Home History of Hymns: "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord"

History of Hymns: "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord"

"I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord"
Timothy Dwight
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 540

Timothy Dwight

I love thy kingdom, Lord,
the house of thy abode,
the church our blest Redeemer saved
with his own precious blood.

“I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord” (1801) is perhaps the earliest hymn still currently used that was composed by a citizen of the United States. The author, Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), was one of the outstanding leaders of his time.

Dwight’s family tree was indeed a distinguished one. He was the grandson of the Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards. Dwight demonstrated a precocious spirit at a young age, reading the Bible at age 4, learning Latin during grammar school and entering Yale College at age 13.

Graduating from Yale at 17, he taught grammar school in New Haven and then became a tutor at Yale. Dwight obtained a preacher’s license and served as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War with George Washington. Hymnologist Albert Bailey notes that not only were Dwight’s sermons an inspiration for the soldiers he served, but also his songs.

Following the war, Dwight settled between 1778-1783 in Northampton, where he was “a farmer, preacher, student, and representative in the state legislature,” according to Mr. Bailey. After becoming a Congregational minister in Fairfield, Conn., Dwight supplemented his insufficient pastoral salary by opening a private academy. The success of this academy led to his election in 1795 as president of Yale College.

Dwight left a legacy of improved scholastic standards at Yale College, serving not only as the school’s president, but also as professor of literature, oratory and theology, and college chaplain. He is credited with fostering a revival among the students through his sermons in the college chapel, a revival that spread to other New England colleges.

Dwight’s literary accomplishments were many. He may be best known today for his 1797 revision of Isaac Watts’ 1719 Psalms of David, to which he added 33 of his own texts. “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord,” published in the 1801 revision of Watts’ Psalms of David, is the only remaining text from Dwight’s Watts, prepared at the request of the General Association (Congregational) of Connecticut, that has survived.

Watts had paraphrased only the psalms he deemed fit for public worship. Though psalters from England were still in common usage in America at this time, including Sternhold and Hopkins’ “Old Version” (1564) and Tate and Brady’s “New Version” (1696), Watts’ early 18th-century paraphrases were making headway in the American colonies.

Several versions of Watts’ texts appeared in the colonies, including one by Joel Barlow. Barlow’s edition, though widely used, was tainted when he went to France to participate in the French Revolution and reportedly fell into immorality. Dwight was given the task to “disinfect Barlow” by producing a new edition. Dwight’s Watts was very successful in Connecticut and used almost exclusively there for over 30 years.

The original eight stanzas have been reduced to four or five in most hymnals. This paraphrase of a portion of Psalm 137 appeared originally under the title, “Love to the Church.” UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young provides a biblical context for this hymn: “The author extends a portion of Psalm 137, the poignant song of the exiled Jews, beginning ‘How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ (Psalm 137:4), into a Christian hymn that extols the virtues of the church.”

Mr. Bailey notes, “Dwight has substituted the Church for the Chosen People of the Old Testament as the special object of God’s care.” Stanza two borrows the image from Psalm 17:8, “Keep me as the apple of thine eye,” to describe this relationship.

Stanza three stresses the service of the church while stanza four states the “prize” of “sweet communion” for those who make “solemn vows” to further the work of the church. The final stanza announces the final reward of “brighter bliss in heaven.”

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

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