History of Hymns: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”

by Rozanna Goocey

“O God, Our Help in Ages Past"
Isaac Watts
The UM Hymnal, No. 117

Isaac Watts

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Hymnologist Erik Routley considers Isaac Watts (1674-1748) the “first successful practitioner of English hymnody.” 

Born to a father rooted in the Independent (Congregational) church and himself a minister in the church, Watts sought to relate the sung portions of liturgy more closely to the sermon. Routley notes that he expressed deep “dissatisfaction with the metrical psalters,” and “strongly believed that Christians should also sing about the doctrine of their religion.” 

The hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” first appeared as the second in a set of three paraphrases in his Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719), under the title “Man Frail, and God Eternal.” Watts’ original hymn contained nine stanzas, but common practice is to eliminate stanzas four, six and eight. 

John Wesley altered the text for his Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1738), and made a few more revisions for his 1780 hymnal, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists

The most noticeable change was to substitute “O” for the original “Our” in the opening line. Wesley felt that “Our” was a possessive adjective referring to the Calvinist doctrine of election. The Wesleyan all-inclusive perspective was satisfied by changing “Our” to the more ambiguous “O.” 

While satisfying a theological problem for Wesley, the substitution of “O” for “Our” in the first line destroys the wonderful anaphora of the first stanza—repeating the same word at the beginning of each phrase. 

The only tune assigned to Watts’ text is ST. ANNE, one of the most famous and memorable hymn tunes from this era. The tune is attributed to William Croft (1678-1727), and the harmonization to W.H. Monk (1823-1889). 

Croft was baptized in December 1678 in Warwickshire, England, and was “one of the most important composers of English hymn tunes,” according to Episcopal Hymnal 1982 editor Raymond Glover. 

William Monk was born in London’s Brompton district in March 1823. Monk was a leading 19th-century hymnologist, editor and composer. He eventually served as choir director, organist and professor of vocal music at King’s College. 

When the tune was first published, it was done so anonymously in the sixth edition of A Supplement to the New Version of the Psalms in 1708. At this first appearance it was not set to Psalm 90, but to Psalm 42. Croft, the organist of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey and the leading composer of Queen Anne’s reign, is now widely accepted as the composer of the tune, according to the Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal

“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is recognized by most hymn scholars as one of the finest compositions in all of English Hymnody, enjoying “unbroken popularity since it was first introduced,” according to Raymond Glover. Written in England during a time of anxiety surrounding the potential succession to the throne of the Catholic brother of Queen Anne, the hymn echoes the Jewish author of Psalm 90 as well as the suppressed Dissenters of the Established Church. 

Watts paraphrases Psalm 90:1-5 as an exploration of time, particularly time in the hopeful sense of the Christian faith. By loosening the bonds of having to include all the words from the King James Version, he expands the Old Testament view on time as written in Psalm 90 to include acknowledgement of the “saints” and the metaphorical illustration of a “Mower” in “flowery fields” and “dying dreams.” 

Traditionally sung during a time of national distress or remembrance of saints, the hymn is appropriate for almost any moment of great solemnity. According to hymnologist Albert Bailey, Isaac Watts’ genius—indeed a gift for singers of the hymn—is the “possibility of making the Jewish past celebrate the Protestant English present.”

Ms. Goocey is a student in the master of sacred music program, Perkins School of Theology and studies hymnology with Dr. Michael Hawn.

Categories: History of Hymns