Home History of Hymns: "From All that Dwell below the Skies"

History of Hymns: "From All that Dwell below the Skies"

"From All that Dwell below the Skies"
Isaac Watts
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 101

Isaac Watts

From all that dwell below the skies,
Let the Creator's praise arise;
Let the Redeemer's name be sung,
Through every land by every tongue.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was a pivotal figure in English-language hymnody. An ardent Calvinist and Dissenting minister in England -- a country dominated by the state-supported Anglican Church -- Watts provided a bridge between the tradition of metrical psalms and full-fledged hymnody.

Watts still devoted himself to the psalms but was much freer in his paraphrases than most of his predecessors. This hymn is a paraphrase of Psalm 117, the shortest of the psalms.

The first two stanzas found in the UM Hymnal were taken from his famous collection, Psalms of David Imitated, in the Language of the New Testament (1719). The final two stanzas found in the UM Hymnal come from a collection edited by Methodist Robert Spence (c. 1781). No author was designated for them.

One can gain insight into Watts' approach to the Psalter from his subtitle: "in the Language of the New Testament." For Watts, the psalms were appropriate for Christian worship only as they pointed to Christ.

This short psalm will be cited in its entirety from the Authorized Version (KJV) of Watts' day: "O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. Praise ye the Lord."

Stanza one, quoted at the beginning of this article, paraphrases the first verse. Stanza two draws upon verse two:

Eternal are thy mercies, Lord;
Eternal truth attends thy word.
Thy praise shall sound from shore to shore,
Till suns shall rise and set no more.

Unlike earlier, stricter metrical psalms whose purpose was neither to add to nor take away from the Scripture, Watts takes some liberties. In so doing, he achieves a more lyrical poetic style.

One cannot help but speculate about the emphasis upon "all nations" and "all people" found in the Scripture. This theme receives expanded treatment in Watts' paraphrase, perhaps influenced by Great Britain's dominance as a major colonial power.

The British East India Company was already over a century old when this hymn was published in 1719. The American colonies were well-established and some 50 years from declaring their independence.

Perhaps a belief in the divine right of kings -- the foundation for the monarchy -- would also provide a basis for the colonial expansion of the British realm "from shore to shore, till suns shall rise and set no more." Modern ears hear echoes of that famous phrase, "The sun never sets on the British Empire."

This observation in no way denigrates the poetic excellence of Watts or his approach to Scripture. All hymns are imbued with the spirit of their age.

Watts' approach to Psalm 117 may be seen as prophetic from the viewpoint of the 21st century. In the nearly 300 years since its composition, what Watts dreamt has in many ways come true: Christ's name is sung around the globe "from shore to shore."

Watts would be shocked, however, at the shift in demographics. Most Christians are no longer from Europe or even North America; at least two-thirds now live in the Southern Hemisphere. So we sing this hymn today with an even greater understanding of the global nature of the gospel.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.