The revered name of Isaac Watts stands first in our list of Christian hymn writers; for not only is he one of the older ones, but he has written more largely than most. To many of us he is the best-beloved, especially with the children, for whom he wrote often and well.
Though an Englishman, he was, on his mother's side, of Huguenot descent, her family being driven from France to England in the early part of Queen Elizabeth's reign. But even in Protestant England his family met with persecution for Christ's sake; for he writes that his father, who was a deacon in a Dissenting church ("Dissenters" or "Non-conformists" were those who refused to use the Anglican liturgy with its forms and ceremonies, which the Government sought to force upon them.), "was persecuted and imprisoned for non-conformity, six months; and was after that forced to leave his family and live privately for two years." There, before the old jail of Southampton, the young mother used to sit on the stone at the prison gate with the infant Isaac in her arms, waiting for the chance to see her persecuted husband within, or at other times lift up her infant child to the barred window that the father might see the face of his child.
Isaac was born in Southampton, July 17, 1674, fourteen years before the Revolution, when William of Orange came over from Holland and put a stop to all persecution for conscience' sake in England, and better times now came to the Watts family. Isaac became assistant to a pastor in London, whose place he afterwards filled. He was much beloved by the people under his charge, not only for his gifts and piety, but for his kindness, visiting from house to house, and spending much of his income to help the poor.
In his eighteenth year, he wrote some pieces that were actually used in public singing. It came about in this way. He had expressed before some of the congregation his dissatisfaction with the rough, unpoetic verses that were being sung at the time. "Well, then, give us something which will be better, young man!" he was told; and that evening his first formal composition was sung in the congregation. It was the hymn commencing with,
"Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst the Father's throne."
It was a worthy beginning, though not equal, as one has said, to later ones which "were the fruit of his maturer experience." The same writer says, "Each evening, for a long time, he presented a fresh composition; until, at last, he had given them 222 hymns in all; and they were printed in a portable form for local use." This is a large number; yet he wrote others besides, so that he has been justly called, "The Father of English Hymnody."
A very small man, Dr. Watts was, and like the apostle Paul, "in bodily presence weak." In his early manhood he proposed marriage to Miss Elizabeth Singer, an accomplished lady, but she declined it with the remark that "while she loved the jewel (his excellent mind) she could not admire the casket that contained it. So he never married.
Dr. Watts was a great preacher of his time, but always feeble in health, and in 1712 was prostrated by a fever from which he never fully recovered. Sir Thomas Abney, who greatly appreciated Watt's gifts and Christian spirit, invited him to his country-seat for a week, but there he remained (at the request of his hosts) 36 years—until his death in November, 1748.
Besides his hymns, Watts wrote several books on education. But children know him best from his rhymes written especially for them, among which are his beautiful "Cradle Hymn," beginning,
"Hush, my dear! Lie still and slumber!
Holy angels guard thy bed!"
also his "Praise for Mercies." And who does not know his "How doth the Little Busy Bee," "Let Dogs Delight to Bark and Bite," and "The Sluggard?"
The following remarks and narratives are from an able writer in "Historical Hymns." On Dr. Watts, he says:
"His lyre, with its many chords, strikes its highest notes in his crucifixion hymn, which is universally conceded to be the finest on that theme in our language:
"When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Lord of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most,
I'd sacrifice them to His blood.
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?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an off'ring far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, may all!"
"The Rev. Duncan Campbell of Edinburgh says: 'For tender, solemn beauty, for reverent vision of the Crucified, I know of no verse in our hymnology to equal the stanza beginning:
"See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!"
"In 1830, James Delaney, a British artilleryman in India, first heard a Protestant prayer at the execution of a soldier for murder. Delaney's command was stationed in Maulmain, where he heard Eugenio Kincaid preach, and 'When I survey the Wondrous Cross' was sung. In his hard life Delaney had seemed insensible to religious influence, but the song so deeply laid hold upon him that the course of his life was changed; his conversion was complete, and a few weeks after he was baptized in the Salwin river. Four years after he emigrated to the United States, and in 1844 settled in Wisconsin where he became a Baptist missionary, with fruits of his labors no less remarkable than his conversion. He died at Whitewater, Wis., in 1896, aged 93.
"Perhaps the finest ascription of praise is Watts' paraphrase of the 117th psalm condensed into eight lines:
"From all that dwell below the skies,
Let the Creator's praise arise;
Let the Redeemer's praise be sung
Through every land, by every tongue.
Eternal are Thy mercies, Lord,
Eternal truth attends Thy word;
Thy praise shall sound from shore to shore
Till suns shall rise and set no more."
"This was sung at the Peace Jubilee, in Boston, in 1872, by twelve thousand trained voices and three thousand instruments. Gilmore, the leader, raised his wand, and when it descended, a flood of song burst forth from twice ten thousand voices to the solemn strains of 'Old Hundred.' The effect was overwhelming.
"The first great missionary hymn was written by Watts in 1719, and begins with:
'Jesus shall reign where'er the sun,
Doth his successive journeys run.'
"It is a famous version of the 72d psalm, and the hymn is next in popularity to Heber's 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains.'
"The most interesting occasion on which this hymn was sung was when the sable King George of the South Sea Islands exchanged the former heathen for a Christian form of government. Some five thousand natives assembled for divine worship. Rescued from heathenism and cannibalism, they met for the first time that day under a Christian king. Foremost among them sat King George with his old chiefs, and old and young rejoiced together. It is not possible to describe the deep feeling manifested when the solemn service began by the entire audience singing Dr. Watts' Hymn,
"Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Peoples and realms of ev'ry tongue,
Dwell on His love with sweetest song;
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on His name.
Blessings abound where'er He reigns,
The pris'ners leap to loose their chains;
The weary find eternal rest,
And all the sons of want are blest.
Where He displays His healing power,
Death and the curse shall reign no more;
But Adam's race in Him shall boast
More blessings far than Adam lost.
Then all the earth shall rise and bring
Peculiar honors to its King;
Angels respond with songs again,
And earth repeat the loud Amen."
"Dr. Watts was a pioneer in popular England Hymnology. He did exceeding much to improve and inspire worship in song."
From Who Wrote Our Hymns by Christopher Knapp. New York: Loizeaux Brothers, [1925?].
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