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Isaac Watts

Isaac WattsIsaac Watts may be considered the father of English hymnody. The beginning of the eighteenth century marks a distinct period in the history of hymnology. The apostle of the new departure was Dr. Isaac Watts. He was the first to see the real need, and in large measure he succeeded in supplying it. He was born at Southampton, [England], July 17, 1674. He was a precocious child; learned to read almost as soon as he could articulate, and wrote verses when a little boy. He was firmly attached to the principles of the Nonconformists, for which his father had suffered imprisonment, and was therefore compelled to decline the advantages of the great English universities, which at that time received only Church of England students. He availed himself, however, of the privilege of attending a Dissenting academy in London, taught by Mr. Thomas Rowe, where he applied himself to study with uncommon diligence and success. During his school days it was his habit frequently to attempt poetry both in English and in Latin, according to the custom of the time. In this manner he was unconsciously preparing himself for a long, brilliant, and useful career. In 1705 he published his first volume of poems, Horæ Lyricæ, which was received with approbation in Great Britain and America, and gave the author, in the opinion of the learned Dr. Johnson, an honorable place among English poets. His Hymns and Spiritual Songs appeared in 1707; Psalms, in 1719; and Divine Songs for Children, in 1720.

One characteristic of Watts's hymns is majesty. He is bold, massive, tremendous. This was not his only style of writing; some of his hymns are very pathetic. For example, "When I survey the wondrous cross" and "Alas! and did my Saviour bleed." Grandeur was his forte, but he could be as simple as a child and as tender as a mother. The same hand that wrote

Wide as the world is thy command,
Vast as eternity thy love,

also wrote the familiar little cradle song,

Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber;
Holy angels guard thy bed.

He became pastor of an Independent Church in London in 1702. He was so feeble that much of the time the work of the parish was done by an assistant, but he held the place nominally until his death.

Dr. Watts never married. In 1713 he was invited to the elegant and hospitable home of Sir Thomas Abney. Years later he wrote to Lady Huntingdon: "This day thirty years I came hither to the house of my good friend, Sir Thomas Abney, intending to spend but one single week under his friendly roof; and I have extended my visit to exactly the length of thirty years." He [wrote] many works in prose as well as in poetry, amounting altogether to fifty-two publications. He lived to be seventy-five years of age, and was for many years before his death recognized as a patriarch among the Dissenting clergy. He died November 25, 1748. Westminster Abbey, that vast mausoleum of England's heroes, statesmen, poets, and saints, has been honored with a memorial of this great, good man. Underneath a bust of the poet the artist has sculptured Watts sitting at a table writing, while behind and above him an angel is whispering heavenly thoughts. The design is artistic and very appropriate. This Hymnal contains fifty-three hymns by Dr. Watts.

—A broken heart, my God, my King
—Alas! and did my Saviour bleed
—Am I a soldier of the cross
—Awake, our souls! away our fears
—Before Jehovah's awful throne
—Begin, my tongue, some heavenly
—Behold the glories of the Lamb
—Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove
—Come, let us join our cheerful songs
—Come, sound his praise abroad
—Come, ye that love the Lord
—Eternal Power, whose high abode
—Father, how wide thy glory shines
—From all that dwell below the skies
—Give me the wings of faith to rise
—God is the name my soul adores
—God is the refuge of his saints
—Great God! attend, while Zion sings
—Hear what the voice from heaven
—He dies, the Friend of sinners dies
—How pleasant, how divinely fair
—How sad our state by nature is
—How shall the young secure their
—I'll praise my Maker while I've
—I'm not ashamed to own my Lord
—Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
—Jesus, thou everlasting King
—Joy to the world! the Lord is come
—Let all on earth their voices raise
—Long have I sat beneath the sound
—Lord, how secure and blest are they
—Lord, in the morning thou shalt hear
—My dear Redeemer and my Lord
—My God, the spring of all my joys
—My soul, repeat his praise
—Now let the Father and the Son
—O God, our help in ages past
—Plunged in a gulf of dark despair
—Salvation! O the joyful sound
—Show pity, Lord, O Lord forgive
—Sweet is the work, my God, my King
—The God of mercy be adored
—The heavens declare thy glory, Lord
—The Lord Jehovah reigns
—There is a land of pure delight
—Thus far the Lord hath led me on
—Unveil thy bosom, faithful tomb
—Welcome, sweet day of rest
—When I can read my title clear
—When I survey the wondrous cross
—Why do we mourn departing friends
—Why should the children of a King
—Why should we start and fear to die

Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church: An Annotated Edition of the Methodist Hymnal by Charles S. Nutter and Wilbur F. Tillet. New York: Eaton & Main, 1911.

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