Among the patriotic anthems sung during the American Revolutionary War, only Yankee Doodle was more popular than William Billings's Chester. Billings wrote the first version of the song for his 1770 songbook The New England Psalm Singer, and made improvements for the version in his The Singing Master's Assistant (1778). It is the latter version that is best known today.
The curious title of the song reflects a common practice of Billings's day, in which tunes were labeled with (often arbitrarily chosen) place names. Billings's song evidently has little more to do with any particular town named Chester than his hymn tune Africa has to do with Africa. With identifiable names for compositions, performers could select different lyrics to sing with the music without creating confusion.
Tune in Version of 1778
Parts labeled "Treble, Counter, Tenor, and Bass" correspond to the modern SATB four-voice choir. However, the melody is in the tenor part, not the treble part.
Although this cannot be established with certainty, it appears that these lyrics are by Billings himself.
- Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
- And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,
- We fear them not, we trust in God,
- New England's God forever reigns.
- Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
- With Prescot and Cornwallis join'd,
- Together plot our Overthrow,
- In one Infernal league combin'd.
- When God inspir'd us for the fight,
- Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc'd,
- Their ships were Shatter'd in our sight,
- Or swiftly driven from our Coast.
- The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
- Our troops advance with martial noise,
- Their Vet'rans flee before our Youth,
- And Gen'rals yield to beardless Boys.
- What grateful Off'ring shall we bring?
- What shall we render to the Lord?
- Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
- And praise his name on ev'ry Chord.
- Let the high heav'ns your songs invite,
- These spacious fields of brilliant light,
- Where sun and moon and planets roll,
- And stars that glow from pole to pole.
- Sun, moon, and stars convey Thy praise,
- 'Round the whole earth and never stand,
- So when Thy truth began its race,
- It touched and glanced on ev'ry hand.
A slightly altered version of this text and the music by Billings was recorded in 1975 by the Old Stoughton Musical Society for their LP album, "An Appeal to Heaven".
- The Singing Master's Assistant, in which the final version of Chester was published, is in print today in a scholarly edition by Hans Nathan (University Press of Virginia, 1977, ISBN 0-8139-0839-6).
- The Stoughton Musical Society's Centennial Collection of Sacred Music, contains a version with the later text and was published in Boston in 1878; reprint by DaCapo Press, 1980, with New Introduction by Roger L. Hall.