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Isaac Watts, English Theologian and Hymn Writer

Isaac WattsIsaac Watts (1674-1748), English theologian and hymn writer, son of a clothier, was born at Southampton on the 17th of July 1674. The father, who afterwards had a boarding-school at Southampton, also wrote poetry, and a number of his pieces were included by mistake in vol. i. of the son's Posthumous Works.

Isaac Watts is stated to have begun to learn Latin when only in his fifth year, and at the age of seven or eight to have composed some devotional pieces to please his mother. His nonconformity precluded him from entering either of the universities, but in his sixteenth year he went to study at the nonconformist academy at Stoke Newington, of which, the Rev. Thomas Rowe, minister of the Independent meeting at Girdlers' Hall, was then president.

On leaving the academy he spent more than two years at home, and began to write his hymns, but in the autumn of 1696 he became tutor in the family of Sir John Hartopp at Stoke Newington, where he probably prepared the materials of his two educational works—Logick, or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth (1725), and The Knowledge of the Heavens and the Earth made easy, or the First Principles of Geography and Astronomy Explained (1726).

In his twenty-fourth year, Watts was chosen assistant to Dr. Isaac Chauncy (1632-1712), pastor of the Independent congregation in Mark Lane, London, and two years later he succeeded as sole pastor. The state of his health, which he had injured by overwork, led to the appointment of an assistant in 1703. In 1704 the congregation removed to Pinner's Hall, and in 1708 they built a new meeting-house in Bury Street.

In 1712 Watts was attacked by fever, which incapacitated him for four years from the performance of his duties. In 1712 he went to live with Sir Thomas Abney of Abney Park, where he spent the remainder of his life, the arrangement being continued by Lady Abney after her husband's death. Watts preached only occasionally, devoting his leisure chiefly to the writing of hymns, the preparation of his sermons for publication, and the composition of theological work.

In 1706 appeared his Horae Lyricae, of which an edition with memoir by Robert Southey forms vol. ix. of Sacred Classics (1834); in 1707 a volume of Hymns; in 1719 The Psalms of David; and in 1720 Divine and Moral Songs for Children. His Psalms are free paraphrases, rather than metrical versions, and some of them ("O God, our help in ages past," for instance) are amongst the most famous hymns in the language. His religious opinions were more liberal in tone than was at that time common in the community to which he belonged; his views regarding Sunday recreation and labour were scarcely of puritanical strictness, and his Calvinism was modified by his rejection of the doctrine of reprobation...

He died on the 25th of November 1748, and was buried at Bunhill Fields, where a tombstone was erected to his memory by Sir John Hartopp and Lady Abney. A memorial was also erected to him in Westminster Abbey, and a memorial hall, erected in his honour at Southampton, was opened in 1875.

Among the theological treatises of Watts, in addition to volumes of sermons, are Doctrine of the Trinity (1722); Discourses on the Love of God and its Influence on all the Passions (1729); Catechisms for Children and Youth (1730); Essays towards a Proof of a Separate State for Souls (1732); Essay on the Freedom of the Will (1732); Essay on the Strength and Weakness of Human Reason (1737); Essay on the Ruin and Recovery of Mankind (1740); Glory of Christ as God-Man Unveiled (1746); and Useful and Important Questions concerning Jesus, the Son of God (1746). He was also the author of a variety of miscellaneous treatises. His Posthumous Works appeared in 1773, and a further installment of them in 1779. The Works of ... Isaac Watts (6 vols.), edited by Dr. Jennings and Dr. Doddridge, with a memoir compiled by G. Burder, appeared in 1810-1811. His poetical works were included in Johnson's English Poets, where they were accompanied by a Life, and they appear in subsequent similar collections. See also The Life, Times and Correspondence of lsaac Watts (1834) by Thomas Milner.

From The Encyclopædia Britannica. 11th ed. New York: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911.

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