For this year's celebration of our Independence, we offered a short biography of Mr. William Billings. We told of his talent at musical composition, his prolific body of work, and his ability to eke a living from his craft, despite being self-taught and physically impaired. Yet in addition, Mr. Billings ought be remembered for siring the American patriotic hymn.
One of his first musical works was titled America. Indeed, many hymn tunes were named for places, but this composition paid tribute to the country as well. Mr. Billings had decided to set the poem The New England Hymn by Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr. (1706-1788) of South Boston. Here is the first verse:
To thee, our Father's God, and ours;
This wilderness we chose our Seat:
To Rights Secured by Equal Laws
From Persecution's Iron Claws,
We here have sought our calm Retreat.
Mr. Billings chose an old melody, popular since the 1640s when the Puritans were warring with the Anglican church. He wrote a new version of the tune, to fit Dr. Byles lyrics, and set the song for four-part harmony. The result was a blend of patriotic sentiment and sacred praise. America was published in October of 1770, the first full hymn in Billings's The New-England Psalm-Singer.
In that same volume was a hymn called Chester (likely named for Chester, MA) with Billings's own lyrics:
And slavery Clank her galling Chains
We fear them not, we trust in god
New England's god forever reigns.
When New England militias marched into battle five years later, Chester became their rallying cry. As the Revolution progressed, other American soldiers adopted Chester as a marching song. In 1778, Billings modified the original and added more verses, such as
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forced
Their ships were shattered in our sight
Or swiftly driven from our shores.
The song quickly grew in popularity, rivaling only Yankee Doodle among the troops. Chester has been called America's first national anthem. With these first patriotic hymns, Billings began a tradition that came to include The Battle Hymn of the Republic, America The Beautiful, and God Bless America.
Chester can be heard on Colonial Revelers' CD Revelry, Reflection & Revolution. To hear a sample, watch the video.
As always, your servants,