Let the Little Children Sing

From the time Emily and I first knew we were expecting, we sang “Jesus Loves Me” to our daughter Evelyn. She heard it in the womb, then in the first few moments after delivery, and even now she hears it every evening at bed time. Next, we immersed her sister Kyrsten in the tradition. We now get the joy of singing “Jesus Loves Me” to our third daughter, still in the womb. This immensely popular song has a simple beauty and enduring quality to it. Anna B. Warner (1820-1915) wrote the text, and William B. Bradbury (1816-1868) wrote the tune. We owe a great debt to Bradbury in particular, not only for his influence in popularizing this wonderful children’s song, but also for a wealth of other “Sunday school songs” that have directly influenced our hymnody today.

     A native of Maine, Bradbury’s family moved to Boston when he was fourteen years old. There Bradbury studied under the influential Lowell Mason. In due time, Bradbury was in New York City serving as a Baptist choir director and organist at such prominent churches as First Baptist Church of Brooklyn, Baptist Tabernacle, and Broadway Tabernacle. An educator and composer, Bradbury blended elements of the camp meeting song, urban revivalism, and secular tunes to pioneer a new genre—the Sunday school song.

     Bradbury was so influential it is hard condense the scope of his works. Oriola (1859) stands out as his first Sunday school songbook. Its initial success may have encouraged him to continue his work; he soon published a trio of songbooks, cleverly titled Golden Chain (1861), Golden Shower (1862), and Golden Censer (1864). These three books were then combined and sold in various collections like the Golden Trio (1866). Bradford authored the tunes we still sing today to cherished texts like Dorothy A. Thrupp’s “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” (Oriola), William Wolford’s “Sweet Hour of Prayer” (Golden Chain), and Edward Mote’s “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.”

     In fact, Bradbury served as the Sunday school editor of the prominent publishing company Biglow and Main. He collaborated with Lowell Mason and several other significant church musicians to establish the Normal Musical Institute in New York, which became a proto-type for other such institutes nation-wide. Bradbury also contributed directly to the rise of the vastly popular stream we call “gospel songs.” As a result, Bradbury still influences us today.  

Title page of Bradbury’s Golden Chain, published in 1861

     Bradbury and his Sunday school song colleagues have, at times, been criticized for being uneducated, unrefined composers. But Bradbury enjoyed a European-quality music education equal to any of his time. Even his own teachers did not appreciate some of his work. We can only conclude that Bradbury made the conscious decision to write in a style that served the needs of his audience—often children. And, like Isaac Watts’s “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” many of Bradbury’s tunes for children made their way into adult church hymnody.

     We should be thankful for Bradbury’s humble, Christ-like service to the church. Though he was a towering figure, he did not hesitate to “stoop” and craft such simple, timeless tunes as what we find in “Jesus Loves Me.” He knew we should invite the little children to come and sing; such an endeavor was never below him. His humility is something we ought to appreciate and emulate.


A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).

What Happened to the Singing?

In 1640 the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony printed the Bay Psalm Book. It was the first printed book in North America. It was originally entitled The Whole Booke of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Metre. That title highlights the Puritan desire for a psalm book that clearly reflected the original Hebrew poetry of the Psalms. A famous quote from the preface claims that “Gods Altar needs not our pollishings,” meaning the previous psalters were too free in their translation of the original Hebrew poetry. To the Puritans, the Bay Psalm Book represented a return to the literal words of the original Hebrew text.

     But there was a problem. John Calvin, during the European Reformation, had developed the regulative principle of worship. He thought churches should not use instruments or choirs in their worship because the New Testament did not command it. This is why the churches before 1700 in New England only sang from the book of Psalms. In addition, most congregations, including the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, did not use any instruments in their congregational singing. Adding to the problem, Puritan leaders did not include any musical notation in the Bay Psalm Book, not even a simple melody for people to sing (the preface referred readers to tunes printed in another psalter by a man named Thomas Ravenscroft). Their main concern was faithfulness to the original meaning of the Hebrew text. However, the psalms in the Bay Psalm Book were both difficult to understand and hard to sing.

     The problem was not a lack of musical knowledge on the Puritan’s part. “To be sure, cultured Puritans enjoyed music, and even dancing as much as other Englishmen of the era. They were not averse to singing and playing psalms in parts for their own recreation” (Ogosapian, 6). The Puritans were highly educated and familiar with the culture, so they had the musical and artistic ability to smooth out the text. But they refused on what they thought were biblical grounds.

     As a result of a lack of instrumental accompaniment, musical notation, and difficult psalm settings, congregational psalm-singing began to fall apart in New England. Many Puritan leaders and congregants alike recorded their frustration with the poor quality of church singing at the time. Puritan leader Samuel Sewall “served for several years as Precentor of the South Church in Boston, and although seemingly possessed of better musical ability than most, he recorded that on various occasions he had set a tune too high, wandered accidentally from WINDSOR to HIGH DUTCH, and let the congregation slide into ST. DAVID’s when he had set YORK. If such things could happen to a musical Precentor, one can only imagine what might have befallen one of lesser ability” (Owens, 17). [1]

     Sewall’s experience as a precentor describes a practice called “lining out,” in which the song leader would sing a phrase of the song, then the congregation would repeat it. While only intended as a temporary fix, it quickly became settled tradition at this time in New England church history. Music historians generally agree this practice signaled a low point in American congregational singing. It wasn’t until 1698, with the 9th edition of the Bay Psalm Book, that tunes were placed in the back of the psalter, and then only 13 tunes for all 150 Psalms. Thankfully the situation did eventually change. In 1721, congregations in North American would find a new voice as concerned leaders began to publish several books that encouraged the church to sing again. But that is a different story for another day.

     It has been said that history repeats itself. Today we find ourselves at the same crossroads in church music history, though the scenery is a little different. We can glean two simple lessons from the issues surrounding the Bay Psalm Book.

First, if we are not careful in our application of Scripture, we may accidentally destroy the very thing we seek to preserve. The Puritans, in their appropriate but misguided zeal for textual accuracy, actually began to undermine corporate singing in their churches. In the past, people like Martin Luther had not agreed with John Calvin’s regulative principle of worship. In the future, hymns by people like Isaac Watts would soon provide a breath of fresh air to congregations starved of quality singing. We can sympathize with the Puritans, for they loved the Word of God. But they, like us, had blind spots. We should step back and ask ourselves a simple question: Is our music that is meant to edify people actually preventing them from participating? Is it too artistic? Too difficult? Too trendy? Too individualistic? Too academic? Musical notation is a wonderful aid to worship. We should think twice before tossing it out—again. Instead, we should present church music keeping the clearest New Testament command about music in mind, that all the congregation should sing, and they should be able to give thanks while they do it (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)!

     At the same time, we need not box ourselves into a corner like the Puritans did. It is true—God’s Word is the most powerful and effective means of edifying believers (Heb. 4:12). But the Puritans made a weak argument from silence when they required their churches to use only the words of Scripture, and particularly the Psalms. The church has expressed theological truths based on Scripture for centuries in the form of creeds. No doubt, the more Scripture we directly infuse into our hymn texts, the better. But it is also possible to have excellently crafted, theologically rich songs to sing in church without falling into the Puritan dilemma of text versus art. We can be faithful to the text and pursue artistic beauty. Thankfully, God has gifted the modern church with many hymn writers who do just that. Let’s use them.



A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010)

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007)

Church Music in the United States: 1760-1901 by David W. Music & Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, Inc., 2014)

The Bay Psalm Book and Its Era by Barbara Owen, The Hymn 41:4 (October 1990)

[1] WINDSOR, HIGH DUTCH, ST. DAVID, and YORK are all tune names. A “precentor” is a person who leads a congregation in singing, much like a modern day worship leader.