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Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

by Norman Mable

Isaac WattsJesus shall reign where'er the sun.
Our God, our help in ages past.
When I survey the wondrous cross.

Dr. Isaac Watts was born at Southampton on July 16, 1674, and as a child was brought up in the dark days of persecuted Nonconformity. His father, Enoch Watts, a dissenting schoolmaster, refusing to conform, was cast into prison a year before Isaac was born. Although soon afterwards released, he suffered two further terms of imprisonment; indeed, he was actually incarcerated at the time of Isaac's birth.

The child was precociously industrious; and both parents helped to cultivate the piety of his soul as well as the gifts of his mind. An amusing incident of his young days is worth relating.

One morning while the household were engaged in family prayers little Isaac was heard to giggle. The other worshippers were very shocked, and when devotions were over his father demanded in a freezing tone why he had laughed. 'Because,' replied the boy nervously, while he pointed to the bell-rope that hung by the fire-place, 'I saw a mouse running up that; and it came to my mind:

There was a mouse for want of stairs,
Ran up a rope to say his prayers.

The father, without a word, turned to a shelf and took down the rod, whereupon poor little Isaac, falling on his knees, begged with streaming eyes:

'O, father, father, pity take,
And I will no more verses make.'

But neither Watts' father nor his mother wished to discourage their son from writing in rhyme. Indeed, his mother did all she could to encourage this propensity.

After remarkable scholastic attainments, Isaac Watts became a preacher in 1699, and continued in the ministry until ill health compelled his retirement in 1736. He died in 1748, and was buried in Bunhill Fields, London, at the age of seventy-four. His bust is in Westminster Abbey.

Dr. Watts was short in stature, being about five feet high, but large in charity, giving thereto about a third of his slender means, which never exceeded £100 a year.

He has been called the greatest of English hymn-writers, and he wrote about six hundred hymns. By no means all have survived, but quite a large number are still very popular, amongst them being Jesus shall reign where'er the sun; Our God, our help in ages past; When I survey the wondrous Cross; There is a land of pure delight, and Give to our God immortal praise.

Jesus shall reign where'er the sun once figured in a particularly interesting event.

The scene was the tropical island of Tonga in the South Seas. Here, on Whit Sunday, 1862, the black King George and his subjects, together with natives of Fiji and Samoa, held a great open-air service of praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God. The king and most of the old chiefs and warriors surrounding him had at one time been cannibals, and it was not long since the fierce Tongan race had exercised the most terrifying influence over the surrounding tribes. Now, through the labours of missionaries, who for some while had been working amongst these savages with much success, all was changed. The venerable ruler and his chiefs had accepted the sovereignty of the King of kings, and here were they gathered together with their people to celebrate the establishment of a Christian government in place of the previous pagan constitution. It has been said and well can it be imagined that most profound, and indeed thrilling, was the effect when this wonderful meeting opened with the singing by over one thousand natives, in their own tongue, of:

Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
Doth its successive journeys run;
His Kingdoms stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Our God, our help in ages past, is one of the many, and perhaps one of the best, paraphrases of the 90th Psalm: 'Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations'. In an old hymnal this fine hymn was placed in the section headed 'Describing Death', and was at one time used as a funeral hymn. But in the Congregational Hymnary it comes under 'God's goodness in Providence'. In the Methodist Hymn Book of 1904 it is in the section 'Time, Death and Eternity', but opinions seem to have changed, for in their new Hymn Book of 1933 the Methodists have placed it under 'National and Social Service'. This seems to be its appropriate place, for nowadays it is mostly sung on national occasions. How it came to be placed in the 'Death' section of a hymnal is difficult to understand.

In the 'Life of Dr. Watts' we read: 'Queen Anne had died, and the new King George steadily refused to allow religious persecution. A long procession, consisting of leading dissenting ministers, all dressed in steeple hats, white bands and black coats, carried up a congratulatory address to the new monarch. The Jacobites those 'biting' beasts had been chained up, their presumptuous boasts and hopes blasted. The very men who had procured the scandalous pardon for the miscreants who had fired the meeting-houses were, by the voice of the nation, declared to be traitors themselves. Some skulked in disguise in back streets, others were glad to take refuge on the Continent. It was in the midst of those dramatic alarms and changes that Watts wrote that glorious and rousing hymn, Our God our help in ages past'.

It should be noted that Watts wrote 'Our God'. The change to 'O God', though so usual, is, to be deprecated.

When I survey the wondrous Cross has been a great consolation to countless believers.

One Sunday morning Matthew Arnold attended Dr. John Watson's church at Liverpool to hear that notable divine preach. The sermon was followed by the hymn When I survey the wondrous Cross. A few hours later, at the home of his host, Arnold was overheard repeating to himself:

'See! from His Head, His hands, His feet,
  Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
  Or thorns compose so rich a crown?'

Before the day was ended he was suddenly called into the presence of his Saviour.

Two incidents are recorded when preachers have taken the opportunity to admonish their congregations by using the last verse of this hymn.

Once when Father Ignatius was preaching at a church in Lombard Street, London, the service ended with When I survey the wondrous Cross. At its conclusion [he] slowly repeated the last line: 'Demands my soul, my life, my all,' and added, 'Well, I am surprised to hear you sing that. Do you know that altogether you only put fifteen shillings into the bag this morning?'

The other occasion was similar, but took place in a Baptist chapel where the Rev. Charles Haddon Spurgeon ministered in his early days. This time the hymn was sung prior to the sermon, and before commencing his discourse Spurgeon said sadly, 'Brethren, we have just finished singing Isaac Watts' grand hymn; the last words you uttered were:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
  That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so Divine,
  Demands my soul, my life, my ALL.'

Then, after softly repeating the last line, he raised his voice and said, 'Do you know how much the collection amounted to this morning?' Quickly adding, 'I will tell you: seventeen shillings and one penny! The whole realm of nature, of course, is not yours to give, but you can surely afford more than a paltry seventeen shillings and one penny. It is an insult to your Maker. Perhaps you did not realise what you were saying. I feel sure you did not, and in order that you may not go away unhappy, there will be another collection at the close of the service.'

From Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Norman Mable. 2nd ed. London: Independent Press, Ltd., 1951.

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