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Isaac Watts

by John Brownlie

Isaac WattsIsaac Watts was born in Southampton, July 17, 1674, the eldest of nine children; his father, a staunch Nonconformist being a deacon in the Independent congregation of that town. Those were the days in which dissent was a crime; and the same law that thrust the immortal dreamer into Bedford gaol, closed the door of Southampton gaol upon the worthy deacon and his pastor. But Watts did not miss the care of his father as he might have done, for he was blessed with an active planning mother, who looked well after her son; and as he gave promise of future greatness, saw that the best education possible was given to him.

He early turned his mind to the ministry; and a good friend, struck with his exceptional ability, made an offer to educate him at his own expense, on the one condition that he would renounce dissent and enter the Church of England. But the generous offer was no temptation to the youth whose father had suffered for the principles which he himself had embraced, and it was accordingly refused.

At the age of twenty he completed his studies, and with great modesty held back from accepting active pastoral work for some time, meanwhile performing the duties of a tutor. It was during those years of waiting that he exercised and perfected his gift as a hymn-writer.

In 1698 he was ordained assistant pastor of the Independent Chapel, Mark Lane, London; and a few years later, on the death of his senior colleague, became sole pastor. His pastorate was an exceedingly short one. In a few years his health gave way, and be was obliged to resign his charge.

Accepting an invitation from his friend Sir Thomas Abney, to visit Abney Park, Stoke Newington, for a few days, the visit was lengthened out to thirty years, the remaining term of his life. He died November 25, 1748, in the seventy-fifth year of his age.

Isaac Watts was, as the poet Montgomery termed him, the inventor of hymns in our language; and more than that, he did a good deal to secure for them a place in the public services. Doubtless his efforts in that direction would have been less successful, had not his hymns presented peculiar attractions and fitness for public use in his time. The first congregation, strangely enough, to introduce them, was that congregation in which Watts himself worshipped in Southampton; giving us an exception to the rule that a prophet has no honour among his own kin.

The little beginning is thus recorded. Watts on a certain occasion giving expression to his disgust at the jolting lines of Sternhold and Hopkins, was told in return, rather sharply, by a deacon, to produce something better. Watts, put on his mettle, silently accepted the challenge, and next Sunday produced his first hymn, Behold the glories of the Lamb, one of our Paraphrases, which was forthwith sung by the congregation line by line. In the last couplet of the first stanza, Watts deliberately, so we believe, pays the worthy deacon back, by announcing the advent of something better in the way of praise material than the past had given:—

Prepare new honours for His Name,
And songs before unknown.

Having begun so well, he continued, and for two years produced a new hymn for each Sunday.

In due time Watts published his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, and later his version of the Psalms. His Psalms are a metrical version of the Psalter, in which, to use his own expression, he makes David a Christian—a task with which, we confess, we have not much sympathy, and in which he does not specially succeed. We question very much if Christianity improves David. Certainly it fails, under Watts, to improve his Psalter. We must, however, admit that he has managed to shape out a few good hymns from the material of the Psalter, but in the process the Psalms lose their identity. Two are especially beautiful, and deserve, very highly, the honour conferred upon them by giving them a place in every good hymnal:—

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,

and

Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;

the one a rendering of Psalm 90, and the other a rendering of Psalm 72

Before Jehovah's awful throne,
Ye nations, bow with sacred joy;

is a very acceptable rendering of Psalm 100, but is less successful than the other two.

But we have something to say about his Hymns and Spiritual Songs. We are bound to state as our decided conviction that nothing but the extreme poverty of English hymnody at this time can account for the marvellous popularity which those hymns in due time achieved. Of Watts' 600 pieces, there may be thirty or forty possessing merit greater or less. If we are to credit his own statement he could have done much better.

'The metaphors are generally sunk to the level of vulgar capacities. If the verse appears so gentle and flowing as to incur the censure of feebleness, I may honestly affirm that it sometimes cost me labour to make it so... Some of the beauties of poesy are neglected, and some wilfully defaced.'

Perhaps we should not say that we regret all this; he knew best his mission as a pioneer hymn-writer, and perhaps hymns of a more poetic flight might have flown too high; and instead of Isaac Watts, Stemhold and Hopkins and Tate and Brady might have ruled the Church praise. So Watts was popular because he was rude (we use the word in a good sense) and because the popular taste was rude.

It is just possible that the hymns of Watts suffer somewhat from the want of variety in the measures. Possibly that too was deliberate on his part; but one does weary of short, common, and peculiar metres, with which we are so familiar in the Scottish version of the Psalter.

When all has been said, some of Watts' hymns remain a very precious possession of the Christian Church, and that too on account of their exceeding beauty.

When I survey the wondrous cross.

Can the pathos of this be surpassed in the case of any hymn? How beautiful is the third verse:—

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?

And how grand is the climax:—

Love so amazing, so divine,
  Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Matthew Arnold deemed this the finest hymn in the English language. Other good hymns are:—

Join all the glorious names
Lord of the worlds above,

a version of Psalm 84.

Very good and more familiar are:—

Not all the blood of beasts,

and

There is a land of pure delight,

which takes some of us back to our Sunday-school days.

Blest morning, whose first dawning rays

is one of the five hymns bound with the Scottish Bible. The last twelve lines of that hymn are a really good doxology:—

To Him who sits upon the throne,

and with Tate and Brady's:—

To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,

is as popular in Scotland as the doxology of Bishop Ken is in England:—

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

A very useful doxology is:—

From all that dwell below the skies.

Had Watts written only two hymns, and had they been When I survey the Wondrous Cross, and Our God, our help in ages past, he would have lived. They are his best work as a hymn-writer.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church Hymnary by John Brownlie. London: Henry Frowde, [1899?].

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