Introduction: What’s so great about an old Christian hymnal?

Isaac Watts, an eighteenth century English Christian minister and theologian, wrote upwards of 600 hymns in his lifetime. One hymnal, The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship, published in 1799, is found in the Colby College Special Collections. I set out looking for a book as old as I could find and one having to do with music. With a background in Christian hymns and psalms, I was instantly drawn to this old, worn book. The binding is just barely held together by patches of skin at the top, connecting two pieces of cardboard, indicating that this book has been well used. This skin, most likely leather, is stretched over the boards and sloppily cut, and pieces of paper are glued over the inside of the boards. Parts of the cover is peeling, while other parts have been eaten by some sort of insect.

The binding is very old, but has been rebound a couple times. There is a thick gray string that is sewn through the cover boards and pages. A thinner brown string is sewn through the binding and pages. And yet another thin white thread is sewn through just the pages. The first few leaves are hanging on to the rest of the book by just a few of these white threads. The binding is quite untidy, with old and new threads and knots sticking out in different pages and directions. There is also a pin through the first few leaves. This rebinding tells us that this book has been used often, and also very important that this book is maintained and kept intact. There is a small piece of paper on the binding that tells the author and the year it was printed.

The title page contains a long title and subtitle (as seen in the picture). The title is all capital letters with certain words larger than others, showing their importance. Words such as “psalms” and “hymns” are larger than the rest, indicating the content of this hymnal. This page tells us that there are three books, which are the different subjects of the hymns and spiritual songs. There are also three quotes: the first comes from the gospel of Luke; the second from Revelations; and the third a letter from Plinius, as seen in the Epistles. Lastly, the title page tells that the book was printed in Northampton (and according to the Special Collections website, in Massachusetts), by William Butler in 1799. The date is written in Roman numerals, MDCCXCIX. There is no printers mark or colophon. This may be because this was a newer printer press, recently brought to America, or may be because this is a Christian hymnal, so the printing is not as important as the Words of God themselves. There is also very little flair to this title page; it contains the typical Times Roman font, no pictures, and just a simple pattern for a border around the title. This border looks like it was stamped or printed-not hand drawn. This title page is no longer connected to the rest of the book.

There is a lot of writing and marginalia on this title page. It appears that a specific name, Nancy B. Dingley, is written several times on this page in different ink. There are scribbles written on this page, of which is unclear, and there is a year, 1809, possibly when it was owned by Ms. Dingley since it is in the same ink color and handwriting of one of her signatures. There is a purple stamp indicating that this book was given to the Library of Colby University on March 12th of 1887. There is a Colby College Library bookplate glued onto the inside cover. On this inside cover, there are several numbers written all over the page; two dates, possibly when the book was owned; and one word, “rare”-most likely meaning that this is a rare copy of this hymnal.

The font of this entire hymnal is the same as the title page-Times Roman, which is a typical font seen in bibles. The font is also relatively small, with small space in between the lines and pretty small margins. The book is broken into: advertisement, which seems to be a forward by the author for his reasoning behind the formatting and choosing these particular psalms; index, indicating how to find certain psalms based on subjects and first lines, in alphabetical order; the psalms; appendix, which include psalms that Watts kept out that the printer decided to include; hymns and spiritual songs, with the three books in order, containing different subjects; and the index to find hymns by title or content. This book is solely words-no musical notes; therefore, either those who own this book must have to know how to sing the psalms and hymns, or there is not supposed to be any singing, just speaking.

There is a running head on each page, indicating the psalm or hymn numbers (in Roman numerals) on that page. Each psalm is broken up into a “metre,” which may be a long metre, short metre, or common metre, or a combination of the three. There are rules separating each psalm, and they are lined up, except when there are breaks to fit in longer lines (as Professor Cook said, “sometimes they have to break the rules!”). There is also pagination on each side of each leaf. On every two or four pages, there is a signature mark. There are six leaves per bundle, with the middle leaf labeled with the printer letter and a “2”. Typically, bundles would be 4 or 8 leaves, but this one is 6, indicating that the printer added an extra sheet of paper and labeled it with the “2” so that it would be placed in the middle.

There is so much to explore in this hymnal, and I look forward to continuing this journey with my pet book! I would like to acknowledge Colby College Special Collections for allowing me the opportunity to use their book, and especially Pat Burdick and Erin Rhodes.