J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 09, 2013

Alexander Gilles Edits His Hymnal

Glenda Goodman reported this find at Trinity College’s library on the Junto blog in July, but it didn’t really hit me until Slate Vault picked up on it (and posted bigger images).

A man named Alexander Gilles went through a copy of Isaac Watts’s Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and changed every reference to royalty and Britain so the hymns fit better with the republican values of the new U.S. of A.

Gilles used an edition of Watts published by Scottish immigrant John Hodgson in Boston in 1772. Many of his changes, Goodman reports, match those in an edition issued by John Mycall of Newburyport in 1781; a “committee of ministers” edited that version for Mycall, another immigrant bookseller. But Gilles went further, looking not just for words like “Britain” and “king” but also for ideological or geographic details.

When lines seemed too British, Gilles composed new ones, so:
He bids the ocean round thee flow
Not bars of brass could guard thee so.
became:
He bids the seas before thee stand
To guard against yon distant land.
That “distant land” was, presumably, Watts’s own country.

In the 1800s Congress considered petitions for pensions from Alexander Gillis, an “officer of the Revolution,” and his children. He lived in New York and, according to one of those documents, had been “an Indian spy.” I don’t know if he could have been the man who edited this hymnal. But he didn’t get a pension.

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