Historical musicologist Glenda Goodman recently found a fascinating hymnal in the archives of the Watkinson Library at Trinity College in Connecticut. The book, printed in 1772 and owned by a man named Alexander Gilles, is heavily annotated. Every reference in it to Great Britain, the “northern isles,” the king—basically, anything British—is redacted, with new allusions to America suggested in pen in the margins.
The book was an edition of the work of Isaac Watts, a British writer who produced some of the most popular hymns of the 18th century. (One hymn Watts wrote which might still be familiar today is “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past.”)
While, as Goodman writes, later versions of Watts’ hymnal printed in the former Colonies changed his British references to American ones, it appears that Gilles took matters into his own hands.
Gilles was extremely thorough, crossing out the words King and isle wherever he found them. He even suggested an entirely new couplet to replace the island-centric praise: “He bids the ocean round thee flow/ Not bars of brass could guard thee so,” suggesting the more continentally appropriate “He bids the seas before thee stand/ To guard against yon distant land.”
At the bottom of one page, Gilles wrote, following Watts’ note that he had “translated the scene of this psalm to Great-Britain”: “+It is now translated to America.”
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