The hymns of an era often mirror the quality of that era’s sermons.
Isaac Watts and John Newton belonged to an era of expository sermons, an era of rich and deep reflections on a passage of Scripture. Their hymns, and the hymns of other writers from the 1600s and 1700s, are often reflect that structure. They didn’t just pull a phrase out of its context; they used the main idea of the whole passage as the main idea for the song, drawing from the Bible verse surrounding the main idea to build the song’s verses.
Before Watts, the primary form of church music in the English church was metrical Psalms. These were attempts to convert the concept of a Psalm into an English rhythmic and rhyming structure. Watts (1674-1748) took this same concept but expanded it to Biblical concepts outside of the Psalms. A generation later, Newton (1725-1807) used a similar format for many of his songs, though he occasionally branched out into more general themes.
Expository preaching declined in England after the Puritan era ended. High-church homilies took its place. This change is reflected in the English hymns of the 1800s and 1900s, often pious platitudes without the vigor of their predecessors.
It was a different story in the United States. The Second Great Awakening ran its course from the 1820s through the 1850s. You can see its impact in the hymns of Fanny Crosby, Philip Bliss, and their contemporaries. Much like the preaching of the era, the hymns of the era had more emotion and less exposition. Instead of building the hymn around the flow of the surrounding passage, writers would take a Biblical phrase as their hymn text and build the verses around a more general theme, often with a variety of allusions to other passages.
An important caveat: These eras have significant overlap. In the era of Bliss, you’ll often enough find a hymn that would have been right at home with Newton. (Likewise, many of the greatest songs of the mid-1900s are right at home in a hymnal next to Bliss.)
Also, in this era in preaching, altar calls came to take up significant portions of sermon time; altar call songs, likewise, grew to be a significant portion of this era’s repertoire. (The same happened with preaching and songs about prohibition, but we’re less aware of it today because those songs didn’t last. We’re still singing “Pass Me Not,” but you’ve probably never heard “The Devil in the Bottom of the Glass.”)
Black Gospel songs from this time period tend to reflect the experiences of a culture that had gone through slavery and segregation; whatever a song’s theme it would often incorporate the motifs of freedom and deliverance from bondage.
Many of the most enduring songs of the early and mid 1900s came from the Southern Gospel genre. Though the harmonies were often more intricate than the songs from the 1800s, the lyrics tended to follow similar paths. (During the devestation of the Great Depression, though, songs about Heaven were seen in greater proportions than before or since.)
This largely held true in the 1950s and 1960s, though a small but significant number of preachers and writers tried a little too hard to be edgy and trendy, leaving us with songs like “Have You Talked To The Man Upstairs” or “I Believe In the Man In the Sky.” Incidentally, songs that try so hard to be edgy that they’re cheesy in five years have stayed with us ever since—though since Larry Norman’s 1973 song comparing Jesus to an UFO, they tend to be more often found in Contemporary Christian Music (CCM).
The Jesus Movement started in the late 1960s and hit its peak in the 1970s, giving rise to its own genre, called at first Jesus Music and (by the mid-1980s) CCM. The movement and its music both reflected a synthesis of Christian theology with the mores of the 1960s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, many churches made a conscious effort to avoid the finer points of theology. Many of the songs that become especially popular in this era were simple praise choruses. Incidentally, their melodies were often simple and intentionally limited, so that everyone (except first sopranos and basses) could sing them in unison.
The preaching and the songs of the 2000s and 2010s often reflected a felt-need theology and a postmodern approach. What I mean by “postmodern approach” in this context is a hesitation to proclaim truth boldly, a practice postmodernist thinkers consider arrogant. Instead of direct proclamation of truth, some of the most popular songs of this era phrase their points as “what if” questions.
At some level, the modern hymns from Stuart Townend and Keith & Kristyn Getty are a response to the oversimplification of the 1990s and the postmodernism of the 2010s. It might seem like these songs bring us full circle to the earliest generation of English hymns. But they actually combine a 1700s theological depth in an 1800s structure. Granted, sometimes there are no choruses, a feature more commonly found before 1800. But while Newton and Watts would take one multi-verse passage and develop it through the course of a song, Townend and the Gettys take the 1800s approach of building a song around a general theme with a broad array of allusions and thoughts.
One final interesting thought: Newton and Watts were both preachers. But while preaching might be the symptom, their study of the Bible is the underlying reason why their songs have such a timeless vigor and depth. You don’t have to be a preacher to write timeless Christian songs, but you do have to know your Bible—and its author.