Isaac Watts was born on the 17th of July, 1674, at Southampton, [England]; where his father, who had previously been imprisoned for non-conformity, at the latter part of his life kept a boarding-school. Isaac was the eldest of nine children. From his earliest years, he displayed great avidity for learning, and before he could speak plain, whenever any money was given to him, he would carry it to his mother and say, as well as he could, "A book! a book! Buy a book!" It is reported that he almost "lisped in numbers." On one occasion, his mother having chastised him for addressing her in rhyme, he unconsciously repeated his offence in imploring her forgiveness. From this time, she encouraged his natural predilection to verse-making, and gave him a small gratuity whenever his lines excited her approbation. Having presented him with a farthing, for one of his childish efforts, he soon afterwards brought her, it is said, the following couplet:
I write not for a farthing; but to try
How I your farthing poets can outvie.
He studied Latin under his father, and Greek and Hebrew at the free-school of his native town. Some liberal persons were so pleased with his alacrity in learning, as to propose raising a fund for his maintenance at the university; to which, however, having resolved not to abandon the dissenters, he declined proceeding; and completed his education at an academy in London, kept by a non-conformist divine, named Rowe. One of his schoolfellows was Hughes, afterwards a dramatist of some celebrity, whom he endeavoured, but without effect, to wean from his attachment to the stage.
In 1693, he became a communicant of Rowe's congregation, and soon distinguished himself by his devotional ardour. He continued to study with great zeal; and, about this period, filled a large volume with Latin dissertations, which, according to Johnson, displayed much philosophical and theological knowledge. He amused himself, occasionally, by poetical composition, in Latin and English. A copy of verses, which he addressed to his brother, are reputed to be remarkably elegant; and Johnson says that his diction, although not always pure, was copious and splendid; but "some of his odes," as the same critic remarks, "are deformed by the Pindaric folly then prevailing; and are written with such neglect of all metrical rules, as is without example among the ancients." In order to impress the contents of such books as he admired upon his memory, he is said to have abridged them. He was likewise in the habit of amplifying the system of one author, by supplements from another; also, to write an account, on the margin, or blank leaves, which he introduced for the purpose, of the distinguishing characteristics of every important book he perused; objecting to what he deemed questionable, and illustrating or confirming what in his opinion was correct; a practice which he subsequently recommended all students to adopt.
At the age of twenty, he returned to Southampton, and passed the following two years in study and devotional retirement. He then became tutor to the son of Sir John Hartopp; and, on his birthday, in 1698, preached his first sermon to Dr. Chauncey's congregation, in Mark Lane, to whom he had been chosen assistant. On the death of his principal, he was offered, and accepted, the succession; but was incapacitated for a long period from performing his pastoral duties, by a severe fit of illness, from which he was slowly recovering, when he received an invitation to take up his abode at the residence of Sir Thomas Abney, a London alderman; in whose family he continued during the remainder of his life, on such a footing, as Johnson remarks, that all notions of patronage and dependence were overpowered by the perception of reciprocal benefits.
The greater part of his time was now occupied in composition, but he continued to preach until he was nearly seventy years of age; and, in spite of many natural disadvantages, acquired considerable reputation as a pulpit orator. The University of Aberdeen conferred upon the degree of D. D. on account of the excellency of some of his works; among which, those on "Logic, and the Improvement of the Mind," deserve especial praise. Although, in his well-known Psalms and Hymns, he is said to have "only done best what nobody has done well," yet their popularity is so great, that, for many years past, it is computed that no less than fifty thousand copies of them are printed annually in Great Britain and America.
In addition to the foregoing productions, he published several sermons and controversial tracts; "Lyric Poems;" "Philosophical Essays;" "An Elementary Treatise on Astronomy and Geography;" "A Discourse on Education;" and "A Brief Scheme of Ontology." The profits of his works, as well as two-thirds of his slender emoluments as a pastor, were devoted to benevolent purposes; and so exemplary was his character, in every respect, that he appears to have been beloved and admired by nearly all the virtuous and learned among his contemporaries. Shortly before his death, which took place on the 25th of November, 1748, he observes to a friend: "I remember an aged minister used to say, 'that the most learned and knowing Christians, when they come to die, have only the same plain promises of the gospel for their support as the common and unlearned.' And so," added he, "I find it. The plain promises of the gospel are my support; and I bless God that they are plain promises, and do not require much labour and pains to understand them; for I can do nothing now, but look into my Bible for some promise to support me, and live upon that."
It has lately been asserted, and it appears by a letter in his own handwriting, that, towards the close of his life, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as generally understood, had ceased to be a portion of his creed; and that, a short time before his death, he revised his Psalms and Hymns, so as to render them wholly unexceptionable to every Christian professor. He is said to have been one of the first of those who taught the dissenting preachers to court the attention of their hearers by the beauties of language. "In the pulpit," says Dr. Johnson, "though his low stature, which very little exceeded five feet, graced him with no advantages of appearance, yet the gravity and propriety of his utterance made his discourses very efficacious. Such was his flow of thoughts, and such his promptitude of language, that, in the latter part of his life, he did not precompose his cursory sermons, but, having adjusted the heads and sketched out some particulars, trusted for success to his extemporary powers."
"Few men," says the same writer, speaking of Dr. Watts, "have left such purity of character, or such monuments of laborious piety. He has provided instruction for all ages,—from those who are lisping their first lessons, to the enlightened readers of Malebranche and Locke; he has left neither corporeal nor spiritual nature unexamined; he has taught the art of reasoning, and the science of the stars. His character, therefore, must be formed from the multiplicity and diversity of his attainments, rather than from any single performance; for though it would not be safe to claim for him the highest rank in any single denomination of literary dignity; yet, perhaps, there was nothing in which he would not have excelled, if he had not divided his powers to different pursuits."
It is related of him, that he addressed the following impromptu to a stranger, by whom, on being pointed out by a companion as "the great Dr. Watts," he had been designated in a whisper as "a very little fellow:"—
"Were I so tall, to reach the pole,
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I must be measured by my soul;
The mind's the standard of the man."
From Cyclopedia of Eminent Christians... by John Frost. New York: World Publishing House, 1875.
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