Treasure No 15: Joseph Hart, 1712–1768 by Erik Routley:
An article from Bulletin 54, January 1951
I was fortunate enough recently to pick up a copy of the seventh edition of the Hymns etc. Composed on various subjects by J. Hart. The volume is undated, but it is a reprint of the third edition, which includes (what is much to our present purpose) the author’s Preface to the first edition. This Preface is dated April 1759.
Beyond what he tells us himself, we know little of Hart. But apart from the fact that the year after the Preface was written he became an ordained minister and began eight years of preaching at Jewin Street Chapel, it tells us all that we need to know. The Preface, with the hymns that follow, constitute in themselves a chapter in the history of English eighteenth-century religion which alike for the hymnologist and the historian of religion, turns out to be uncommonly interesting. For the whole book of two hundred and twenty-two hymns constitutes the author’s confession of faith, and the means by which he was led to that faith, as he recounts them in his Preface, furnish the material for an unusually complete spiritual biography.
Hart was born in 1712. What he did with his first twenty years nobody seems to know. But it is at the end of them that he begins his own story.
“About the twenty-first Year of my Age.” (he writes), “I began to be under great Anxiety concerning my Soul. The Spirit of Bondage distressed me sore.”
This was, I suppose, in 1733. Well he may have been distressed. Religion in England was indeed in the doldrums. Fighting Puritanism had gone sour and the weapons which had been in use two generations before in defence of the liberty of the Christian conscience were now turned to baser use in sterile controversy. Perhaps the sanest man alive at the time was Isaac Watts, and unless you went to Bury Street on the right Sunday, or sought him out at the home of the Abneys, you had little chance of benefiting by his serene wisdom. Philip Doddridge, only thirty years old as yet, had scarcely begun to make a mark. The Church of England was fast falling asleep. A young man brought up in the traditional Calvinism of Puritan England, and sent out into the world with good education and a strong doctrine of judgment and election, might well have found his vocation in Cromwell’s army, but in the easy-going aristocratic England of 1733 he was obliged either to forget the dogmatic faith of his childhood or to apply himself, virtually unassisted by teachers or by outward necessities, to the heart-breaking problem of working out the relevance of Calvinism to the life he was obliged to live. What we read in the succeeding pages is Hart’s success in this adventure of faith, but he travelled a long and hard road.
The next landmark we may date about 1740, when:
“a great domestic Affliction befalling me (in which I was a moderate Sufferer, but a monstrous Sinner), I began to sink deeper and deeper into Conviction of my Nature’s Evil, the Deceitfulness and Hardness of my Heart, the Wickedness of my Life, the Shallowness of my Christianity, and the Blindness of my Devotion … How did I now long to feel the Merits of Christ applied to my Soul by the Holy Spirit! How often did I make my strongest Efforts to call God my God! But alas! I could no more do this, than I could raise the Dead.”
It seems that this state of despondency induced by misfortune, brought on a reaction in a few weeks towards a peace of mind which he later found to be wholly delusive. He entered On a period, we gather, of antinomian security.
“ Rushing impetuously into Notions beyond my Experience. I hasted to make myself a Christian by mere Doctrine, adopting other Mens Opinions before I had tried them; and set up for a great Light in Religion, disregarding the internal Work of Grace begun in my Soul by the Holy Ghost. This Liberty, assumed by myself, and not given by Christ, soon grew to Libertinism; in which I took large progressive Strides, and advanced to a dreadful Height, both in Principle and Practice A tender Conscience I deemed Weakness; Prayer I left for Novices and Bigots; and a broken and contrite Heart was a Thing too low and legal for me to approve, much more to desire.”
Hart was, in fact, a victim for the space of ten years of that intellectual habit which Monsignor Ronald Knox has recently so luminously distinguished as “enthusiastic”.
“In this abominable State I continued, a loose Backslider, an audacious Apostate, for nine of ten Years, not only committing Acts of Lewdness myself, but infecting Others with the Poison of my Delusions.”
After about ten years (which brings us to about 1750, the thirty-eighth year of his age), he appears to have “reformed a little”, and to be “tolerably confident of the Goodness of his State”. On his own interpretation of the events, he found some ground for saying, “I cannot but be in the right Way to the Favour of God”. But this he abruptly dismisses as an “easy, smooth, and indolent Manner”, a “lukewarm, insipid kind of Religion”, although he does not deny that some signs of Grace began to appear. But
“the Fountains of the great Deeps of my sinful Nature were not broken up. I was therefore conscious that the written Word of God was against me.”
Under all his libertinism, which like most people of his temperament he no doubt dramatises and exaggerates to no small degree. Hart was still full of a sense of sin and frustration. About 1754 (“about three or four years ago” in 1757) he fell into a ‘deep Despondency of Mind”. This was a worse attack than usual. Based on a grievance that God had not given him such signs of favour as would have cheered him. He became unsociable morose, and at times refused to take food. He wrestled with himself for these three years, wondering whether he was after all to be called to the way of mysticism, and finding no answer in that or any other direction, now cheered for a moment, now plunged further into despair than before, until Palm Sunday, 1757.
“The Week before Easter, 1757, I had such an amazing View of the Agony of Christ in the Garden, as I know not well how to describe. I was lost in Wonder and Adoration.”
Upon this experience he wrote the first of his hymns, entitled “ On the Passion which he subsequently rewrote. The Vision, however, was not the end of his troubles. In a revealing sentence he says
“I used to be often terribly cut down with those Words, And cast ye the unprofitable Servant into outer darkness: There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This sense of helplessness persisted until Whit Sunday of the same year.
“In this sad State I went moping about (and that I could,was next to a miracle) having some little Hope at Bottom under all, which now and then would glimmer, but was soon overwhelmed again with Clouds of Horror, till Whitsunday 1757; when I happened to go in the Afternoon to the Moravian Chapel in Fetter-Lane; where I had been several times before. The Minister preached on these Words; Because thou hast kept the Word of my Patience, I also will keep thee from the Hour of Temptation which shall come upon all the World, to try them that dwell upon the Earth, Rev. iii 10…I had hardly got home, when I felt myself melting away into a strange Softness of Affection; which made me fling myself on my Knees before God. The Horrors were immediately dispelled, and such Light and Comfort flowed into my Heart, as no Words can paint. The Lord by his Spirit of Love came,—not in a visionary Manner into my Brain, but with such divine Power and Energy into my Soul, that I was lost in blissful Amazement. I cried out, ‘What Me, Lord?’ His Spirit answered in me, Yes Thee. I objected ‘But I have been so unspeakably vile and wicked’—The Answer was; I pardon thee fully and freely.”
This, then, was Hart’s “conversion”. The remainder of the Preface is devoted to an ecstatic account of the difference between his final condition and that condition of the earlier times, in which he had only received the Spirit, as he puts it, “in a visionary Manner in my Brain”. My last quotation shall be from the penultimate page of the Preface:
“He hath excited me to love much, by forgiving me much. He hath shewed me, and still daily shews me, the abominable Deceit, Lust, Enmity, and Pride of my Heart, and the inconceivable. Depths of his Mercy; how far I was fallen, and how much it cost him of Sweat and Blood to bring me up. He hath proved himself stronger than I; and his Goodness superior to all my unworthiness. He gives me to know and to feel too, that without him I can do nothing. He tells me (and he enables me to believe it) that I am all fair, and there is no Spot in me. Though an Enemy, he calls me his Friend; though a Traitor, his Child; though a beggared Prodigal, he cloaths me with the best Robe, and has put a Ring of endless Love and Mercy on my Hand. And though I am often sorely distrest by spiritual internal Foes, afflicted, tormented, and bowed down almost to Death, with the Sense of my own present Barrenness, Ingratitude, and Proneness to Evil; he secretly shews me his bleeding Wounds; and softly, but powerfully whispers to my Soul, ‘I am thy great Salvation’.”
The Preface, then, shows Hart to be a typical product of early eighteenth-century Calvinism; educated, intelligent, sensitive, and, as it happens with him, introspective as well. Calvinism starts the young Christian on his way with a sense of sin. Its august dogma is the Sovereignty of God and the helplessness of man. Except the Christian pilgrim be able to appropriate also the other dogma, that the promises of God are sure, he is doomed either to cast off his faith and live in negligent sloth or to take it seriously and despair. All depends on that other appropriation, and whereas the dogma of sin is objective enough to be thrust at him as a certainty with which he must reckon, the dogma of the promises makes no sense to him until it is engrafted in his soul by personal experience. A man can believe in his own littleness and in God’s immensity without great difficulty; it is in the truth that that immensity can visit and redeem this littleness that he finds the stone of stumbling.
But Hart found the answer in the end, and, reading between the lines of this touching little document, his Preface, we seem to gather that what really set him on his feet was the discovery that the mercy of God was as real as his own sin; that he did not have to believe in the reality of one to the exclusion of the reality of the other. “Though an Enemy, He calls me his Friend … I confess myself a sinner still … All I can do is to look to Jesus”,
So much he tells us of himself. He ended his days as a preacher of the Gospel. A Calvinist he remained, and one of his published works was a criticism of Wesley’s approach to the Faith. But he was no cold Calvinist, no calculating or theorising Calvinist; he was in the end the Calvinist at his best, for it is a proper, an exact deduction from Calvin’s doctrines to say that “His Goodness is superior to all my Unworthiness”. And so he retains his ecstasy, but without the depression. And by the first impulse of his new-found faith he was moved to write a book of hymns.
God did much for Joseph Hart, but He did not make him a poet. With the best will in the world, we can find no single line of poetic insight in these works; nor indeed is there a single hymn of which we are compelled to say “Editors have done wrong to drop that”. At one time his hymns were popular, and we recall Doctor Johnson’s acid little reminiscence:
“I went to church. I gave a shilling; and seeing a poor girl at the sacrament in her bed-gown, I gave her privately half-a- crown, though I saw Hart’s hymns in her hand.”
No, they would not appeal to the Doctor. There would be in them too much didacticism, too much literary bathos, too much unconsidered enthusiasm.
Posterity has cast its vote with the Doctor against the evangelist. Julian has a list of 33 of Hart’s hymns in current use. and Julian is usually generous in such estimates. Hymn books today converge on only two of his hymns, together with a single verse of a third. The usual books of the Church of England neglect him almost entirely; he is not in the latest A.&M.,nor in the English Hymnal, nor in Songs of Praise. He had a brief appearance in A.&M., His “Come, Holy Spirit, come” (IV) being No. 673 in the 1916 Second Supplement. The Hymnal Companion and the Church Hymnal for the Christian Year have that one and also “Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched ” (C). These two hymns are, however, in most of the nonconformist hymnals — the Church Hymnary, the Methodist Hymn Book, the Baptist Church Hymnal and the Congregational Hymnary have both; to them the Methodist book adds the last verse (eight lines) of No. LXXIII, “No prophet nor dreamer of dreams”, beginning “This, this is the God we adore,” (Hart here wrote, “This God is the God”). The only other surviving hymn of Hart’s is a rather fine Passiontide hymn in the Hymnal Companion (1914) No. 184. This begins “Great High Priest, we see Thee stooping”, and is made up of the first verse of No. LV, part ii, and verses 3 and 5 of No. LIV.
Two hymns abridged, one cento, and one single verse: that is all that is left of Hart, and for congregational purposes that is the best of him. The hymn on the Holy Spirit is the most generally useful, and the solitary verse makes a not inadequate doxology. But we cannot urge that any more of his hymns be revived at present.
And yet—can we possibly excuse him by taking notice of the “Etc” in his title? Some of these are not hymns and he never thought they were. If we look at them as a manual of devotion we may well find some store of spiritual help. And if we look at them as a collection of non-Methodist hymnody of Wesley’s greatest days, we shall find other things not uninteresting.
There are, we said, 222 of them. They are made up as follows. The book opens with a “dedication” which we do not count in the total, then, before the book proper begins, there is a “Hymn for a Fast Day”. The main body follows, with 119 hymns. Then there are a Supplement of 82, seven Doxologics, and an Appendix of thirteen. You cannot compare him with Wesley—that is comparing two different worlds; nor can you compare, him with Watts—that is to compare Cibber with Milton. But you might compare him with Doddridge, for both were Calvinists of the same kind, though their temperaments and experience were so widely diverse. But Doddridge has the same prosaic technique and the same passionate conviction of the divine Promises.
Such a comparison reveals at once that Hart is more adventurous in his choice of metres than Doddridge. One or two of his metres he obviously has taken from the Wesleyans.
Common Metre is, of course, the most frequent, claiming 75 hymns (of which seven are written in double Verses). 38 are in Long Metre: of these seventeen have couplet rhymes, eighteen alternate rhymes, and three have a refrain (see below). Short Metre appears 23 times (twice in double verses). This disposes of 136 hymns—about sixty per cent. He uses, besides these, twenty-one metres of various kinds. Of the other “psalter” metres he does not make extensive use—six eights comes five times, sixes and eights eight times (twice as sixes and fours), the “113th” metre (888.888) only once, and the “104th” (220.127.116.11.6. 5.6.5) nine times. The metre which is his favourite after the standard metres, turns out to be “sevens”, which appears twelve times, usually in four-line verses, but twice in six-line and twice in eight-line verses. He is also fond of eights and sevens, which come ten times, always in eight-line verses, and 886 D, which appears seven times.
He uses “8.7.4.”, not yet so popular as it soon became, only once, in “Come ye sinners”. But he is bold enough to use Wesley’s sevens and sixes (trochaic and iambic alternating) eleven times, and to experiment also with 18.104.22.168., 22.214.171.124., anapaestic eights, and anapaestic elevens which he gathered from the same source. A metre which is perhaps original with him is 126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52. (trochaic), and we do not recall any hymn earlier than his in trochaic sevens and sixes: he has three.
One of the most remarkable qualities in Doddridge is the consistency with which he keeps to a moderate length in his hymns—there is only one of ten verses in all his 370. We cannot say the same for Hart. His longest hymn (XXVI) runs to 31 verses of C.M. in two parts, and three others run to over eighty lines: sixteen are of ten or more verses. But one matter is interesting here: hymns of what we now think inordinate length are entirely confined to the first part of the book, the main body of 119. 38 per cent of the first 119 and 66 per cent of the remaining 103 are in the normal lengths of four, five, or six verses. We account for this by finding most of the purely autobiographical, not to say rhapsodic material in the first part. It is clear that the hymns in tile Supplement and Appendix are intended to be sung congregationally. He was capable of writing briefly, however—nine of his hymns have only two verses.
The subject matter of the hymns is not, like Doddridge’s, confined to Scripture text. 54 of the first part and only nine of the remainder have texts superscribed. All the rest have titles or references to the title of a preceding hymn. From this again it will be gathered that his purpose was not all the time to compose congregational hymns in Doddridge’s manner, but rather to provide a manual of metrical devotion, some of whose contents would be found suitable for singing.
We have already said that the style of the hymns is quite undistinguished, The reader will have gathered that Hart could write choice prose, but the exigences of metre and rhyme were more than his talents could meet. This, taken quite at random, is a not unfair example of his style:
The souls that would to Jesus press
Must fix this firm and sure;
That tribulation, more or less,
They must and shall endure.
From this there can be none exempt;
’Tis God’s own wise Decree.
Satan the weakest Saint will tempt;
Nor is the strongest free.
There is perhaps nothing in Hart so vertiginously bathetic as Watts’s
Abram, I’ll be thy God, said He,
And He was Abram’s God;
but Hart never rises above the pedestrian at best.
One of the most remarkable qualities in Doddridge is the consistency with which he keeps to a moderate length in his hymnsErik Routley
But the chief quality in his hymns which ties them down to their period and makes us shy off them today is. their unashamed didacticism. Doddridge, Watts himself, and John Newton were all tainted with this quality, but none so deeply as Hart. And the reason is not far to seek. Doddridge wrote his hymns to be sung after he had preached on their subjects; he had already taught, so there was less need here to repeat the subtler points of his argument in the hymns. Newton knew that the only way to get some theology into his country parishioners was to present it wrapped up in simple hymns; but Newton’s method was strangely objective and his hymns. though often didactic, tend rather to dulness than to the more outrageous qualities of Hart’s. For Hart was not a preacher at the time when he wrote his hymns. He was a “reconverted” Christian full of the joy of new birth and equipped with a mind that loved argument. So his didacticism runs to astonishing lengths in his hymns. He hectors and bullies his reader without scruple. He is always addressing his congregation, or causing them to address each other. Here are a couple of verses which we now think lack in congregational appropriateness:
Ye Drunkards, ye Swearers,
Ye Muckworms of Earth,
Repent, and be Sharers
In this blessed Birth.
From Sin to release us,
That Yoke so long worn,
The Holy Child Jesus
Of Mary was born.
Of ev’ry Degree,
And formal Professors,
The worst of the Three,
With Tears of Contrition
Your Foolishness mourn;
To give you Remission
(XIII 3, 4)
This, be it observed, is a Christmas hymn. Again—
No big Words of ready Talkers,
No dry Doctrine will suffice,
Broken Hearts, and humble Walkers,
These are dear in Jesu’s Eyes.
Tinkling Sounds of Disputation,
Naked Knowledge, all are vain;
Ev’ry Soul that gains Salvation,
Must and shall be born again.
More positively, however, he is not ashamed to put Christian doctrine and moral teaching into metre. Here is a rather fine example of Calvinistic worship which contains sentiments to which Isaac Watts often gave expression:
He roll’d the Seas and spread the Skies;
Made Vallies sink, and Mountains rise;
The Meadows cloth’d with native Green;
And bade the Rivers glide between.
But what are Seas, or Skies, or Hills,
Or verdant Vales, or gliding Rills,
To Wonders Man was born to prove?
The Wonders of redeeming Love!
(XXI 3. 4).
Here are two verses which show that Hart is no despiser of doctrine. Their interpretation of the Trinity is not at all without interest and point:
To comprehend the great THREE-ONE
Is more than highest Angels can;
Or what the Trinity has done
From Death and Hell to ransom Man.
But all true Christians this may boast
(A Truth from Nature never learn’d)
That Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
To save our Souls are all concerned.
(XLVII 1, 2).
The darker side of Calvinism allied with a primitive doctrine of divine vengeance gives us, under the title of “Christ in the Garden”, this :
What Pangs are these that tear his Heart?
What Burden’s this that’s on him laid?
What means this agony of Smart?
What makes our Maker hang his head?
’Tis Justice with it’s Iron Rod
Inflicting Strokes of Wrath divine:
’Tis the vindictive Hand of God
Incens’d at all your sins and mine.
(LXII 4, 5).
He has a hymn for Baptism which shows perhaps more happily his tendency to dogmatism. He is didactic here, but he avoids the worse pitfalls: and what he produces, though still far from what we want in hymns today, is none the less a good statement of doctrine, which is more than we can say for many Baptismal hymns in currency today.
By what amazing Ways
The Lord vouchsafes t’explain
The wonders of His sovereign Grace
Towards the Souls of Men!
He shews us first, how foul
Our Nature’s made by Sin.
Then teaches the believing Soul
The Way to make it clean.
Our Baptism first declares
What need we’ve all to cleanse,
Then shews that Christ to all God’s Heirs
Can Purity dispense.
Water the Body laves:
And if ’tis done by Faith,
The Blood of Jesus surely saves
The sinful soul from Death.
Water no man denies;
But. Brethren, rest not there;
’Tis faith in Christ that justifies
And makes the Conscience clear.
Baptiz’d into his Death,
We rise to Life divine.
The Holy Spirit works the Faith;
And Water is the Sign.
Whatever this may lack, it does not lack dogmatic decisiveness, nor, as it happens, is it as infelicitous in its expression as are many of Hart’s dogmatic hymns.
We have said that many of the hymns in the earlier part are autobiographical documents. One (XXVII) is frankly entitled “Thee Author’s own Confession”, and runs to 23 verses of L.M. Another, more generalised, but still typical of his writing, is this, entitled “The Paradox ”—
How strange is the Course that a Christian must steer?
How perplex’d is the Path he must tread?
The Hope of his Happiness rises from Fear;
And his Life he receives from the Dead.
His fairest Pretensions must wholly be waiv’d,
And his best Resolutions be crost.
Nor can he expect to be perfectly sav’d,
Till he find himself utterly lost.
When all this is done ; and his Heart is assur’d
Of the total Remission of Sins;
When his Pardon is sign’d, and his Peace Is procur’d,
From that moment his Conflict begins.
Here and elsewhere he is concerned to make known his experience, which is not that of many evangelicals of the time, that conversion is the beginning and not the end of the soul’s pilgrimage. From another point of view he analyses the experience of conversion rather subtly in hymn LXXIX, whose first three verses deal respectively with “believing Christ”, “believing on Christ” and “believing into Christ”. He sums it up in this fourth and final verse:
Till we attain to that rich Faith,
Tho’ safe, we are not sound.
Tho’ we are sav’d from Guilt and Wrath,
Perfection is not found.
Lord, make our Union closer yet;
And let the Marriage be complete.
Another and very strange conceit of Hart’s is to write hymns in dialogue form. Here are two verses from his “ Confession” (No. XXVII):
I would object; but faster much
He answer’d, Peace. What Me?—Yes, Thee.
But my enormous Crimes are such—
I give thee Pardon full and free.
But for the future. Lord—I am
Thy great Salvation, perfect, whole.
Behold, thy bad Works shall not damn,
Nor can thy good Works save thy Soul.
Hymn XXIV is entitled “A Dialogue between a Believer and His Soul”, and is written throughout as a dialogue. Verses 1 to 7 are spoken antiphonally by the Believer and the Soul; then as the hymn draws to its climax the dialogue becomes brisker, after the following fashion:
8. Soul Jesu’s precious Blood, once spilt, I depend on solely, To release and clear my Guilt: But I would be holy, Believer He that bought thee on the Cross Can control thy Nature, Fully purge away thy Dross, Make thee a new Creature. 9. Soul That he can I nothing doubt, Be it but his Pleasure. Believer Tho’ it be not done throughout, May it not in Measure? Soul When that Measure, far from great, Shall still seem decreasing— Believer Faint not then; but pray, and wait, Never, never ceasing. 10. Soul What when Pray’r meets no Regard? Believer Still repeat it often. Soul But I feel myself so hard— Believer Jesus will thee soften. Soul But my Enemies make Head. Believer Let them closer drive thee. Soul But I’m cold, I’m dark, I’m dead. Believer Jesus will revive thee.
One of his more familiar verses, from “Come, ye sinners”, puts the same kind of point more vigorously:
Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Bruis’d and mangled by the Fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.
Not the Righteous,
Sinners Jesus came to call.
Hart’s message, whether to the congregation or to the solitary seeker, is a call to faith, and an assurance that the confession of need is all that is required that the Lord may begin his work. But although he calls constantly for conversion, he never lets his reader think that the way will be easy, nor does he scruple to mention in decisive language the judgment that follows on indecision. His are the utterances of an educated convert, a man who combines a clearly rational outlook with a passionate zeal both for Christ and for souls. This makes him unusual among hymn-writers even of that age of zeal and rationality.
His work provides one or two puzzles for the hymnologist. We have yet to discover to what tune he meant the following to be sung:
Repent, ye Sons of men. Repent.
Hear the good Tidings God has sent
Of Sinners sav’d, and Sins forgiv’n.
And Beggars rais’d to reign in Heav’n.
Beggars, Beggars, Beggars, Beggars,
Beggars rais’d to reign in Heav’n.
It would need a good tune indeed to make that euphonious. (This peculiar metre appears again at Nos. XXIV and L in the Supplment). No. LXI in the Supplement has two verses whose metres are inconsistent, and No. XLII in the first part is in 184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11.: both of these are musical puzzles. “Come, ye sinners” was obviously designed for a “repeating” tune in 8.7.4. since its short line is every time printed with two repetitions.
It seems that Joseph Hart may, in a generation or two, become only a half-forgotten name. But I thought he deserved even so inadequate a memorial as this. His hymns, though so singularly deficient in literary grace, are conspicuous for their unusual approach to the Faith and as a document illuminating not only a mind of rare quality but also a corner of the religious history of the eighteenth century. Allow me one more quotation, which shall be the whole of one of his briefest and most pleasing hymns, one of a group entitled “At Dismission”:
Once more, before we part,
We’ll bless the Saviour’s Name.
Record His Mercies, ev’ry Heart;
Sing, ev’ry Tongue, the same.
Hoard up his sacred Word;
And feed thereon; and grow.
Go on to seek to know the Lord;
And practise what you know.
1. The reader will observe that these verses amount to a versification of a paragraph we have already quoted from the Preface. ↩
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