The 1991 Denson edition of The Sacred Harp has no attribution for the words of 117 “Babylon Is Fallen.” But according to Warren Steele in Makers of the Sacred Harp, the original words, the words originally appeared in a Shaker hymn book, Millennial Praises, Containing a Collection of Gospel Hymns …Adapted to the Day of Christ’s Second Appearing, which was printed in Hancock, Massachusetts, in 1813. More detail on the origina of the words is offered on a post by “Burke” in this thread on the Mudcat Web site:
…The rest of this [post] is will be summary of the article:
G. W. Williams, “Babylon is Fallen: The Story of a North American Hymn,” The Hymn, Volume 44, April 1993, pp 31-35….
There is no author listed in Millennial Praises. The attribution of the hymn to Richard McNemar appears to be from an article by Daniel W. Patterson in Shaker Quarterly, v.18.
The first stanza of the text appears in a manuscript of tunes from the Enfield, Conn. [Shaker] community and may date to as early as 1810. The original 6 verses are clearly refering to images in Revelation 17-19. “It is clear … that McNemar knew the Revelation passage thoroughly and was closely following its pattern and its precepts.” The text was reprinted in an 1833 Shaker hymnal, but not in later ones.
It was reprinted in non-Shaker books, usually with variations on words, from the 1820’s on. The first verse always remains substantially the same, except for the reference to “the distant coasts of Shinar.” Shinar did not mean much more in the 19th cent. than it does to us today. It means “Babylon in its fullest extent” and is used in the Old Testament to refer to Babylon. [See this article in the online Jewish Encyclopedia for more info. — ed.] Always associated with impiety in some way, the substitution of “courts of Zion” or “our Shiloh” substantially changes the meaning of the second part of the verse. It transforms “cries of despair from the citizens of the ravished city to shouts of triumph from God’s favored people.”
The third verse from the Sacred Harp version was first published in William Houser’s The Olive Leaf in 1878. This was also the book where Chute’s tune was first published so the version most well know now traces most directly to it. Either Houser or Chute may have written the third verse; there’s not really any way to know. This new verse changes the tone of the hymn to emphasizing rejoicing in triumph rather than the desolation in destruction of the original.
Before 1878 at least 2 different tunes were paired with the words in different publications. All apparently suffered from the problem that the chorus does not follow the same 8,7 meter of the verses. The 12,10 of the chorus were somehow forced into the 8,7 pattern of the tunes used.
William Houser first published a six verse version with one of these problem tunes in The Hesperian Harp, 1852. When Houser published it in The Olive Leaf in 1878 with the now familiar tune he headed the entry with the attribution: “Prof. Wm. E. Chute, of Ontario. Prof. Chute composed this tune out of an old theme, and is too modest to claim any originality, but I do it for him.–W.H.” The “old theme” may be Sons of Sorrow [link to words and score of this song].
For completists, here are the Shaker words: