Isaac Watts is a name of most precious memory. More than two centuries have passed since his birth, and yet no one, even to this day, so often leads the praises of the sanctuary, as the bard of Southampton. "Every Sabbath," wrote Montgomery in 1825, "in every region of the earth where his native tongue is spoken, thousands and tens of thousands of voices are sending the sacrifices of prayer and praise to God, in the strains which he prepared for them a century ago; yea, every day, 'he being dead yet speaketh' by the lips of posterity, in these sacred lays, some of which may not cease to be sung by the ransomed on their journey to Zion, so long as the language of Britain endures."
"Of Watts," said Dr. Dibdin, "it is impossible to speak without veneration and respect. His Hymns are the charm of our early youth; his Logic, the well-known theme of school-boy study; and his Sermons, Essays, and other theological compositions, are a source of never-failing gratification in the advance, maturity, and decline of life. The man at four-score may remember, with gratitude, the advantage of having committed the hymns of this pious man to his infantile memory."
"My grandfather, Mr. Thomas Watts," says Watts, "had such acquaintance with the mathematics, painting, music, and poesy, etc., as gave him considerable esteem among his contemporaries. He was commander of a ship of war (1656), and by blowing up of the ship in the Dutch war he was drowned in his youth." His widow survived until July 13, 1693, taking an active and prominent part in the education of her grandson.
Their son, Isaac Watts, Sr., like his parents, was a thorough Puritan; a deacon, also, in the Congregational Church of Southampton, and eminent for piety. Born in 1652, he came to years during the stormy days of persecution that characterized the later years of Charles II. He married in 1873, and had born to him four sons and five daughters. He was well educated, and addicted to the art of versification. He opened a boarding-school, that soon acquired considerable reputation,—pupils being sent to it even from America and the West Indies. His pastor, the Rev. Giles Say, had been ejected from St. Michael's in 1662; but, in March, 1672, on the "Declaration of Indulgence," had obtained license to preach in his own house. The "Declaration" was recalled in 1674, and the torch of persecution kindled anew.
It was at this crisis, that the child, Isaac Watts, was born, July 17, 1674, in Southampton, Hampshire, England, the first-born of his mother. He was nursed and trained in times that greatly tried men's souls. Mr. Say and deacon Watts were both imprisoned, a short time, for their nonconformity; and tradition has it, that the mother of the poet had nursed him, seated on a stone near the prison door.
Under his father's instruction, he developed a remarkable precocity. At the age of four years (1678) he "began to learn Latin," and made rapid progress in elementary knowledge.
He was sent at six years of age (1680), to the free grammar-school of Southampton, then under the charge of the Rev. John Pinhorne, Rector of All Saints' Church, a gentleman of considerable ability, and much revered in after life by his eminent pupil. Three years later (1683), the persecution of Dissenters in England and Scotland raged furiously. The elder Watts was imprisoned again for six months; and, on being released, was "forced to leave his family, and live privately in London for two years." King Charles II died, February 6, 1785, and was succeeded by James II. Mr. Watts remained in London several months later, and probably until milder counsels began to prevail.
Young Watts still continued at the grammar-school, and ("1683 or before") "began to learn Greek"; in 1684-5, he "learnt French," and "1687 or 8," "learnt Hebrew." From a child he had been passionately fond of books, and his rhyming propensity began to be developed as early as his sixth year. The glorious "Revolution" was inaugurated by the landing of the Prince of Orange in England, November 5, 1688, and persecution came to an end. The same year, Watts was brought "under considerable convictions of sin," and (1689) in his fifteenth year "was taught to trust in Christ." He continued under Mr. Pinhorne's instructions ten years (1680-1690).
The remarkable developments of the lad induced Dr. John Speed, a physician of the town, and other admiring friends, to offer him a University course at their expense. But, as this involved a surrender of his non-conformity, and "he was determined to take his lot among the Dissenters," he respectfully and gratefully declined the offer. Having now "made himself master of the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French languages," he "left the grammar-school (1690) and came to London, to Mr. Rowe's, to study philosophy, etc."
The Rev. Thomas Rowe (1657-1705), brother of the Rev. Benoni Rowe, and son of Rev. John Rowe, all of London, at the decease (1678) of the learned Rev. Theophilus Gale, took charge of the Academy, taught by the latter at Newington Green; which he removed, first to Clapham, Surrey, and, at the Revolution (1688), to "Little Britain," in the immediate vicinity of St. Paul's Church, and the present site of the General Post-Office, St. Martin's-le-Grand, London. Here Watts resided until the early part of 1694, most diligently and successfully prosecuting his studies. A manuscript volume, containing twenty-two of his Latin Essays, on physical, metaphysical, ethical, and theological theses, is extant. Dr. Samuel Johnson says, they "show a degree of knowledge, both, philosophical and theological, such as very few attain by a much longer course of study."
Mr. Rowe, his teacher, was the pastor of an Independent church worshiping in Girdler's Hall, on the east side, near London Wall. Here Watts worshiped during his student life in London, and here, December, 1693, in his twentieth year, he first made a public profession of religion. In April, 1694, having finished, with the greatest credit, his academic career, including a thorough course of theological study, and being enfeebled by excessive application, he returned to his father's house at Southampton for rest and recreation—a slender youth, scarcely more than five feet in height, and yet one of the ripest scholars of his age anywhere to be found in the kingdom.
From the age of fifteen (1689), he had enlivened the severity of study by essays in poetry, both English and Latin. In allusion to these early efforts of his muse, Dr. Samuel Johnson says,—"his diction, though perhaps not always exactly pure, has such copiousness and splendor, as shows that he was but a very little distance from excellence." So refined an ear must have taken no little offence at the rude and uncouth psalmody to which the humble congregation of Independents at Southampton were restricted. It is more than probable, that they still sung Rouse's versions of the Psalms. The day of hymn-books had not yet come. Joseph Stennett's "Hymns for the Lord's Supper" did not appear until 1697. John Mason's "Songs of Praise" had appeared in 1683; but as yet had been little used among the Dissenters, as Mason belonged to "The Church." Tate and Brady's "New Version" of the Psalms was not authorized until 1696. The "Old Version" of Sternhold and Hopkins still kept its place in the churches of the Establishment. Possibly this "Old Version" may have been in use among the Independents, to some extent. Patrick's Version was just then (1694) passing through the press.
The Rev. John Morgan, of Romsey, Hampshire, says: "The occasion of the Doctor's hymns was this, as I had the account from his worthy fellow-laborer and colleague, the Rev. Mr. Price, in whose family I dwelt above fifty years ago. The hymns, which were sung at the Dissenting meeting-house at Southampton, were so little to the taste of Mr. Watts, that he could not forbear complaining of them to his father. The father bade him try what he could do to mend the matter. He did, and had such success in his first essay, that a second hymn was earnestly desired of him, and then a third and fourth, etc., till, in process of time, there was such a number of them as to make up a volume." This letter was addressed to the Rev. Dr. Thomas Gibbons, and published (1780) in his "Memoirs of Dr. Isaac Watts." Tradition also reports that the first hymn thus composed was that excellent lyric,
"Behold the glories of the Lamb," etc.,
a tradition to be traced, probably, to the fact, that this is the first hymn, numerically, of his first Book. The only one of his "Hymns," to which a date was affixed by the author, is the sixty-second of his second Book,
" Sing to the Lord, ye heavenly hosts! " etc.,
which was "made in a great sudden storm of thunder, August the 20th, 1697," at Stoke Newington, near London, where he was then residing.
During the thirty months of his sojourn at home (1694-1696), Watts continued the prosecution of his studies, as well as the composition of his "Hymns and Spiritual Songs." In his brief "Memoranda," he says: "Came to Sir John Hartopp's, to be a tutor to his son, at Newington, October 15, 1696." Sir John was one of the most eminent among the lay non-conformists of the period. He was an intimate friend of the renowned Rev. Dr. John Owen, of whose church he was a member. His wife, Elizabeth, was a daughter of the Lord General Charles Fleetwood, whose second wife, Bridget Cromwell, was the eldest daughter of the Protector, Oliver Cromwell. Fleetwood and his wife had both died, the former only four years before (1692). Stoke Newington was a rural suburb of the metropolis, a few miles to the north.
In this pleasant retreat, and in the midst of a charming circle of highly-cultured Christian people, Watts found a delightful home for the greater part of six years. Sir John's family worshiped with Dr. Isaac Chauncey's congregation at the house of a Dr. Clarke, in Mark Lane, near the Tower of London. Here Watts preached his first sermon, on his birthday, July 17, 1698; and, the next month, on a visit home, preached several times at Southampton. The next February (1699), he was chosen and began to preach as Dr. Chauncey's Assistant, at Mark Lane Church, occupying the pulpit every Sabbath morning. The same year, he began to be affected with the infirmity from which he suffered during most of his subsequent life. It returned upon him, in the summer of the following year (1700), and still more severely in 1701. From June to November, he was obliged to decline all public services, passing his time at Bath, Southampton, and Tunbridge.
Dr. Chauncey resigned the pastorate in April, 1701, and Watts, on his return to Newington, in November, was called, January 15, 1702, to be his successor. He was ordained, March 18, 1702, ten days after the decease of King William. He was preceded in the pastorate by the eminent divines, Joseph Caryl and John Owen, as well as David Clarkson and Isaac Chauncey. He entered upon his work with much self-distrust and trembling. Again his health gave way, and in September he was laid aside by "violent Gaundice and cholic," from which he suffered more than two months. Leaving Newington, he became the guest of Mr. Thomas Hollis, residing in the spacious street called "The Minonis," near the Tower. The son of Mr. Hollis became a distinguished benefactor of Harvard College.
His constitution had become so enfeebled by disease, that, in June, 1703, the Rev. Samuel Price, a native of Wales, was chosen his assistant. His infirmities having, for four years, prevented his application to study, he now, December, 1703, began to employ an amanuensis, to read to him and write for him. In June, 1704, the congregation removed from Mark Lane to Pinners' Hall, Old Broad Street, in the very heart of the city, a place of hallowed memories to the Dissenters. After much importunity on the part of friends and admirers, he ventured to appear in print, and, December, 1705, published his "Horæ Lyricæ; Poems, chiefly of the Lyric Kind." The book was well received, and his reputation as a lyric poet was established. It brought him many flattering encomiums, and eight editions were called for during the author's life-time.
His brother, Enoch, residing at Southampton, had written to him, in March, 1700, urging him at much length and with a very plausible show of argument, "to oblige the world by showing it" his "hymns in print." The success of the "Lyrics" now determined him no longer to delay the publication of the Hymns, the most of which had been written before the century commenced. He had, however, many misgivings as to the popular verdict. In a Prefatory Essay, he sought most carefully to disarm criticism. He refers to the wretched state of the prevalent psalmody, and says: "Many ministers, and many private Christians, have long groaned under this inconvenience, and have wished, rather than attempted, a reformation. At their importunate and repeated requests, I have, for some years past, devoted many hours of leisure to this service."
He protests that he has sought to bring the hymns down to the capacity of the people: "The metaphors are generally sunk to the level of vulgar capacities. I have aimed at ease of numbers and smoothness of sound, and endeavored to make the sense plain and obvious. If the verse appears so gentle and flowing as to incur the censure of feebleness, I may honestly affirm, that sometimes it cost me labor to make it so. Some of the beauties of poesy are neglected, and some wilfully defaced; I have thrown out the lines that were too sonorous, and have given an allay to the verse, lest a more exalted turn of thought, or language, should darken or disturb the devotion of the weakest souls." It was this very process, doubtless, that gave his hymns such a marvelous adaptation to the wants of the worshipers, and made them such universal favorites from the first. They were immeasurably in advance of everything of the kind then known; and they struck a chord that, even now, has not ceased to vibrate.
His "Hymns and Spiritual Songs: In Three Books," first appeared in July, 1707. The work contained 222 hymns, including 12 doxologies. A new edition was soon called for. It was issued in April, 1809 [i.e., 1709], corrected and much enlarged. To the first book were added 72 new hymns; 60 to the second; 3 to the third; besides 3 new doxologies and 4 "Hosannas." The text of the former edition had been carefully revised and corrected. Fourteen imitations of the Psalms were omitted, in order to be incorporated in his contemplated Book of Psalms. The new hymns were also printed in a" Supplement."
The hymn-book had hitherto been unknown in public worship. Neither Mason's "Songs of Praise," nor Stennett's "Hymns for the Lord's Supper," had been adopted as vehicles of public praise. No other book, then extant, was adapted to this service. Watts is conceded to have been the Great Reformer of Public Worship, in the matter of united Praise. He is the Father of Hymnody and its chief promoter. "Dr. Watts," says Montgomery, "may almost be called the inventor of hymns in our language; for he so far departed from all precedent, that few of his compositions resemble those of his forerunners, while he so far established a precedent to all his successors, that none have departed from it, otherwise than according to the peculiar turn of mind in the writer, and the style of expressing Christian truths employed by the denomination to which he belonged."
Montgomery does not hesitate to speak of Watts, as "the greatest name among hymn-writers,"—"since it has pleased God to confer upon him, though one of the least of the poets of his country, more glory than upon the greatest either of that or any other, by making his 'Divine Songs' a more abundant and universal blessing, than the verses of any uninspired penman that ever lived."—"We say this, without reserve, of the materials of his hymns; had their execution always been correspondent with the preciousness of these, we should have had a 'Christian Psalmist' in England, next (and that only in date, not in dignity) to the 'Sweet Singer of Israel."'
At the close of September, 1708, his congregation took possession of their new house of worship, Duke's Place, Bury Street,—erected on a piece of ground leased of Mr. Charles Great, previously occupied as his garden. It was forty by fifty feet, and had three large galleries. They continued to worship here during the remainder of Watts' life. At the end of the year 1710, he removed his lodgings from the house of Mr. Hollis, to that of Mr. Bowes.
His malady again made inroads upon his health, and returned upon him, in the autumn of 1712, with such violence, as to unfit him for all public service. A violent fever, and a consequent distressing neuralgia, so overpowered him, as to deprive him, at times, of all apparent consciousness. At the request of Watts himself, his assistant, Mr. Price, was ordained, March 3, 1713, his co-pastor.
Sir Thomas Abney, a member of Parliament, and formerly (1700) Lord Mayor of the City of London, was a devout non-conformist. He had an estate at Theobalds, Hertfordshire, adjacent to the ruins of Lord Burleigh's Palace, in the immediate vicinity of Cheshunt and Waltham Park. His first wife was the daughter of the learned Rev. Joseph Caryl. In 1700, at the age of sixty-one, he married Mary Gunston, the sister of Thomas Gunston, Esq., "who died November 11, 1700, when he had just finished his seat at Newington,"—the manor-house of Stoke Newington. Both Gunston and his sister, Lady Abney, who inherited the estate, were special friends of Watts, who wrote an Elegiac Poem, on the occasion of his death, and dedicated it to "Lady Abney, Lady Mayoress of London." After Watts had been prostrated by severe illness, Sir Thomas, in 1713, invited him to his seat at Theobalds, with the hope that the change might be beneficial. He accepted the invitation. Many years afterwards, he said to Lady Huntingdon, "This day thirty years I came hither to the house of my good friend Sir Thomas Abney, intending to spend but one single week under his friendly roof, and I have extended my visit to the length of exactly thirty years." It was a delightful rural retreat, much resorted to by the London gentry, and the abode of the choicest society. With a generosity unbounded, and a tenderness most exemplary, the noble baronet and his family ministered to their beloved guest, supplying his every want, and alleviating to the utmost the severity of his malady.
During a period of four years (1712-1716), Watts was laid aside from all public work. He ministered as his patron's chaplain, and, when possible, preached a parlor sermon, on the evenings of the Lord's Days. In 1716, he published his "Guide to Prayer." Much of his leisure at Theobalds, when convalescent, he employed in the completion of his "Psalms." In the Preface to his "Hymns" (1707), he had said: "After this manner should I rejoice to see a good part of the book of Psalms fitted for the use of our churches, and David converted into a Christian; but, because I can not persuade others to attempt this glorious work, I have suffered myself to be persuaded to begin it, and have, through divine goodness, already proceeded half way through."
The work was at length prepared for publication, and issued at the opening of the year 1719. The Preface and Advertisement are dated December 1, 1718. In the Preface, after a kindly reference to Sir John Denham, Mr. Milbourne, and Mr. Tate and Dr. Brady, he says: "I have not refused, in some few psalms, to borrow a single line or two from these three authors; yet I have taken the most freedom of that sort with Dr. Patrick, for his style best agrees with my design, though his verse be generally of a lower strain." The Rev. Dr. John Patrick, a brother of Bishop Simon Patrick, had, in 1694, published "The Psalmes of David, in Metre," of which Watts, in his Preface, says: "He hath made use of the present language of Christians in several Psalms, and left out many of the Judaisms. This is the thing that hath introduced him into the favor of so many religious assemblies; even those very persons, that have an aversion to sing anything in worship but David's psalms, have been led insensibly to fall in with Dr. Patrick's performance, by a relish of pious pleasure; never considering that his work is by no means a just translation, but a paraphrase."
The design of Watts was "to accommodate the Book of Psalms to Christian worship; and, in order to this,"—"to divest David and Asaph, etc., of every other character but that of a psalmist and a saint, and to make them always speak the common sense of a Christian." "With this view," he says, "I have entirely omitted some whole Psalms, and large pieces of many others; and have chosen, out of all them, such parts only as might easily and naturally be accommodated to the various occasions of the Christian life, or at least might afford us some beautiful allusion to Christian affairs. These I have copied and explained in the general style of the gospel."—" I have chosen rather to imitate than to translate; and thus to compose a Psalmbook for Christians after the manner of the Jewish Psalter." "I have expressed myself, as I may suppose David would have done, had he lived in the days of Christianity."—"In all places, I have kept my grand design in view, and that is, to teach my author to speak like a Christian."
It was a great innovation. It encountered a world of prejudices, well-nigh inveterate—prejudices, that, even to this day, maintain their hold upon large and respectable bodies of Christian people. To meet these difficulties, and overcome them, to counteract these prejudices, or mitigate their severity, and to defend his work against all opposition, he prepared, "at the request of several ministers and private Christians who practised psalmody in this method themselves," and soon after published, "A Short Essay toward the Improvement of Psalmody"; having, in the Preface to his "Psalms," begged his readers to suspend their censures of his work, "till," he says, "they have read my Discourse of Psalmody, which I hope will shortly be published."
The "Psalms" was a work far in advance of any thing previously published "for the service of song in the house of the Lord." He was admirably qualified for it, possessing, as he did, a thoroughly educated and classical mind, great familiarity with the Hebrew text, a remarkable facility of versification, a lively imagination, a refined ear, a thorough acquaintance with the poetic literature, sacred and profane, of the age, and a cultivated poetic taste,—the whole sanctified by "an unction from the Holy One," by constant and devout intercourse with the spiritual world, and by a glowing zeal for the universal spread of the Gospel among his fellow-men.
The "Hymns" had prepared the way for the "Psalms," and excited large expectations in the circle of his particular friends. An edition of four thousand copies was sold the first year. Gradually the book supplanted Patrick, and Rouse, and Sternhold; and was adopted by a large proportion of the Dissenting congregations of the metropolis. It became popular throughout the kingdom, and in the British Colonies of the New World. Together with the "Hymns" it has been issued in numberless editions. Millions of copies have been circulated. It still commands an immense sale. For a hundred years and more after its first appearance, scarcely anything in the way of a Compilation appeared among the Dissenters (the Wesleyans excepted), but as "A Supplement to Watts." Watts supplanted all his predecessors, save in "The Establishment"; but, to this day, has never himself been supplanted. The use of "Watts' Psalms and Hymns" so generally among the Dissenting churches of England had much to do in keeping alive the flame of true devotion, during the long period of formalism that characterized much of the eighteenth century. And now, though new compilations of hymns have, during the present century, been continually seeking the patronage of the churches, not one of them can obtain or secure it among the Congregational, Presbyterian, or Baptist Churches of England and America, that is not largely composed of Watts' inimitable Spiritual Songs. To this day, Isaac Watts remains the peerless "Poet of the Sanctuary."
But the most widely circulated of all his publications, and, in some respects, the most useful, was his "Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children," that appeared in 1720, though the greater part had been composed several years before. An immense number of copies of this little book have been put in circulation; hundreds of thousands are printed yearly. The "Songs" have exerted an incalculable influence for good over the infantile minds of at least five generations. They have been translated into a large number of European and other languages, and are known and loved throughout the world. "For children," says Dr. Samuel Johnson, "he condescended to lay aside the scholar, the philosopher, and the wit, to write little poems of devotion, and systems of instruction, adapted to their wants and capacities, from the dawn of reason, through its gradations of advance in the morning of life. Every man, acquainted with the common principles of human action, will look with veneration on the writer, who is at one time combating Locke, and at another making a Catechism for Children in their fourth year. A voluntary descent from the dignity of science is perhaps the hardest lesson that humility can teach."
In 1722, his venerated friends and patrons, Sir John Hartopp, and Sir Thomas Abney, both died. Lady Abney subsequently divided her time between Theobalds and her own manor-house at Stoke Newington, when in the country, and her house in Lime Street, when in the city,—from all which places Watts dates his letters and his publications. His health, though much improved since 1716, continued very precarious. "I am continually prevented," he says, in an address to his people, February 21, 1721, "in my design of successive visits to you, by the want of active spirits while I tarry in the city; and, if I attempt to stay but a week or ten days there, I find a sensible return of weakness; so that I am constrained to retire to the country air, in order to recruit and maintain this little capacity of service." He preached whenever on the Sabbath it was possible, though in great weakness; but frequently he was kept from the pulpit for weeks and months.
To compensate for the lack of public service, he occupied his time, when practicable, in the preparation of useful publications. Several volumes of "Sermons" were thus given to his people and the world, during the last twenty-five years of his life. His "Logic" was issued in 1724; his "Book of Catechisms," in 1728; his "Short View of Scripture History," in 1730; his "Philosophic Essays," in 1732; his "Miscellaneous Thoughts in Prose and Verse," in 1734; his "Ruin and Recovery of Mankind," in 1740; and his "Improvement of the Mind," in 1741. Numerous Essays, on a great variety of subjects, theological, ecclesiastical, philosophical, and political, were also issued by the godly recluse,—several of them on the philosophy of the doctrine of the Trinity.
He was honored, in 1728, by both the Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen, with the honorary degree of D.D. He took a deep interest in the progress of religion, both at home and abroad. He corresponded with a number of the leading clergymen of New England, including the Mathers, President Williams, and Jonathan Edwards; also with Governor Belcher. He was profoundly moved by the news of "The Great Awakening" in New England, in 1740, and by the itinerant operations of the Wesleys, Whitefield, and their coadjutors. In Dr. Doddridge and his Academy, he took a very deep interest, as indeed in all that pertained to the advancement of the Redeemer's kingdom. At Stoke Newington manor-house, where principally he resided from and after 1735, he was continually sought, for advice and counsel, and for the pleasure of his acquaintance, by all classes. Greatly revered and loved, as well as highly honored, by an ever-widening circle of friends and admirers, in and out of the Establishment, and recognized everywhere as the Patriarch of the Dissenting clergy, he spent the last few years of his life in this delightful retreat. Gradually he declined in strength, but not a cloud darkened his sky, not a doubt disturbed the serenity of his peace. He died on the afternoon of Friday, November 25, 1748, in the seventy-fifth year of his age. A great concourse of sincere mourners attended the body to its final resting-place in Bunhill Fields, and a monument to his memory was erected in Westminster Abbey.
In a little more than forty years, he had issued fifty-two distinct publications. His collected "Works," edited by the Rev. Drs. David Jennings and Philip Doddridge, were published (1753) in six quarto volumes. They have frequently been reprinted. "I question," says Dr. Jennings, "whether any author before him did ever appear with reputation on such a variety of subjects as he has done, both as a prose-writer and as a poet. However, this I may venture to say, that there is no man now living (1753), of whose works so many have been dispersed both at home and abroad, that are in such constant use, and translated into such a variety of languages." "Few men," says Dr. Johnson," have left behind 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." "He was one of the first authors that taught the Dissenters to court attention by the graces of language. Whatever they had among them before, whether of learning or acuteness, was commonly obscured and blunted by coarseness and inelegance of style. He showed them that zeal and purity might be expressed and enforced by polished diction."
He was not only a polished writer, but, in his best days, an impressive preacher. A thin, spare man, scarcely more than five feet in stature, his "bodily presence" was "weak"; his forehead was low, his cheek-bones rather prominent, his eyes small and gray, and his face, in repose, of a heavy aspect. But his voice was distinct and musical, he was an adept in the art of pronunciation, his delivery was grave and solemn, and his manner indicative of a glowing zeal for God and the souls of men. He was one of the purest, as he was one of the most modest and amiable of men.
In the "Preface" to his "Miscellaneous Thoughts," March, 1734, he says: "I make no pretences to the name of a poet, or a polite writer, in an age wherein so many superior souls shine in their works through this nation." "I can boast of little more than an inclination and a wish that way." Yet Dr. Johnson truly says, in his "Lives of the English Poets": "As a poet, had he been only a poet, he would probably have stood high among the authors with whom he is now associated." He was wont to attach to his printed sermons a hymn designed to accompany their delivery, and probably written at the same time. As a whole, they do not compare with his other hymns. Some of them have been taken to fill up the gaps in his hymnbook, occasioned by the transfer of several of his hymns to his Book of Psalms.
"Oh! that I knew the secret place," etc.,
was written to accompany a sermon (1721) on "Sins and Sorrows spread before God," from Job xxiii. 3,4.
"O! happy soul, that lives on high," etc.
follows two sermons (1721) on "The Hidden Life of a Christian," from Col. iii. 3.
"What shall the dying sinner do?" etc.,
accompanies his three sermons (1723) on "A Rational Defence of the Gospel," from Rom. i. 16.
"Jesus! thy blessings are not few," etc.,
also, is based on Rom. i. 16, and follows a sermon (1723) entitled, "None excluded from Hope."
" Am I a soldier of the cross," etc.,
grew out of a sermon (1727) on "Holy Fortitude, or Remedies against Fear," from 1 Cor. xvi. 13.
"Father of glory! to thy name," etc.,
is the sequel to a sermon (1727) on "The Doctrine of the Trinity, and the Use of it; or, Access to the Father, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit," from Eph. ii. 18.
The first two lines of the 100th Psalm, as commonly sung,—
"Before Jehovah's awful throne,
Ye nations! bow, with sacred joy,"
were written by the Rev. John Wesley, and substituted by him for the lines, as written by Watts,
"Nations! attend before his throne,
With solemn fear, with sacred joy."
Wesley, also, wrote the following stanza,—
He dies, the Friend of sinners dies!
Lo! Salem's daughters weep around:
A solemn darkness veils the skies,
A sudden trembling shakes the ground!"
and substituted it for the stanza, as written by Watts,
"He dies, the heavenly Lover dies!
The tidings strike a doleful sound
On my poor heart-strings; deep he lies
In the cold caverns of the ground."
The hymn beginning with
"Sinner! oh! why so thoughtless grown,"
is properly a reconstruction (by Dr. Rippon, 1787, probably) of a lyric by Watts, beginning with
"Oh! why is man so thoughtless grown?"
entitled, "The hardy Soldier," and inscribed "to the Right Honorable John, Lord Cust, at the siege of Namur," and written, therefore, in July or August, 1695.
Many of his hymns give evidence of his love of natural scenery. The beautiful hymn,
"There is a land of pure delight," etc.
is said to have been written in his father's house at Southampton, in a room overlooking the river Itchen, with charming Isle of Wight in the distance, and suggesting very naturally the couplet,
"Sweet fields, beyond the swelling flood,
Stand dressed in living green."
Possibly, the "sweet fields" were a portion of "the green glades of the New Forest," on the other side of the river and harbor. The quiet waters of the harbour, doubtless, suggested the familiar stanza,—
"There shall I bathe my weary soul
In seas of heavenly rest,
And not a wave of trouble roll
Across my peaceful breast."
Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The Poets of the Church: A Series of Biographical Sketches of Hymn-Writers... by Edwin F. Hatfield. New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Company, ©1884.
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