In the time span of over 50 years two hymnbooks were published in the 19th century. William Gadsby published his hymnbook, now known as Gadsby’s Hymns, in 1814 (and later in 1838) and Charles Spurgeon published his hymnbook, known as Our Own Hymn-book, in 1866. Both men compiled these hymnbooks in a very comparable fashion and I think it is worth our time to find out why and imitate their example.
While both men have many admirable qualities that would be beneficial for Christians to study and emulate, I want to focus on the strikingly similar pastoral concern that both men had for their congregations concerning the worship of God through singing. From reading the preface of each hymnbook we discover the reasons why Gadsby and Spurgeon made the effort to compile their hymnbooks in the first place. I want to take a look at what reasons both of these men gave in their own words and see how we might benefit as worship leaders by imitating these two great men of faith.
(For Gadsby's Preface click here)
“Our congregation has long used two hymn-books [Watts and Rippon]…and we should most probably have been very well content with those books had it not been for difficulties connected with the remarkably complex arrangement of their content. To strangers it was no small task to discover the hymn selected for singing; for, in the first place, there were two books, which was in itself an evil; but the matter was made far worse by the fact that these two volumes were each a puzzle to the uninstructed…We felt that such ought not to be the state of our service of song.”
“None of the collections already published are exactly what our congregation needs, or we would have cheerfully adopted one of them…Our congregation has distinctive features which are not suited to every compilation, not indeed by any known to us.”
“Subjects frequently passed over or pushed into a corner are here made conspicuously the themes of song; such, for instance, as the great doctrines of sovereign grace, the personal Advent of our Lord, and especially the sweetness of present communion with Him.”
(For Spurgeon’s Preface click here)
Concern for Order, Unity and Intelligibility
Both men laud the efforts of the likes of Dr. Watts’ and Dr. Rippon’s collections but they understood that the way in which their congregations used these wonderful resources hindered worship greatly. The collections were contained in multiple volumes and editions which lead to endless page-flipping and book switching after every song. Various editions of the same hymnbook would produce confusion as to which hymn number the congregation was going to be singing and certain verses might be laid out in a different order or omitted altogether.
The lack of a uniform means of presenting songs no doubt led to an improperly ordered service. The lack of participation due to these reasons led to disunity. Both of which led to unintelligibility of praises. Spurgeon writes, “The providence of God brings very many new hearers within the walls of our place of worship, and many a time we have marked their futile researches, and pitied the looks of despair with which they have given up all hope of finding the hymns, and so of joining intelligently in our words of praise.”
These men saw a problem and out of their concern for congregational order, unity and intelligibility they produced a hymnbook which accomplished all three. Not only did this solution edify the church, but it also broke down unnecessary barriers to unbelievers who might visit.
Concern for Sound Doctrine
It is apparent that both men had a deep concern for their congregations to have a steady diet of sound doctrine in their hymns. Gadsby introduces his hymnbook with Psalm 47:7 “sing ye praises with understanding.” Both men were aware of the educational impact of hymns and sought to squelch shoddy theology and emphasize that which is good. Spurgeon made it a priority to not only include doctrinal songs but to highlight them and push them to the forefront of congregational singing. Gadsby, a true Strict Baptist of his time and a man of stronger backbone than most today, found it necessary to not only emphasize sound doctrine, but to make sure his collection was devoid of Arminian theology. Here both men are truly acting like Shepherds for their congregation; guarding, tending and feeding all at the same time.
Concern for Their Flock
Ultimately these men cared greatly and deeply for their congregations. They wanted to see the praises of God sung orderly, with unity and intelligibility, through sound doctrine “that the church might be edified and God glorified.” And while I am sure that these men loved the Church universal, it is abundantly apparent that they loved their local congregations very, very deeply. The hymnbooks that they produced for their churches are landmarks of this love. That Spurgeon’s compilation became known as Our Own Hymn-book is evidence enough that the local church was the primary focus of the project.
Gadsby and Spurgeon knew their congregations intimately enough to recognize that they couldn’t just copy or mimic another congregation. They needed to produce something specifically for their people. Spurgeon recognized that his congregation’s “distinctive features [were] not suited to every compilation.” Gadsby gave ear to the “express wish of others” concerning content for the hymnal.
Another indication of the love and concern these men had for their flock is the fact that they composed hymns for them. Gadsby composed and included over 150 hymns in his compilation. Spurgeon composed several himself and tells us why. “The editor [Spurgeon] has inserted with great diffidence a very few of his own composition, chiefly among the Psalms, and his only apology for so doing is the fact that of certain difficult Psalms he could find no version at all fitted for singing, and was therefore driven to turn them into verse himself.” Spurgeon knew what his congregation needed and he supplied it, however hesitantly, out of love.
An additional point we should consider is the way in which both men seem to be plainly aware of Christian Pop-culture’s influence on their congregational music. In deciding how to shape his hymnbook Charles Spurgeon writes,
“We have not cast about for models suggesting by the transient fancy of the hour, but we have followed the indications given us in the word of God and the long established usage of the universal church; desiring to be obedient to the sacred precept, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom: teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”And Gadsby takes aim at Watts and Rippon’s work, saying that some of their hymns “give as legal a sound as if they had been forged at a certain foundry.” The imagery he offers is that these popular songs, which are gospel-less, are being pumped out of the same mold (sound familiar?). Neither Spurgeon nor Gadsby attempted to copy Christian pop-culture but instead “followed the indications given us in the word of God.” And this was done out of a love for their church.
What This Means for Us
There is much we can learn from William Gadsby and Charles Spurgeon and their compilation of hymns for their congregations. Though we could spend hours discussing ways in which we could imitate these men (and I hope this does spur more discussion!), I want to look at three concerns they had that we would be wise to imitate in our ministries.
1) Imitate their concern for order, unity and intelligibility in worship. What is it that hinders any of these aspects as it relates to your congregational worship service? What are you going to do to remove those hindrances? Is it a visual issue? A sound system issue? A leadership issue? Whatever the case, I encourage you to read through 1 Corinthians 14 and prayerfully consider those things that hinder orderly, united, intelligible worship.
2) Imitate their concern for sound doctrine. Don’t just throw in a song every now and then because it has a lot of doctrine. I encourage you to make doctrinal songs a priority in your congregational singing! Emphasize theology! The more you know about God the more you will love God! Spurgeon puts it this way, “Oh, if you knew Him better, you would fly to Him!” Ask God which aspects of the worship service have overlooked or shoved specific doctrine into the corner.
3) Imitate their concern for the local church. The motive of all of this reforming was a deep love for the church. Both men wanted their hymnals to be of service to their local churches specifically. Any blessings that the hymnbooks might have outside of their local congregations were simply afterthoughts. Do you love your church enough to attend to their needs, guided by Scripture or are you trying to shoe-horn in the latest popular worship fad? Are you depending solely on a Worship Industry to direct your worship planning or do you have one ear to Scripture and the other to the congregation? Pray that God would increase your love for your local church. Ask God to reveal to you the “distinctive features” of your congregation and then seek to find the best and most biblical way to serve them.
I mentioned before, these men like Shepherds did their best to guard, tend and feed their flocks. The hymnbooks they produced sought to accomplish just that. This is the duty of all those who lead and minister the congregation. As a worship leader you have the privilege and responsibility to care for your people when selecting and leading songs and when you plan (in whatever capacity) the worship service. Take time to meditate on passages such as John 21:15-19, and the books 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Imitate great men of faith like William Gadsby and Charles Spurgeon and shepherd the flock with similar concern.
Purchase a copy of Gadsby's Hymns and Our Own Hymn-book from Grace and Truth Books
More info as well as some sermons and letters from William Gadsby
Tons of great info and more about Spurgeon can be found at The Spurgeon Archive
Also, I highly recommend checking out Red Mountain Music. They have done an excellent job of re-tuning a few of Gadsby's Hymns.