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History of Hymns: "O Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice"

"O Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice"
Philip Doddridge
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 391

Philip Doddridge

O happy day, that fixed my choice
on thee, my Savior and my God!
Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
and tell its raptures all abroad.

Though lesser known than Charles Wesley, Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) has been ranked as one of the finer poets of the 18th century. Among his friends was the famous hymnwriter Isaac Watts (1674-1748).

Doddridge, the youngest of 20 children, was born in London, England. He was cared for by friends when, as a young boy, his parents died. Though orphaned, his talents did not go unnoticed, and the Duchess of Bedford offered to send him to Cambridge if he would become an Anglican priest upon graduation.

Doddridge declined this gracious offer as he felt that he was called to minister in the non-conformist church. After attending Kibworth Academy in Leicestershire, he began preaching at age 21.

At age 27, Doddridge became the pastor of Castle Hill Congregational Chapel in Northampton and the principal of the Northampton Academy. Teaching most subjects at the school including Greek, Hebrew, mathematics, philosophy, the Bible and theology, he was known as a brilliant scholar and recognized as a Doctor of Divinity from Aberdeen University in 1736.

Doddridge was also known as an author with his most famous theological works being a monograph, “The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul” and a New Testament commentary entitled Family Exposition.

His best-known literary accomplishments, however, were his approximately 400 hymns, none of which were published during his lifetime. It was four years after his death that a close friend, Job Orton, published Doddridge’s Hymns, Founded on Various Texts in the Holy Scripture (1755).

“O happy day,” expressing the profound joy of one whose faith resides in Jesus Christ, is the poet’s best known hymn today. It was originally entitled “Rejoicing in Our Covenant Engagement to God” based upon 2 Chronicles 15:15: “And all Judah rejoiced over the oath; for they had sworn with all their heart, and had sought him with their whole desire, and he was found by them, and the LORD gave them rest around about” (RSV).

The five stanzas in The United Methodist Hymnal explore the joyous connection between Christ and the individual who puts her or his trust in him. It is this “bond that seals my vows” (stanza 2).

The author celebrates the “great transaction” of God’s love between humanity and the Divine (stanza 3). The poet’s “long-divided heart” finds “a nobler part . . . [where] heavenly pleasures fill my breast” (stanza 4). In the final stanza we find that the vows made in earlier stanzas take us to “high heaven” where the “bond” between the Christian and Christ is finally and fully consummated, a customary ending for so many hymns of this era.

In exploring this text, one finds the exuberance of Charles Wesley’s conversion hymn, “O for a thousand tongues to sing,” along with the nobility of language in the works of the earlier devotional poet George Herbert (1593-1633).

In the United States, a refrain was added in The Wesleyan Sacred Harp (1854). Methodist hymnologist and hymnal editor Guy McCutchan notes that the melody was a popular camp meeting tune that was combined with a popular refrain by London organist and musical scholar Edward F. Rimbault (1816-1876) entitled “Happy land! Happy land!”

A further Americanization of the hymn took place as the Edwin Hawkins Singers rose to fame in 1969 when their recording was released and became one of the biggest gospel hits of its time.

Doddridge developed tuberculosis at age 48. Funds were collected by friends to send him to Lisbon, Portugal, with the hope of prolonging his life, but he died in Lisbon in 1851 and is buried in the English cemetery there.

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

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