Carrie Gregory

Stephanie Morgan


Dr. Westblade

I. The Life of a Hymn-writer

1674, Southampton, England. Fall. A young woman sits on the steps of the village jail, holding her infant. She waits admittance to see her husband, whose only crime was the active exercise of his non-conformist faith. The babe cries in the chill autumn air. His mother snuggles him closer and wonders what the future will holds for her son. Poverty, hunger, and scorn rear up in her mind. Little does she know her eldest child would lead a life almost completely opposite of what she feared.

Isaac Watts was born in 1674 into a family of Dissenters. His father was imprisoned twice during his son's lifetime and the scene described above probably happened more than once. Dissenters, or Non-Conformists, were Protestants "who did not think that the Church of England had departed sufficiently from the beliefs and practices of Rome, and who refused to conform to it." [1] Although Dissenter persecution decreased significantly during Isaac's life, he clung to his heritage as fiercely as his father had. These Non-Conformist beliefs shaped much of his life, most significantly his education. Under the tutelage of John Pinhorne, rector of All Saints church in Northampton, Isaac received an excellent grammar level education. He knew Latin by age four, followed by Greek at age nine, French at 11 and Hebrew at 13. Reading and rhyming were his two delights as a child. Often his conversation was in rhyme. According to one story, Isaac's father became annoyed with the rhyming and, when it persisted, began to whip the boy. Young Isaac cried out:

O father, do some pity take,

and I will no more verses make. 


His poetry often reflected his theological training as well, as is the case in an acrostic poem he wrote at age seven.

            I am a vile polluted lump of earth

            So I've continued ever since my birth;

            Although Jehovah grace does give me,

            As sure this monster Satan will deceive me.

            Come therefore, Lord, from Satan's claws relieve me.[2]

His talent of hymn-writing also emerged at a young age. After one Sunday morning service, Watts complained to his father about the "stodgy psalm-singing." "Why don't you write a hymn suitable to congregational singing?"  his father challenged. At the end of the day, little Isaac presented his father with his first hymn, "Behold the Glories of the Lamb.  Six hundred and ninety-six followed.[3]

By the age of sixteen, Watts' wit and intelligence had caught the eye of Dr. John Speed, the town physician. Speed offered to pay the way for Watts at Oxford or Cambridge. Isaac declined, however, because to enter either university he would have to renounce his Non-Conformist convictions, and all his parents had suffered or. He preferred to "take [his] lot among the Dissenters."  So he was sent to a Non-conformist academy at Stokes Newington. According to the notebooks Watts kept during his years there, the teaching in classics, logic, Hebrew, and divinity was excellent and he credits the academy with the development of his "habits of laborious analysis and accuracy of thought." [4]

In 1694, at the age of twenty, Watts graduated from Stokes Newington and returned home for the next two years, which became known as the "Golden years."  It is remarkable that some church in need of a pastor did not snap up a young man of such brilliance. But, God must have been looking out for His own glory and worship, for it was in these two years that Isaac wrote most of his hymns. Though none of his works were published during this time, his hymns and psalms were circulating in manuscript form in the area churches.[5] For now, let it suffice to say that Isaac poured himself into writing for the glory of his God during these two years and the Lord blessed him greatly.

In 1696 Watts returned to Stokes Newington as a tutor for the son of Sir John Hartopp, a position he held for the next four years. During this time Isaac continued his personal studies in divinity and began writing what would later become one of his well-known books, "Logic, or the Right Use of Reason." [6] He also began his preaching career at this time, often filling in for absent pastors or upon invitation from local churches. In 1699 he became the assistant pastor to Isaac Chauncy at the chapel on Mark Lane. Three years later he succeeded to the pastorate.[7]

The church Watts became pastor of in 1702 was rather prestigious, having previously been ministered to by Joseph Caryl and John Owen. Although the majority of the congregation consisted of middle-working class families, there were several members of the upper class in it, including close relatives of Cromwell. The congregations' regard and esteem of Watts grew over the years and, in his latter years when ill health kept him from the pulpit, a close tie remained between him and his parishioners. It was from this congregation that Isaac's unique living situation arose.[8]

Isaac Watts was a short man, reaching just over five feet tall, and early in life battled with frequent attacks of illness. Only one year after taking the pastorate at Mark Lane, an assistant was chosen to aid Watts in the many demands of that position. In 1721, a particularly harsh sickness struck Watts. For weeks he was forced to neglect his pastoral duties. One of the families in his congregation, Sir Thomas and Lady Abney, invited him to spend a week at their house, thinking a change of scene would do him good. It did him great good. So much so that he spent the next thirty-six years at their house.[9] This move, along with persistent sickness, made it nearly impossible for Watts to preach. Not thinking it right that he should continue receiving a salary, Watts put in his resignation. But his congregation refused to break with their beloved Watts and demanded he retain his position, at least in title, as well as his salary. Thus, at age thirty-eight, Watts had a handsome wage for a job he spent only a few hours on a week, a very comfortable home and all the benefits an upper class patron could bestow on him. Although he was almost continually sick, he spent the rest of his days in the peace and quiet of Sir and Lady Abney's home, tutoring their children, reading, and, most importantly, writing.[10]

Over his lifetime, Watts published 600 hymns and 52 other books, including a book of logic used in the universities, books on grammar, pedagogy, ethics, psychology, astronomy, geography, three volumes of sermons, and twenty-nine other treaties on theology.[11] His three most important works are "The Psalms of David,"  published in 1719, "Hymns and Spiritual Songs,"  published in 1707, and "Divine Songs for Children,"  published in 1715. The "Psalms"  was his most published book and the first of his works published in America, thanks to Benjamin Franklin. In this book, Watts rewrote the psalms of David in "the language of a Christian"  and in meter. He explains,

Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I have added the merits of a Savior. Where he talks of sacrificing goats or bullocks, I rather choose mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God . . . Where he promises abundance of wealth, honor and long live, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory, and life eternal, which are brought to light by the Gospel, and promised in the New Testament.[12]


In short, the "Psalms"  "leaves out all the imprecatory portions, paraphrases freely, infuses into the text the Messianic fulfillment and the evangelical interpretations, and adjusts the whole to the devotional standpoint of his time." [13] The following is Watts' rendition of Psalm 1:1.

            Blest is the man who shuns the place

            Where sinners love to meet;

            Who fears to tread their wicked ways,

            And hates the scoffer's seat.[14]


            At the beginning of the eighteenth century the stern embargo which Calvin had laid on "songs of human composure"  had been broken by the obscure hymns of Mason, Keach, Barton, and others. And by this time hymns were freely used in the Baptist and Independent congregations. But, in general, the form of worship, the texts and melodies used were in need of reform.[15] Commenting on the social atmosphere of the time, Richard Ninde says, "The time was ripening for a change. What was needed was strong leadership." [16] Though perhaps unbeknown to him, Watts was this leader. His "Hymns and Spiritual Songs"  broke upon a Church that was ready, indeed crying, for a new voice to worship with. "The poetry of Watts took the religious world of dissent by storm. It gave an utterance till then unheard in England, to the spiritual emotions, in their contemplation of God's glory and His revelation in Christ, and made hymn-singing a fervid devotional force." [17] The characteristics of his hymns are "tender faith, joyousness, and serene piety"  and the range of subject is very large. Although his best pieces are among the finest English hymns he still had to contend with the difficulties of the time: "the dearth of tunes which restricted him to meters of the old version, the ignorance of the congregations, and the habit of giving out the verses one by one, or even line by line and the faults of the poetic diction of the age." [18] Despite these obstacles, his hymns were very successful and remain so even to this day. Some of his most well know hymns include: Alas and Did My Savior Bleed, I Sing the Mighty Power of God, Jesus Shall Reign Wherever the Sun, Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

            Although his "Psalms"  and "Hymns"  were the most widely published, Watts' "Divine Songs for Children"  is also among his more important works. This collection of simple songs is one of many books written specifically for children. Watts loved and was very concerned for children and spent much time writing, not only for their amusement, but also for their instruction. He wrote two catechisms, one for three to four year olds and the other for seven to eight year olds. Upon hearing some of his friends criticize him "writing for babes"  he replied,

But I content myself with this thought, that nothing is too mean for a servant of Christ to engage in, if he can thereby most effectually promote the kingdom of his blessed Maker . . .[I hope] that nothing might be left out which was necessary for children to know in that tender age; and that no word, phrase, or sentiment, if possible, might be admitted, which could not be brought in some measure within the reach of a child's understanding.[19]

Both Isaac's overall "gentle spirit of moderation and benevolence"  and his high esteem of true Christian charity are reflected in his love for children and his theology.[20] Although labeled as a Calvinist, Watts' true position was milder than most of his contemporaries. He shrunk from the doctrine of reprobation, saying,

Surely the Lord Jesus would never be sent in flaming fire to render vengeance on those that obey not the gospel, if there was no sufficient salvation provided in that gospel which commands them to receive it


And again,


Can we think that the righteous Judge of the world will merely send words of grace and salvation amongst them, on purpose to make his creatures so much the more miserable, when there is no real grace to salvation contained in those words for them who refuse to receive it?[21]


The root of Watts' theology was the gospel and its promises of grace and salvation. This is evident from very early on in his rendition of the Psalms. As an old man, while "waiting God's leave to die,"  he reflected on how,

The most learned and knowing Christians, when they come to die, have only the same plain promises of the Gospel for their support, as the common and unlearned; and so I find it. It is the plain promises of the Gospel that are my support; and I bless God that they are plain promises; that do not require much labour and pains to understand them; for I can do nothing now but look into my Bible for some promise to support me, and live upon that.[22]


In this state of mind, Isaac Watts passed away on November 25, 1748 at the age of seventy-five.


II. The Impact of a Hymn-writer

As the eighteenth century unfolded, the Puritans slowly broadened their view of worship to include hymns in their Sunday services instead of singing only unaccompanied literally translated psalms. Isaac Watts instigated this singing reform through the writing and publishing of numerous hymns in England, however not without some resistance from staunch Puritans who opposed the change.

The writing and singing of hymns, although not new practices in the world, were relatively new to England. In the twelfth century, Rome made a similar transition from singing only psalms to including hymns  which were known as "songs of human composure."  A few centuries later, Germany followed with works by reformers such as Martin Luther. England and Scotland, however, influenced by the spread of Calvin's ideas in France, continued to give prominence to the singing of psalms. These psalms, translations from the Hebrew, were sung in worship to a select number of tunes as the congregation followed the lead singer, also known as a precentor.[23] Edward Ninde, commenting on nineteenth century worship, claims,

The tunes in common use were few and the same tune might be sung in the same

church twenty times in a single week. Or, still worse, worshipers might insist on

doing their own selection, and then various tunes would be running at the same


His comments reveal the monotony of the tunes in Puritan worship while showing that the congregation's desire to escape this monotony resulted in many people singing various tunes as they pleased. Consequently, the songs often sounded dissonant and chaotic to the listener's ear.

            Thus, when twenty-year old Isaac Watts began writing hymns, he did so in response to the need he saw in England for songs that both sounded pleasing and also continued to praise God after the pattern of the psalms. In 1907, Watts published his first collection of hymns titled "Hymns and Spiritual Songs,"  written for the benefit of the common man.[25] Watts, often esteemed as a leading hymn-writer of England, was not the first to embark on this path. However, his collection of "Hymns and Spiritual Songs" was the first hymnbook of the Puritans in England. Ninde writes,

We must bear in mind that the great bulk of the hymns written in England prior to the eighteenth century were never sung and were never designed for such use. Whatever the after years may have done with them, in the intent of the author they were sacred poetry for devotional reading.[26]


Hence, Watts brought something new to England when he published hymns to be sung in congregational worship.

            Along with Watts' dissatisfaction with, and conscious decision to improve on, the melodies of the songs currently in use, Watts desired to aid man in praising God more completely in his worship. In his description of praise, Watts describes,

What is praise? It is a part of that divine worship which we owe to the Power that made us; it is an acknowledgment of the perfection's of God, ascribing all excellencies to him, and confessing all the works of nature and grace to proceed from him . . .. but, alas! the highest and best [forms of praise] set in a true light, are but the feeble voice of a creature, spreading before the Almighty Being that made him, some of his own low and little ideas, and telling him what he thinks of the Great God, and what God has done.[27]


Watts believed that God's work called for man's response, and this response was greatest when man praised God from the depths of his heart, and not merely with the repetition of translated psalms.[28] Furthermore, Watts asserted that the psalms lost their metrical rhyme when translated from Hebrew to the English language and therefore could only correctly be literally translated into prose  not the rhyme that was currently used for singing.[29] Finally, he argued that the psalms were of Jewish origin, and therefore were insufficient for Christian praise because they lacked a key element of the Christian faith  the gospel.[30] Louis Benson asserts, "Dr. Watts' conception of the Hymns as the singer's devotional response to God's revelation of Himself – in Scripture indeed, and also beyond Scripture, through a living Christ and a personal experience, dominate the situation completely." [31] Indeed, Watts found the psalms incapable of revealing the whole truth of the reasons God deserved praise. In his view, the New Testament held the key to a complete understanding of God through Christ. Watts attempted to remedy this insufficiency of the songs commonly used by including the gospel message in his hymns.

            After having explored the motivations behind Watts' composition of hymns, it is important to look into another aspect of Watts' authorship  that of a poet. Benson declares, "[Watts] thought himself a poet." [32] Ninde writes that Watts was "the soul of modesty, always insisting he was not a poet; and further, so intent was he on bringing his verses within the comprehension of the humblest Christian, that he deliberately lowered their literary excellence." [33] These two statements seem to contradict until one looks closely at the meaning behind the claims. Ninde's assertion that Watts insisted he was not a poet, reveals the attitude of Watts in that he gave up something that he had talent for, writing poetry, in order to use his talents to praise God through writing hymns. Benson explains this as well, "In later life, [Watts] came to feel that his Psalms and Hymns were the greatest things he had done. He did not regard them as poetry but as evidence of his renunciation of poetry for edification's sake." [34] Watts, a poet as Benson claims, wrote in a more simplistic manner, redirecting his poetic talents, so that the common man could gain from his work, and therefore God could be further glorified.

            Thus, by exploring Watts' private works, one discloses the poetic talent he laid aside in order to write hymns. While on his sickbed in 1712, Watts wrote,

My frame of nature is a ruffled sea

And my disease the tempest. Nature feels

A strange commotion to her inmost centre;

The throne of reason shakes. "Be still, my thoughts;

Peace and be still."  In vain my reason gives

The peaceful word, my spirit strives in vain

To calm the tumult and command my thoughts.

This flesh, this circling blood, these brutal Powers

Made to obey, turn rebels to the mind,

Nor hear its laws. The engine rules the man . . .[35]

Truly, this is only a glimpse into Watts' poetic aspirations. It allows one to further understand the sacrifice Watts made when he chose to take the path of simple hymn-writing, rather than writing works to display his own talents.

            Because Watts' authorship of hymns for the purpose of improving song in worship services was a reform for his times, he experienced opposition from various critics. Many disagreed with the theological implications of singing anything in the service except literal psalms. Written a few decades after Watts' compositions, Robert Jack expresses his opposition to Watts' "The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament"  in "A letter on Psalmody."  He writes,

What I intend at present is, to observe to you the Corruption which hath entered into the Church, namely, by the admitting and making Use of human Composures, in singing the Praises of God, in the Place of his own Holy Word; i.e. God's own Book of Psalms, which he hath appointed to be used in Worshipping of him to the End of the World. And worried am I to hear, that all of you are so fond of a poor, lame Imitation, that is, Doctor Watts', an Author that is far from Orthodox; yea, in many things, i.e. Points of Doctrine, which I could easily make appear, notoriously erroneous.


Jack found singing only psalms sufficient for the church worship service, and he believed that the addition of any new songs was unorthodox and threatening to those who participated. Although he wrote after the death of Watts, he reveals feelings similar to those expressed by some of the critics Watts faced during his lifetime. As earlier demonstrated, Watts responded to such opposition with various arguments and ultimately asserted that church songs needed to be based on scriptural themes, but not necessarily use exact words from the Bible.[36] Moreover, perhaps criticism such as Jack's stemmed from fear that Puritans would return to the Anglican theology and style of worship that they had earlier broke away from. Marsden states, "Seventeenth-century Puritans had strictly followed the Anti-Anglican principle that nothing should be part of public worship except what was commanded in scripture." [37] It took the Puritans some time to accept that including hymns in their services would not lead them back to the church they had left. Eventually, however, the majority of the churches realized this and the congregations loosened their steadfast hold on the singing of psalms.

            Thus, the Puritan churches, firmly established in the practice of psalm-singing, found reform under the guidance of Watts. Watts desired to serve God by directing his talents to hymn-writing  his expression of praising God with the human voice and heart. He wished to acknowledge God fully by revealing in his works the message of Jesus who was crucified and rose again to save sinners. Although Watts faced some opposition for his work, both during his life and even after he died, the full impact of Watts' influence can be seen in the variety and style of hymns used in worship today. Bensen writes, "The era of 'Psalms and Hymns' gradually merged into an era of 'Hymns.' As the books labeled on their backs, 'Psalms and Hymns' had replaced the Psalms in Meter, so the 'Hymnal' came to replace the 'Psalms and Hymns.'" [38] Truly, the reform under Watts has spread from England to America, and even beyond, as Christians today from all over the world worship together by singing beautiful hymns  many of which were written by Isaac Watts.



Belknap, Jeremy. "Memoirs of the Lives, Characters and Writings of those two

eminently Pious and useful ministers of Jesus Christ, Dr. Isaac Watts and Dr.

Philip Doddridge."  Boston: Edes & West, 1793.

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Knox Press, 1956.

Carey, Matthew. "The Beauties of the Late Reverend Dr. Isaac Watts: containing the

most striking and admired Passages in the Works of that justly celebrated Divine,

Philosopher, Moralist, and Poet: equally calculated for the communication of

polite and useful knowledge, and the increase of Wisdom and Happiness, to

which is added – The Life of the Author."  Newburyport, Mass.: Edmund M.

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Glimpses Issue #27: The Father of English Hymnody. Christian History Institute.
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Isaac Watts: Hymn Writer. Wholesome words: Christian Biography Resources. 9/27/03


Jack, Robert. "A Letter on Psalmody: shewing that human composures ought not to be

used in Christian worship, in singing the praises of God." Philadelphia: Bailey, 1790.

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              Christians of the Past. 9/27/03  <>

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Co, 1938.

Sheperd, Victor. Isaac Watts. 9/23/03 Sermons and writings of Victor Sheperd. 9/27/03


Smith, Jane, and Betty Carlson. Great Christian Hymn Writers. Wheaton Illinois:

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Southey, Robert. Isaac Watts. 9/27/03

Watts, Isaac. "Divine Songs, Attempted in Easy Language, for the use of Children."

Haverhill, N.H.: Coverly, 1797.

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Children."  Boston: Hall, 1796.

Watts, Isaac. The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts. 9/25/03 Christian Classics Ethereal
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[5] Ibid.



[8] Ibid.




[12] Ibid.





[16] Ninde 93


[18] Ibid.




[22] Ibid.

[23] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (London: Yale University Press, 2003) 143.

[24] Edwards Ninde, Nineteen Centuries of Christian Song (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co, 1938) 93.

[25] Louis F. Bensen, The Hymnody of the Christian Church. (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1956) 111.


[26] Ninde 88.

[27] Matthew Carey, "The Beauties of the Late Revered Dr. Isaac Watts &c."  (Newburyport, Mass.: Edmund M. Blunt, 1797) 26.


[28] Benson 89.


[29] Ibid. 90.


[30] Ibid. 89.


[31] Ibid. 95.


[32] Ibid. 111.


[33] Ninde 99.


[34] Benson 111.


[35] Jeremy Belknap, "Memoirs of the Lives, Characters and Writings of & Dr. Isaac Watts and Dr. Philip Doddridge."  (Boston: Edes & West, 1793) 45.

[36] Marsden 143.


[37] Ibid.


[38] Benson 92.