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Isaac Watts: His Life and Hymnody

by Kristen Johnson

Isaac WattsEmerging from the fiery trials of the Reformation, Protestant churches greatly desired to remain faithful to their battle cry of "sola scriptura" in every detail of faith and life. One implication of this was found in their view of church music. Most (Lutherans excepted, who turned to hymnody relatively early) believed that even in the area of song, the Bible provided sufficient revelation. John Calvin, in particular, was one champion of the notion that church music should consist of nothing more and nothing less than the Psalms of David. Most, in fact, who followed Calvin insisted "that God had provided His people with a set of inspired hymns in Holy Scripture, chiefly in the Psalms, and that it was not for us to pronounce His work incomplete or inadequate..." The Psalms, therefore, were set to a metrical tune and used almost unaccompanied for the first few generations following the Reformation. The Bay Psalms Book — also known as the Whole Book of Psalms — published first in 1562, was the standard anthology of these metrical Psalms until 1696 when Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady updated the anthology.

Enter Isaac Watts in 1674. Born in Southampton, England and the first son of a family of rather humble origins, Watts rose to assume the title often bestowed upon him today: "the father of English hymnody." Watts was the eldest of nine siblings, the children of a Huguenot mother and a father bold enough to be jailed twice for his religious convictions. The elder Watts belonged to the Dissenters, or the Nonconformists — the English brand of Puritanism. One author has claimed Mrs. Watts "suckled [Isaac] on the steps of the gaol in Southampton, inside which his father was in bonds for the gospel of Christ." Though Watts came of age near the end of the second generation of Dissenters, his life and work proved to be just as radical as his religious forefathers.

Little beyond Watts' basic life history has been recorded for posterity — his work itself has received the majority of scholastic attention. As mentioned above, Watts came from a humble family in Southampton, England. He was educated by his father and taught, from the youngest age, Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. A promising youth, Watts was offered a university education in which he would learn towards the end of being ordained as an Anglican minister. Following in his fathers footsteps, Watts refused the offer and received his higher education from a Nonconformist Academy. Upon graduating from the Academy at age twenty, he returned home where he took to writing hymns. The bulk of his great works were produced in these two "golden" years proceeding his graduation.

From the earliest age, Watts showed promise in the area of prose and rhetoric. Legend has it that one day during family devotions, Watts laughed aloud and when questioned about his actions, he declared that he had just observed a mouse crawling up the bell tower rope and he had put the account into verse:

A mouse for want of better stairs,
Ran up a rope to say his prayers.

His mind for rhetoric and poetry only grew with age. One day Watts made known to his father his ennui with the metric psalms. His father challenged him not to complain, but rather to produce something himself worth singing. Watts accepted the challenge and eventually produced upwards of 700 hymns, Psalms, or spiritual songs.

Though writing music may have slid off his pen like butter, gaining their acceptance by the public was another matter altogether. The controversial issue was whether or not musical worship should "be confined, as Calvin insisted, to the actual language of the Bible." Though the hymns themselves were very Calvinistic in nature many rejected his work because it was not itself Scripture. Watts believed that though "the ancient writers were to be imitated, they were not to be copied." Furthermore, if one could pray to God spontaneously and in words not exactly Scripture, why was it any different to sing so? Watts did not completely abandon the singing of Scripture, however. On the contrary, one of his most hailed accomplishments was rewriting the Psalms of David in rhyming English verse. His well-known "Joy to the World" is one example.

At the heart of the whole issue was Watts' understanding of the nature of the Psalms. Though they were undoubtedly inspired, they nonetheless were Jewish texts, with little specifically Christian doctrine. Watts, in response, appended "some wherever possible, to give what he called 'an evangelical turn to the Hebrew sense'..."

Students of Watts' hymnody have claimed that Watts can best be understood within his historical context. He is influenced heavily by the "scientific discoveries of Boyle and Newton." These scientific philosophies of the day turned his attention toward nature and gave him an admiration for the created order of the universe. Much of this played out in his songs which are rich with natural imagery. Though he had plenty of room in his theology for reason, Watts believed that reason must be supplemented with revelation. As one author states, "[Watts' hymnody] celebrates the glory of God in the created world, but it does not stop there, because it insists on the importance of revealed religion and on the saving grace of Jesus Christ."

Watts was officially introduced in America in 1729, with Benjamin Franklin's reprinting of Psalms of David originally having been printed in England some two decades previous. For the most part Watts' work was not accepted in American churches until the 1740s with the Great Awakening. George Whitefield's lively preaching style needed to be supplemented with something other than the dissonant sounds of the dry metric Psalms. Watts, along with a few other English hymnists, proved to be the perfect remedy. Whitefield played a great role in introducing hymn-singing to New England, and consequently "quickened an interest in hymn-singing, and increased the popularity of Watts' work." The American Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards even commented in 1742 that his Northampton congregation sang Watts' hymns, almost to the exclusion of Psalms. Watts and Edwards had a mutual respect for one another and each made the other's work well-known in his own land through printing, and through allowing the other's work in their pulpit. For Watts, this meant reading Edwards' A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God to his congregation and overseeing its printing; for Edwards this meant introducing Watts' hymnody into regular worship services.

Watts' real profession was not hymnody. His first vocation was as a minister in a Church of Christ in London. Several of his sermon manuscripts survive today, yet little is known about him as a shepherd of the people of God in London. This could be due to his health, which failed and remained poor before he had even reached age thirty. Though he remained a minister for many years, he required an associate minister to assist in guiding his congregation. Watts never married, and actually lived with the family of Sir Samuel Abney for more than thirty years, primarily due to his health. He was considered an invalid for the majority of his life. His "happy day" — the day that "finish[ed] the long absence of my beloved, and place[d] me within sight of my adored Jesus" — finally arrived in November of 1748.

Among Watts' most-loved works, in both Old and New England and the world over, have been "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?" and "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past." Today, though hymns have somewhat been replaced by the modern praise chorus, Watts' influence on England, America, and the rest of the Christian hymn-singing world must not be overlooked. Flip through any hymnal and one will find page after page of works ascribed to Isaac Watts. He was "radical, experimental, and adventurous" for his day, and we can thank him for his great hymns that point toward God's mercy and man's sinfulness in a way that makes God seem sweet to the soul.


"Hymnody in American Protestantism Conference." Wheaton College; Wheaton, IL; May 17-20, 2000.

"Isaac Watts." http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/w/a/t/watts_i.htm

Rupp, Gordon. Six Makers of English Religion. Books for Libraries Press: New York, 1957.

Smith, Jane Stuart and Betty Carlson. Great Christian Hymn Writers. Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL, 1997.

Watson, J. R. The English Hymn: A Critical History and Study. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999.

From Isaac Watts: His Life and Hymnody by Kristen Johnson, 2000. Originally written for the course 18th Century American Theology, Hillsdale College, October 9, 2000.

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