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History of Hymns: "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord," by Timothy Dwight

Timothy Dwight

Timothy Dwight

“I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord”
by Timothy Dwight;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 540

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

The hymn, “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord,” was written by Timothy Dwight (1752-1817). This hymn has also recently been printed in some hymnals with the title “I Love Thy Church, O God.”

Dwight is perhaps best known for his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, but he had fame in his own right. Graduating from Yale University at seventeen, Dwight became a tutor at his alma mater in 1769. He served as a chaplain under George Washington during the Revolutionary War and wrote songs and sermons for the men in his regiment. When Dwight returned from military service in 1778, he became a successful farmer, a Congregational minister at Greenfield, Connecticut, a state legislator, and a member of the faculty at Yale, where he was named president in 1795. He not only raised academic standards but also began a spiritual revival, which spread to other institutions in New England.

Dwight also was one of the first American hymn writers. He wrote 33 hymns, with the one for this week perhaps being his best known. It was published in 1800 at the beginning of the Second Great Awakening as part of an edition of Watts’ Psalms, which he edited at the request of the Congregational General Association of Connecticut. Dwight’s edition was arranged to reflect the characteristic theological persuasion of American evangelical Calvinists like his own Congregationalist denomination and their Presbyterian allies. Dwight’s version was no longer simply the Christianized rendering of the Hebrew psalter that Watts had originally conceived nearly a century earlier. This new edition had become instead an instrument of evangelism designed to persuade the unregenerate and to comfort the converted.

One of the aspects of religious culture addressed in evangelical hymnody is that of institutional order, embodied in hymns of the church. For evangelicals, “the gathered church” was the institutional corollary to the necessity of the New Birth. Only those individuals saved by grace and spiritually reborn were eligible to enter the covenanted community of believers. Such local communities of believers came to be identified in theological terms with the kingdom of God on earth. Dwight gave classic expression to this evangelical ideal of the gathered church as the divine community in the hymn, “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord.” This hymn was intended to be an interpretation of Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy (NRSV).

The writer Rachelle Stackhouse points out that this hymn and Psalm 137 do not, in fact, have much to do with each other. Dwight had a theo-political point to make in this hymn, and the biblical Psalm in its lament for Zion gave him the opportunity. The biblical Psalmist weeps for a nation-state, a city, and a temple; Dwight celebrates an ecclesiastical institution. In his valedictory address to the students at Yale in 1776, Dwight wrote: “we have the best foundation to believe that this continent will be the principle seat of that new kingdom.” Dwight believed that the means for establishing this kingdom of God in America included “preaching and hearing the word, reading scripture, prayer, correspondence with religious men, religious meditation, and the religious education of children,” all of which applied to everyone, regardless of church affiliation or participation.

The tune for this hymn text, ST. THOMAS, first appeared in Aaron Williams’ collection of tunes of 1763. It is also often used with Isaac Watts’ text, “Come, We That Love the Lord.” Since Williams never claimed authorship of this tune, many believe it was not Williams’ original melody but rather an adaptation from a work by George F. Handel.



Sources consulted include Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll, eds., Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology; Charles E. Cunningham, Timothy Dwight: A Biography.

About this month’s guest writer:

Beth Spaulding recently received her PhD in liturgical studies from the Boston University School of Theology. This year marks the 20th anniversary of her ordination in the United Church of Christ. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.