Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Come, We That Love the Lord"

History of Hymns: "Come, We That Love the Lord"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Come, We That Love the Lord"
by Isaac Watts;
The United Methodist Hymnal, Nos. 732 and 733

Isaac Watts

Come we that love the Lord,
and let our joys be known;
join in a song with sweet accord,
and thus surround the throne.

Scholars often ascribe the title “Father of English hymnody” to Isaac Watts (1674-1738). Though this title is exceptional, it is not undeserved. Watts was raised in the Independent Congregational Church, part of the dissenters tolerated under the official Church of England (Anglican). From an early age, he showed his dissatisfaction for the established common practice of metrical psalms, the strict poetic versification of the psalms for congregational singing in worship. He pioneered a newer approach by composing hymns that “Christianized” the texts of the Psalter. Even though “Come, we that love the Lord” is not based on a psalm, it still follows Watts’ practice of adapting Scripture for use as devotional poetry.

Robert Lowry

The original hymn, “Come, we that love the Lord,” can be found in Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Book II (1707) in ten, four-line stanzas entitled “Heavenly Joy on Earth.” Because he loved it so much, John Wesley later used it as a part of his Psalms and Hymns, ‘Charlestown’ Collection (1737) – the first hymnal published in America during the Wesleys’ trip to the colony – with a revised structure of eight-line stanzas, omitting stanzas two and nine. Since then, many alternations have been made according to current editorial needs, culminating with most modern hymnals using a four-line, four-stanza version, as well as a further altered setting by gospel song writer Robert Lowry (1826-1899) with an added refrain. Interestingly, John Wesley, who edited hymns by many authors including Charles, modified Watts' original "we" in the opening line to "ye" in collections he produced including A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1737) and the monumental A Collection of Hymns for Use of the People Called Methodists (1780). This resulted in the opening stanza reading:

Come, ye that love the Lord,
and let your joys be known;
join in a song with sweet accord
while ye surround the throne.

John's modifications, though not a felicitous as Watts' original, were picked up by several hymnals in the nineteenth century, especially among Methodists.

The United Methodist Hymnal, along with several others, pairs this hymn with two tunes. Welsh composer Aaron Williams (1731-1776) wrote the first tune, ST. THOMAS, in 1763. It reflects a more stately expression of joy that was typical of British hymn tunes of the time. The second tune, MARCHING TO ZION (1867), inspires an energy that fits its American revival context perfectly. Robert Lowry adapted this hymn text and composed an original tune for it. Lowry was a Baptist preacher in the United States ministering and teaching during the critical time of the Civil War, a time coinciding with the rise of revivalism. He is widely recognized for his compositions, and was noted for adding refrains to popular hymns.

The repetitive nature of the text in Lowry’s version reflects the energy of a revival atmosphere, making the text more easily sung in cultural settings where not all present were literate. The refrain of Lowry’s version changed the focus from a reverent recognition of “Heavenly Joy on Earth,” to a proclamation to a community setting out on a journey. The addition of Lowry’s refrain increased the popularity of Watts’ text and enhanced the joyful message of the original text:

We’re marching to Zion,
beautiful, beautiful Zion.
We’re marching upward to Zion,
the beautiful city of God.

According to the hymnologist Ann V. Smith, the Scriptural references for this hymn come from Revelation 14:1-3, 21:21, and 7:17. These passages address the joys of the saints, singing as they “surround the throne.” In stanzas eight and nine of the original poem (omitted in most hymnals today), we hear Watts describe the presence of joy that can be found not just in heaven, but also on earth:

The men of grace have found
glory begun below;
celestial fruits on earthly ground
from faith and hope may grow.

The hill of Zion yields
a thousand sacred sweets
before we reach the heav’nly fields,
or walk the golden streets.

From these stanzas, we can see how Watts not only wanted the singer to communicate the joy of what was to come through eternal life in heaven, but also the blessings of God on earth. An allusion to John Bunyan’s popular devotional classic The Pilgrims Progress (1678) is found in the final stanza calling attention to the Christian journey toward Zion and a triumphant entry into “Immanuel’s ground.”

The inclusion of both settings in The United Methodist Hymnal reflects the broad range of piety found in Methodism in the United States, a piety that ranges from the stately solemnity to the revival spirit. Lowry’s refrain actually adds a Wesleyan tone to Watts’ text that may be sung in light of the doctrine of sanctification – “marching” toward perfection that will ultimately culminate in heaven (“Zion”). The hymn found in our hymnals today proclaims a simple, straightforward biblical truth. However, in its original form, “Come, we that love the Lord” delves deeper into an understanding of what God has given us in creation and how we are to rejoice in it. As a community of believers, this hymn gives us the opportunity to express the beauty of the life we are living, as well as looking forward to what is to come.

Guest writer Taylor Vancil is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. He studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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