Crystals in hydrous magmas can form in response to falling temperature (magma cooling) or degassing (magma decompression). It remains unclear which process dominates beneath explosive silicic volcanoes. Because decompression and cooling operate on very different time scales, resolving the driving force behind crystallization is of fundamental importance for determining magma dynamics and eruption hazard. Here we use ion-microprobe measurements of dissolved H2O in phenocryst-hosted melt inclusions from pumices erupted between May and October 1980 at Mount St. Helens volcano to show that all microlites and a significant proportion of phenocrysts were formed by near isothermal decompression. Magmas erupted after 18 May show evidence for subsequent crystallization of both phenocrysts and microlites, indicating that the time scales of crystal nucleation and growth are on the order of months or less.