both the successor to the Southampton pioneer (Isaac Watts), and the pastor of the Northampton congregation. If you know how ‘that chapter’ goes on you will know how the hymn’ goes on. It ends, ‘But spare our land, our churches spare,/ thy vengeance long-provoked forbear,/ let the true Vine its influence give,/ and bid our withering branches live.’
To repeat a sentence: If you know how the chapter goes, you will know how the hymn goes. You cannot say that of Morison’s ‘Come, let us to the Lord our God with contrite hearts return’; unlike Morison, Doddridge conveys the real message of Hosea 6. More to the point, you cannot say it of ‘Bright the vision that delighted/Round the Lord in glory seated’. Isaiah 6, you remember, is the prophet’s conviction, cleansing and commission. You would never know that from Richard Mant’s hymn. He doesn’t tell us why Isaiah is there, why the bright vision is given, how he reacts, what God says, or how he responds.
Now hear Doddridge; we join him in v. 2 of ‘Our God ascends his lofty throne’:
The holy, holy, holy Lord/ by all the seraphim adored,
and while they stand beneath his seat/ they veil their faces and their
feet. And can a sinful worm endure/ the presence of a God so pure?
Or these polluted lips proclaim/ the honours of so grand a name?
O for thine altar’s glowing coal/ to touch my lips, to fire my soul,
to purge the sordid dross away/ and into crystal turn my clay!
Then, if a messenger thou ask/ a labourer for the hardest task,
through all my weakness and my fear/ love shall reply ‘Thy servant’s here.’
Nor should my willing soul complain/ though all its efforts seemed in vain;
it ample recompense shall be/ but to have wrought, my God, for thee.
‘Now’ we know what is going on in Isaiah 6! Or rather, we did from the sermon; the hymn drives it home. Why the difference between Doddridge and Mant? Is it that one is Dissenter and one Anglican? No; one is a pastor-teacher; the other is only a bishop.
‘Hark the glad sound’, says Watson (again), is a ‘command to a congregation’ – that is, from its pastor; perhaps also to a world, from its evangelist? But suppose the hearers are deaf or even dead? The next sermon I am due to preach is on Ezekiel 37. Where do you go for a hymn on the valley of dry bones? Three verses from ‘Look down, O Lord, with pitying eye’:
And can these mouldering corpses live?/ And can these perished bones revive?
That, mighty God, to thee is known;/ that wondrous work is all thine own.
Thy ministers are sent in vain/ to prophesy upon the slain;
in vain they call, in vain they cry,/ till thine almighty aid is nigh.
But if thy Spirit deign to breathe,/ life spreads through all the realms of death;
dry bones obey thy powerful voice;/ they move, they waken, they rejoice.
Here again is the pastor-hymnwriter; he has seen the bones come to life. Remember me on Sunday week among the mouldering corpses of Camberwell.
‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Two and a half verses from ‘What doleful accents do I hear’: Loaded with shame, and bathed in blood,/ who calls to a forsaking God?… [‘a forsaking God!’] Yet when this Jesus died for me/ distended on the cruel tree, God stood afar, nor would afford/ one pitying look, one cheering word. But in that dark tremendous hour/ unconquered faith exerts its power; ‘My God, my Father!’, cried aloud/ and heaven the endearing name avowed.
None of these hymns is in our current books, maybe because they do not quite sustain their power right through to the end. But this man can write, and he knows his Lord.
At John 19, he pauses in the garden graveyard: ‘The sepulchres, how thick they stand’. Where Mrs Alexander didn’t quite make it with ‘Within the churchyard, side by side’, Doddridge succeeded over a century earlier. He had seen more corpses than she had, let alone our own generation.
I picked out three more before checking if any of them were still in print. One is; ‘Christian Hymns’ includes a rare SM success: perhaps the simplest of all. First and last verses:
How gentle God’s commands!/ How kind his precepts are!
‘Come, cast your burdens on the Lord, and trust his constant care.’
His goodness stands approved/ down to the present day;
I’ll drop my burden at his feet/ and bear a song away.
The remaining two are D and E on our sheet. ‘Christ seen of angels’, ‘O ye immortal throng’, is a tour de force. Christmas, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension; let the angels teach us the calendar and the creed!
But look at hymn D, ‘Now be that sacrifice surveyed’, which we shall sing as a closing item today. We borrow the tune from ‘When I survey’, where it is borrowed anyway; I do not say it is in the same league as the Isaac Watts masterpiece; but look for a moment. Here is ‘surveyed… wondrous…head…cross…blood…death.’ What is ‘not’ in Watts is Christ’s ‘sacrifice…ransom…paid’. Watts doesn’t tell us ‘why’ Jesus died; he thinks we know. Above all, Doddridge draws out something different, but totally biblical: not just the 3rd verse, ‘my love to him who died for m’’ but the 4th, ‘thy servants should each other love’. He knew the need.
Many other single stanzas are magnificent, moving or both, in texts where I cannot commend the whole hymn. ‘Moving’, from Proverbs: ‘Now let the listening world around/ in silent reverence hear…’ ‘Magnificent’; two stanzas from different hymns, first Lamentations, then Revelation:
But from the caverns of the grave/ he springs, omnipotent to save;
the captive King ascends and reigns,/ and drags his conquered foes in chains.
See the old dragon from his throne/ sink with enormous ruin down!
Banished from heaven, and doomed to dwell/ deep in the fiery gloom of hell.
Milton rides again? Or is this a bit much for Sunday morning in your leafy suburb?
Other favourite themes: New Year’s Day, and a model of construction: a couplet each for each of the four seasons, then, ‘Seasons and months and weeks and days/ demand successive songs of praise;/ still be the cheerful homage paid/ with opening light and evening shade.’ Jubilee, November 5th, Fast-days, Britain – who will write some credible ‘national’ hymns? (I’m afraid he goes over the top when England becomes ‘Emmanuel’s land’.) Cattle – did you sing about foot and mouth? ‘O look from thine exalted throne/ and hear our panting cattle moan… What have these harmless creatures done/ to draw this fierce chastisement down?’ He preached on that, too.
What Scripture is this? Exodus 9. And plenty of hail in other hymns: Deuteronomy 33, ‘In vain the storms of rattling hail/ the walls of this retreat assail’; or Psalm 18, ‘Now let the fiercest foes assail, / their darts I count as rattling hail’. And of course, television, or painted toys and glittering trifles: Hymn 268 on this world’s obsolescence, ‘An argument for Christian moderation’. Here’s your TV: ‘The empty pageant rolls along; the giddy inexperienced throng/ pursue it with enchanted eyes;/it passeth in swift march away,/ still more and more its charms decay, till the last gaudy colour dies.’
Is there wisdom here for what some call these degenerate days? But in the language of my subject: ‘I must now dilate on the practical applications which might naturally arise from this branch of my discourse, concluding it by hinting at the purposes by which it may be improved.’
1. Without necessarily insisting on paraphrase, let us model our hymns on Scripture, with Bible priorities and Bible attitudes. We shall be truly loyal to the Book of Psalms, not by simply ‘repeating’ what they say (‘Sing to the Lord a new song’) but by ‘doing’ what they say, and singing one. Someone has to write it.
2. Doddridge held the Psalms in special honour; do we? They do not constitute a Christian hymnbook, but nor should they be scattered promiscuously among the hymns, in either our public gatherings or our printed hymnals. They perform a different function in our praises and prayers.
3. When we have our new song, let us be flexible enough to introduce it, if not next week (though some may suit just that need) but at least this year, while it is malleable enough to be road-tested, pew-tested, even screen-tested! To use any book which virtually ignores current writing has never been part of a genuine Reformed tradition, whether Anglican or Dissenting. Like Watts, Wesley, Newton, Cowper, Alexander ‘et al’, Doddridge wrote his hymns to be sung there and then, not a century later; like Beddome and others, usually the very next Lord’s Day. We do not expect to find every church launching a new hymn every week, written by the pastor on Saturday night; but is it too much to ask that, from time to time, we might venture to sing one written in the last 50 years? Or even in the lifetime of its members? If that is beyond us, what have we to do with the word ‘Reformed’? Let us be as modern as Doddridge, who says, ‘And while I tread this desert land/ new mercies shall new songs demand’.
4. And let us, like him, write for our own century, not for two centuries back. Doddridge could and might have lectured and written in Latin; had he been as nervous of the alleged ‘dumbing-down’ which Pharisees hide behind in every generation, he would have done both in a strange tongue. If he were with us today, still aged a mere 50, he would I think be writing more like this: ‘Within my heart a desert lies – an empty land, a barren place – and like a traveller racked with thirst I long for you, the God of grace.’ Or more cheerfully, ‘Come with your new-written anthems, craft your finest psalm or song; praise the God of marvellous mercy, our Deliverer, swift and strong’. Those are Psalm paraphrases by Martin Leckebush; I hope they do not take as long to reach some churches as even Margaret Clarkson’s or Timothy Dudley-Smith’s best work has done. You may, I hope, know the Psalm versions of David Preston; the fact that the North American Thomas Troeger’s name is hardly known among British evangelicals is a sign, not of our discerning soundness, but of our dated and impoverished isolation. To come back to Doddridge; he would, I think, be active in the Hymn Society, and get into his usual trouble for trying to bridge some gaps and end some civil wars in the church militant.
5. A similar point; hymns overlap with poetry but are not the same. Those who want to press the comparison could bear in mind that our Poet Laureate is not employed to write Wordsworth imitations; and the thousands of humbler versifiers who keep poetry alive today are communicating for the 21st century – as many of them showed last Saturday at the Christian Writers’ ‘Poetry Day’, not two miles west of here. Doddridge was at the cutting edge of Christian verse, not a century or two behind.
6. Let us drop the pretence of wanting to sing exactly what the author wrote. Look again at Hymn C on our sheet, ‘Hark the glad sound! The Saviour comes…’ Much of this we never sing. Better still look at A. ‘O God of Jacob, by whose hand thine Israel still is fed’. In our most conservatively traditional books only four lines survive from the original 20. Why? Because Doddridge wrote what Jacob prayed, and most Christians have felt this fell short of how they need to pray. Jacob’s vow was full of conditions; ‘If thou, if thou, if thou, etc; ‘then’, Lord, we’ll give it a go!’ Unless a text is still in copyright, the hymn book editors’ duty is not to the dead but to the living; that is, under God, to today’s congregation. They are not producing poetry collections but tools to glorify God and edify his people. Not every Christian in these islands is fluent in 18th cent English; if we say ‘What a shame’ with are back with the 1st century Judaisers.
7. It’s been my privilege to be part of several hymn projects, Anglican and Free Church, where the driving force has been Scriptural and pastoral. When you replace your old hymnbook, get one which like Doddridge is Scripture-driven and Psalm-friendly, but not chained to the traditions of the elders.
But let us end, as we must, in our beloved library, which we support because it has so well and for so long supported us. Do you wonder what happens in there at night, when the last person leaves and the door is locked for the last time that day? What a meeting of all the books there is then! (I take my cue, you see, from Spurgeon.) Can you hear the preachers preaching, the scholars debating, the friends whispering, the Bible students sharing their textual discoveries, the adversaries arguing, the believers praying – in many languages, but all understanding as at Pentecost, joining across the centuries, enjoying fellowship from an Australian college to a dusty Roman road, from an African village to a 16th century prison; from a Genevan congregation to a cell in a Soviet labour camp – a foretaste of heaven, surely! I am sorry if most of the squabbling comes from the rack for journals and periodicals; but the ‘Bulletin’ of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland is a most peaceable production, and like Dr Doddridge, moderately orthodox.
Then there are the singers, careful not to disturb the debaters, some fiercely loyal to their Scottish Psalter or Latin plainsong, but most relishing the vernacular hymns of every generation. And not the least among them P. Doddridge, fit company for Watts and Wesley if not quite their equal, in the same choir with Toplady and Newton, Montgomery and Winkworth, Heber and Havergal, Charlotte Elliott and Frank Houghton, praising God in the darkness until the key turns in the lock and silence again descends on the shelves.
If you are impatient with such fantasies, you are helping me to make my final point, which is this. When I was a pastor, with keys to our often historic church buildings, I would occasionally meet a tourist arriving for a 10-minute peep inside before the service started. ‘I’ve only come to see the church’ they would say. ‘I’m so sorry’, I would reply, ‘It’s not here yet; but if you wait a few more minutes, you should meet it…’ So is an evangelical library truly such when there is no-one there? Only in a very shadowy form! Such a name and title takes shape afresh each working day, when we who believe the evangel are ringing the bell, signing our names, paying our fees (and our fines), studying and borrowing its books. And returning them. Good Dr Doddridge would be glad we are there, and that today we have been here; still praying, still reading, still learning, still singing our glad Hosannas to the Prince of peace.