History of Hymns: ‘When Jesus Wept’

by Victoria Schwarz and Wilson Pruitt

By William Billings (1770)
The Faith We Sing, 2106

When Jesus wept, the falling tear
In mercy flowed beyond all bound.
When Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
Seized all the guilty world around.

Frontispiece in The New-England Psalm-Singer, 1770.William Billings (1746-1800), remembered as a prolific composer and singing school leader, is often referred to as America’s first choral composer. He is generally acknowledged as a central figure in early American, sometimes called primitive American, church music. J. Murray Barbour, in his text The Church Music of William Billings, opens his introduction with the statement that Billings was “the most important composer of the pioneer period of American church music” (Barbour, xi); and Karl Kroeger, in his article on Billings for The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, comments on Billings’ influence by writing, “he [Billings] became the informal leader of a large group of largely self-taught New-England composers who dominated American sacred music between about 1780 and 1810” (Kroeger, “William Billings”).

Billings, a Bostonian from birth to death, experienced tragedy as a young man when his father died and, due to this, was forced to abandon his formal education and become trained as a tanner to help support his family. As far as his education in music, there is some suggestion that he was trained, in part, through study with John Barry, a member of the New South Church choir, but the bulk of his education came from attending singing schools and through individual study of collections of psalmody. Particularly influential to Billings’ early compositions were the psalms of William Tans’ur (1706-1783), Aaron Williams, and other British psalmists (Kroeger, “William Billings”). His connection to British hymn writers remained evident throughout his lifetime, with many texts coming from Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and others, but his music style often diverged from the common practices of his day. Billings wrote about his compositional practice in The Continental Harmony (1794):

Musical composition is a sort of something, which is much better felt than described (at least by me) for if I was to attempt it, I should not know where to begin or where to leave off . . . although I am not confined to rules prescribed by others, yet I come near as I possibly can to a set of rules which I have carved out for myself; but when fancy gets upon the wing, she seems to despise all form, and scorns to be confined or limited by any formal prescriptions whatsoever; for the first part [tenor] is nothing more than a flight of fancy, the other parts are forced to comply and conform to that, by partaking of the same air, or, at least, as much of it as they can get: But by reason of this restraint, the last parts are seldom so good as the first; for the second part [bass] is subservient to the first, the third part [treble] must conform to the first and second, and the fourth part [counter or alto] must conform to the other three; therefor the grand difficulty in composition, is to preserve the air through each part separately, and yet cause them to harmonize with each other at the same time (Billings, Continental Harmony, 32).

Kroeger writes, that despite the purging of Billings’ and other composers’ music from hymnody after 1810, Billings is now considered “a talented and imaginative composer in a style only marginally related to the art music of his day” (Kroeger, “William Billings”).

During his life, Billings composed more than 300 works, most of which were sacred, a cappella, four-part choral works. Among these many compositions are psalms, anthems, hymns, and fuging tunes. A fuging tune, found in more rural parishes in England and America at the time, may be described this way:

 . . . the fuging tune normally begins like an ordinary psalm tune, with all voices singing the words together but, usually in the third phrase of a four-phrase melody, fuging is introduced. In the fuging section, the voices enter one at a time a measure apart, introducing verbal conflict into the ensemble. The fuging section generally lasts for only one phrase, the final phrase being again homophonic (Kroeger, “Fuging Tune”).

Perhaps the most frequently republished work of Billings (Edwards, 7), “When Jesus Wept” was first published in his 1770 collection titled The New-England Psalm-Singer. This volume of music, the first book of music entirely composed by an American born in America, consisted of more than 120 original works that the subtitle of his book indicates consisted of “a Number of Psalm-Tunes, Anthems, and Canons.” Before moving to the music, it is worth noting that this volume contained a lengthy section on how to read music, as was the custom for songbooks connected to singing schools and that directly reflected the practice by which Billings himself learned music. As a matter of interest, this first volume was adorned by a frontispiece created by Paul Revere, one of Billings’ many friends during the colonial period (seen in the image above).

“When Jesus Wept” is a beautifully-constructed canon that Billings tucked into the lower right corner of the final page of a longer anthem simply titled QUEEN, almost exactly halfway through the book (Billings, New England Psalm Singer, 56), and it is written in a manner that looks very similar to a four-part choral texture.

Image of the original score of “When Jesus Wept” as it appeared in The New-England Psalm-Singer (1770)With the intent of having two to four singers or voice parts, the melody is written in Aeolian mode and covers the range of 1-1/2 octaves; however, the pitches of this wide range are suited to most congregational singing voices (A2 – D5), and the tune can be learned quickly, despite its use of frequent large leaps, with plenty of good modeling from the congregational song leader.

When singing the melody, one will find that it is quite beautiful and employs aspects of text painting that many singers will enjoy applying to the text. This is not an uncommon practice for Billings; Kroeger writes in his article, “William Billings Sets the Tune” that:

The American psalmodist began with a text that moved him . . . the subject of that text might range widely . . . but the text was the starting point for the psalmodists’ work. He attempted to make his setting reflect the sense, the rhythm, and, in some cases, even the sounds of the words he chose [. . .] few American composers were as successful at wedding the music to the words as was William Billings (Kroeger, 1996, 8).

Some of these text paintings are the descending notes found on the words “falling tear,” the lovely slurred pitches on the word “flowed,” the single breaking away to the single appearance of lowest pitch (A2) in the phrase “beyond all bound,” the angular melodic line near the word “groaned,”, and the circling of the pitches around the tonic at “world around.”

The brief text by Perez Morton (1751-1837) connects the tears of Jesus over the death of his friend, Lazarus, in John 11, with the groaning of Jesus on the cross (Daw, 197). The simplicity of the parallelism belies the depth of connection. Mourning is not a foreign emotion or experience to God, nor are screams of desolation. The hymn does not complete the theological thought, but leaves it for those singing to complete with their lives. God is with us in our pain. Let us be with others. God is with us in our pain; let us be with God. Let us mourn with those who mourn. Let us not hide our face from brokenness or devastation. The tears of Jesus are streams of mercy. Our God is not a stone, nor a ghost, but all human and all God, from the heights to the depths. 

Sources and Further Reading

J. Murray Barbour, The Church Music of William Billings (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1972).

William Billings, The Continental Harmony, Containing a Number of Anthems, Fuges, and Chorusses, in Several Parts, Never Before Published, (Boston, MA, 1794).

William Billings, The New-England Psalm-Singer, or American Chorister: Containing a Number of Psalm-Tunes, Anthems, and Canons; In Four and Five Parts, (Never Before Published), Classic Reprint Series, (London, England: Forgotten Books, 2018).

Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

Suzanne L. Edwards and Christine Glick, “William Billings: Pioneer American Composer of Congregational Music,” The Hymn, 47:4 (October 1996), 6-7.

Karl Kroeger, "Fuging Tune." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed February 14, 2019,

_____, “William Billings” at The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Accessed February 5, 2019.

_____, “William Billings Sets the Tune,” The Hymn 47:4 (October 1996), 8-13.

Victoria Schwarz is the Recording Secretary of The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, Director of Music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX, and a Master of Arts in Ministry Practice student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Rev. Wilson Pruitt is the pastor of Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Duke Divinity School, Rev. Pruitt is passionate about the theological and formational aspects of hymns at the intersection of faith and practice in the liturgy of the church.

Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, The Faith We Sing