Eccentric Hymn Composer William Billings

Eccentric Hymn Composer William Billings

In the earliest days of the Puritan settlement of Massachusetts, the church was the center of social life as well as spiritual life. It is not surprising, then, that the earliest American composer would primarily be a composer of church music.

William Billings was born on this day, October 7, 1746 in Boston, Massachusetts and was apprenticed as a youth to a tanner. He had no musical training and was largely self-taught. Though he became one of the best musicians in colonial America, he never was able to earn his living as a musician. He later even served the town of Boston as a hogreve (to keep the swine off the streets) and a street cleaner. Billings was a very unlikely candidate for an influential musician and composer. He had one sightless eye, a withered arm, legs of different lengths, a loud, rasping voice and generally a slovenly appearance. Yet, he was an enthusiastic singing master and a popular composer.

Billings came on the scene at a time when Puritan church music in America was in transition. Singing by rote or "lining out" had lost its hold, but all the psalm-tune books were by foreigners. Billings became aware of the monotony and began chalking tunes on the walls of the tannery or on pieces of leather as he worked. In 1770 he published a collection of songs entitled The New England Psalm Singer. Its first written edition was engraved by Paul Revere and the title page exhorted,

O praise the Lord with one consent
And in this grand design
Let Britain and the Colonies
Unanimously jine!

Billings later published six other collections of church music, often including his original compositions. He especially favored fuguing tunes, but also included plain songs and anthems in his collections. Because of his lack of musical training and ignorance of the principles of harmony, many of Billings' compositions were musically crude by later standards, but they provided the variety needed by the churches of his day.

Billings abandoned his tanning trade and became a singing teacher and trainer of choirs in some of the most important churches in Boston, including the Brattle Street Church and the Old South Church. He improved the rhythmic singing of the choirs and had them sing a more exact pitch. Instruments were not used in the Puritan churches and "striking a tune" could be distressing and disastrous. Billings was the first to introduce the pitch-pipe to get the choir all started on the same pitch. He also introduced the violoncello or bass viol to maintain the pitch.

During the American Revolution, Billings was an ardent supporter of the patriots and wrote several popular songs for the patriot cause. His tune "Chester" became the hymn tune of the Revolution and began with the line "Let tyrants shake their iron rod."

One of the musical schools organized by William Billings in 1774 was at Stoughton, Massachusetts. In 1786 this was more formally organized into the Stoughton Musical Society, which is today the oldest musical society in the United States.


  1. Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
  2. Wilson, Woodrow. History of the American People. New York: Harper and Bro., 1902. Source of the image.
  3. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated July, 2007

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