"It was not my design to exalt myself to the rank and glory of poets, but I was ambitious to be a servant to the churches, and a helper to the joy of the meanest Christian." Such was Watts' ambition—which he realised.
Until he began to sing, the Metrical Psalter was almost the only vehicle of praise in the English and Scottish Churches of the Reformation, while in some Nonconformist congregations there was no singing at all.
Watts "lisped in numbers," and began to write hymns for church use at the age of twenty. Coming home from chapel one day he expressed the opinion that the psalmody did not possess the dignity and beauty that a Christian service ought to have. His father challenged him to write something better if he could. Young Isaac, in the course of the week, wrote what is one of our favourite paraphrases, the 65th, Behold the glories of the Lamb. Watts came of a sturdy Nonconformist stock, his father being in prison for his convictions at the time of Isaac's birth, and though offered a university education the young man declined it, preferring to remain in the ranks of Nonconformity. To this generation he is chiefly known as a writer of hymns, but he was profoundly and widely learned as well, writing on Logic (his textbook on this subject was used for years at Oxford), on Astronomy, the Freedom of the Will, the Art of Reading and Writing, the Doctrine of the Trinity, the Logos of St. John, and the Harmony of all the Religions. It was by his hymns, however, he won his empire over hearts and consciences—an empire acknowledged wherever the English tongue is spoken.
For many a day in Independent churches no other hymns than his were sung. In the first twenty-five years of this century a new edition was published every year, and as late as 1864, 60,000 copies per annum were sold. As a collection his hymns have no such sale to-day, but many of them are to be found in almost every hymn-book of the English-speaking race. In addition to those in Scottish Hymnals, we owe to his pen the first draft at least of twenty-three of our Paraphrases.
In 1751, Mr. Alexander Macfarlane translated several of Watts' hymns into Gaelic and received the thanks of the Synod of Argyle for his "exact and beautiful translation," the hymns being considered "excellently adapted to excite devotion."
In the 600 that he wrote, the caustic critic could easily pick out bald, quaint, or extravagant expressions, but when he had done his worst we should have left us from Watts' pen a selection of hymns not easy to parallel for strong simple diction, pure feeling, and reverent thought, as for example—Join all the glorious names; There is a land of pure delight; Jesus shall reign where'er the sun; Our God, our help in ages past.
His lyre is one with many chords, the wistful, the solemn, the majestic, the jubilant. But he strikes his highest note when he deals with such a theme as the person and redeeming work of Christ, as in When I survey the wondrous Cross. For tender solemn beauty, for a reverent setting forth of what the inner vision discerns as it looks upon the Crucified, we know of no verse in the whole range of hymnology to touch the stanza beginning, See from His head, His hands, His feet. There have been many singers with a finer sense of melody, his metrical and musical range was limited,—he used only six metres,—but not the most tuneful of our sacred poets has given us lines more exquisite than those.
Friends made a happy home for him, though he had never a home of his own, friends whose children he taught, for whom he made sometimes playful, sometimes serious verses, for whom he prayed, and whom he enveloped in an atmosphere at once sunny and devout, for as he sang he lived. The "Seraphic" Doctor is the term that has been fitly applied to him, and even his philosophic and literary productions bear the same stamp, so that Dr. Johnson writes of them," It is difficult to read a page without learning or at least wishing to be better." "He that sat down to reason is on a sudden compelled to pray."
From Hymns and Hymn Makers by Duncan Campbell. London: A & C Black, 1898.
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