Joseph Hart (1712-1768)
You may ask, like many of my friends have
already done, ‘Joseph Hart, who is he?’ ‘ Why a book on a hymn writer?’
Good questions. And I have four good answers.
The first is that I consider that he wrote some cracking hymns. I am certainly not a hymnologist. A couple of years ago I put nearly all of my old, dusty hymn books out for the dustmen. In fact, I am not even very keen on hymn singing. However, I would not go so far as C S Lewis, who disliked what he called ‘the church’s gang-songs’ and declared that, ‘hymns were (and are) extremely disagreeable to me.’ Lewis was an eccentric in several areas.
It is not only the banal content of many of today’s worship songs, or even the dreary repetition of many of the Victorian favourites, that put me off so many hymns. Nearer the truth is the fact that I cannot sing. I am not sure if I am tone deaf, or just plain unmusical. Even at primary school, I strongly disliked communal singing – the music teacher once labelled me as ‘a growler’ and that was the end of any attempt on my part to join in around her piano. Nevertheless, I reckon that I can recognise a good tune and even more so, good words. And Joseph Hart, a priori, wrote good words. My assessment is that he was among the most gifted of all hymn writers with his use of language, which on some occasions is simply, starkly arresting. What continually strikes me is that his hymns employ what seem like twenty-first century words and phrases. They possess not just a fine poetic quality – they are timeless, moving poetry. For example, for me, nothing in all of Christian hymnody can compare with the blunt, but doctrinally sublime, opening line of his, ‘A Man there is, A real Man …’ [read the words of some of his most enduring hymns]
Second, his verses are shot through with what I consider to be the two essentials of good hymns, namely, a lively combination of Christian doctrine and Christian experience. And for Hart that experience was long and hard. He struggled for twenty-four years with sin and doubts and only gained an assurance of faith for just the last eleven years of his life. Many of his hymns reflect these struggles, or ‘spiritual perturbations’ as he called them.
Third, nobody seems to know much about this man. It is said that 20,000 people attended his burial service at Bunhill Fields, London – Hart was therefore not a nobody, crowds loved him and wanted to honour the man in death. Yet, there is no surviving portrait of him. There is no collection of his correspondence – all that remains is a brief letter to one of his nephews. There are no published sermons – well, there is just one from the thousands he preached. He wrote only one book – a hymn book. And he has generally been ignored by many – for instance, Smith and Carlson give him no place in their 1997 book, Great Christian Hymn Writers. The only biography of Hart is that of Thomas Wright, and that was written almost a century ago, and reads like it too! It is interesting enough, but it has a hagiographic streak, some imaginative ‘facts’ and some serious errors.
Furthermore, I can find nothing of any substance about him on the worldwide web. At first glance, it looks deceptively helpful. The web search engines throw up a Joseph Hart and his wife, both Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, who sailed from Wales to America in the eighteenth century, but that is not our man. Nor is the website devoted to Joseph A Hart, medical marijuana activist! Indeed, the only autobiographical account of Joseph Hart’s life is that sketched out in the Preface to the only book he ever published, namely, his Hymns, &c. Composed on Various Subjects, which first appeared in 1759. This paucity of information posed a challenge to me, so I began to research the man, who has become my hymn-writing hero. It is true there is not much to glean about Joseph Hart, but what there is, is of inestimable value because it begins to bring to life a rather ordinary, educated, middle-class man whom God gifted, tried, and eventually assured of true saving faith in most remarkable ways and to most remarkable degrees. The lessons of Joseph Hart’s life speak to us today.
Fourth, the Preface of his book, sub-titled, A Brief and Summary Account of the Author’s Experience and the Great Things that God Hath Done for His Soul, is among the finest testimonies of God’s dealing with a man. In our day of small things and so much man-centred Christian testimony, Hart’s account is a colossus that is tender, honest and true. The superficiality of much of what passes for Christian experience today is eclipsed by Hart’s of almost 250 years ago. His self-told story is so good, readable, and memorable that it is reprinted here in its entirety, with just a few minor changes to its eighteenth-century English. It is a masterful framing of several aspects of Christian experience, which, while not undergone by all believers, will be recognised by many as being familiar, or even similar to theirs.
These are my four reasons for producing the content of this book. Its smallness should not belie the greatness of its subject. I hope that this book will introduce you to this real man, Joseph Hart. And I want you to admire his life, his hymns, and of course, his Christian experience. And if you also grasp something of the excitement and reality of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival, then that will be a worthwhile bonus. Finally, I want you, in the future, to be able to sing Hart’s hymns with more understanding and thus better praise this Triune God, and henceforth seek to live and die for Him, as Joseph Hart sought to do.
A reprint of the 7th (1770) edition of
Hart's Hymns is available from:
Sovereign Grace Mission, PO Box 55 Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, SG18 9UU, UK.
Old Paths Gospel Press, PO Box 318, Choteau, MT 59422, USA. [phone, 406-466-2311].
You can read the 6th edition (1769), as digitized by Google, by clicking here.