The 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams opens in 1770 with Adams’ defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre: although he does not wholly approve of the actions of the British government in Massachusetts, he is cautious regarding revolutionary rhetoric. He urges Bostonians to remain calm and seek resolution through diplomacy. But by the end of the first episode, his conservative Puritan-like demeanor is nearly abandoned when he joins the Revolutionary movement, albeit with reservations.
This moment – the moment when Adams’ change of heart and mind – is revealed to the viewer in the first episode’s penultimate scene when Adams, in 1774, gives an impassioned speech from the pulpit in Boston, joining the movement to fight against the British crown. As he finishes, the congregation begins to sing. Adams and his wife, Abigail, share a short moment, and then join in the singing.
The song they sing is composer William Billings’ “Chester.” Billings originally published “Chester” in 1770 as part of his larger book, The New-England Psalm Singer. The lyrics of the 1770 version of “Chester” are as follows:
These lyrics, by all accounts written by Billings himself, echo the themes of the psalms the Puritans had been singing since before their arrival in Massachusetts. For instance, the text of Psalm 23 appears in the pages of the Bay Psalm Book, which was published in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1640, making it most likely the first book published anywhere in the British American colonies:
The common Puritan themes of God’s protection of the righteous against any foe and the speaker’s trust in God appear in both texts. Billings’ second verse also mirrors the themes of a number of psalms well known by Puritans who worshipped with the Bay Psalm Book: Psalms 147: 7, 149:1-9, 40:6…and quite a few others that speak of offerings to God and singing praises to his name.
Given these similarities, one could argue that “Chester” is merely a reinvention of Puritan culture, set to a new tune. And, in 1774, this is the version of “Chester” that John and Abigail Adams would have known.
But here, HBO makes a slight error: if you listen carefully, you can hear that the congregation sings another, different verse, before returning to the first verse. The lyrics to this alternate verse are as follows:
Billings wrote these lyrics about the American triumph in the Siege of Boston in 1776 and he published the lyrics in 1778, two and four years, respectively, after the HBO congregation supposedly sings these words.
However, the choice to use the later lyrics is defensible because of the symbolic resonance. The evolution of a Puritan-influenced hymn into a patriotic anthem matches Adams transformation in this scene: he is transformed from a cautious, even-headed, and solemnly serious Bostonian – a product of the culture of Puritanism – into an American Revolutionary-era hero. Adams the Puritan becomes Adams the Patriot, just as Billings’ lyrics change from Puritan hymn to national anthem.
“Chester” became wildly popular in 1778 and was used as one of a number of national anthems for decades. How we ended up today with a national anthem set to the tune of a British fraternal society’s drinking song is another story for another day.
The full text of Billings’ 1778 version of “Chester”: