February 13, 2006
18th Century Theology
A Pleasing Offering: The Life and Significance of Isaac Watts
Isaac Watts has often been labeled the “Father of the English Hymn.” While Watts did not write the first English hymns, his verses were responsible for popularizing the format in worship. Before Watts, public worship with singing consisted mostly of scripture translated literally into meter sung to common tunes. Watts’s reform in hymnody began among the Non-conformist population in England, but soon spread across many denominations of Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic. In modern hymnals Watts is one of the most cited authors, and many his over 600 hymns have become favorites and standards. Watts penned the beloved words of hymns “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Joy to the World,” and “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” and these favorites find their place in almost every hymnal of today. His reform in music was especially significant in Eighteenth Century New England, where his hymns provided the music for the Great Awakening and became one of the important characteristics of the shift in New England Christianity from earlier Puritanism to the evangelicalism of preachers such as Edwards and Whitefield.
Isaac Watts was born on 17 July 1674 in Southampton, the eldest child to a family of nine children. During his early childhood, Isaac’s father was frequently imprisoned for his position as deacon at the Independent Meeting House of the non-conforming or dissenting population. This did not, however, prevent Isaac from receiving the full benefit of his father’s traditional puritan and intellectual instruction. Isaac’s memoirs tell of his rigorous classical education. At the young age of four his father undertook to teach him Latin. His home instruction was followed at the age of six by enrolment at the independent Latin school of headmaster Reverend John Pinhorne. The school was as rigorously academic as it was moral. Watts recounted reading the classics such as Homer, Pindar, Sophocles, Plato, Virgil, Horace, Juvenal, Persius, and Seneca. Because the were considered immoral, the poets Ovid and Catullus, however, were explicitly out of bounds. Evidently, his reading enthralled Isaac, for the margins of his Sum Book were covered with aphorisms and lengthy citations from the Latin authors. His Latin instruction was complemented by later studies of Greek at the age of nine, French at ten, and Hebrew at thirteen.
The young Watts had a poetic mind from the start, and was known by his family for the annoying habit of versifying in everyday conversation. Laughing before family prayers one morning, Isaac pointed out a mouse in the rafters and created a short rhymn: “A mouse for want of better stairs / Ran up a rope to say his prayers.” His rhyming skills, however, were soon put to better use. When he turned fifteen, Watts was sent to the Academy of Reverend Thomas Rowe in London. After graduating from the Academy in 1694, Watts embarked upon two years of independent studies through reading, writing, and meditation. During this time living with his father, Watts complained about the dull and tuneless verses that were sung at his family’s church. His deacon father immediately encouraged him to try to do better, and such was born Watts’s first hymn, Behold the Glories of the Lamb:
Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst his Father’s throne;
Prepare new honors for his name,
And songs before unknown.
Now to the Lamb, that once was slain,
Be endless blessings paid;
Salvation, glory, joy, remain
Forever on thy head
Thou hast redeemed our souls with blood,
Hast set the prisoner free,
Hast made us kings and priests to God,
And we shall reign with thee.
For so young a person, the hymn is remarkable, and as one critic remarks, “the hymn shows Watts’s directness of statement, ease of expression, and vividness in depicting a scene.” During this period at his father’s house he wrote many of the hymns that would not be published until later in life.
In 1696 Watts left his father’s house for Newington to become a tutor to the son of Sir John Hartopp, who had gained wealth and prominence from the crown’s new tolerance of dissenters. No longer facing the same persecution of that Watts’s father had experienced, many dissenters were now wealthy and influential in politics and business. Watts was a dedicated teacher, writing entire textbooks to instruct the younger Hartropp. These were later published as the Logic (1724) and Improvement of the Mind (1741). While still serving as a tutor to the Hartropps, Isaac was called upon to become an assistant to the ailing Dr. Chauncy at the prominent dissenting church at Mark Lane, a prestigious post for such a young man. Mark Lane was well known for its former pastor, John Owen. Upon Dr. Chauncy’s death in 1701 the church considered calling Watts to the pastorate, but was hesitant because of Watts’s feeble heath. He had remained sickly ever since a bout of smallpox when young, and during the years at the Hartopp’s even spent five months on trips to Southampton, Bath, and Tunbridge Wells in search of better health. After the prayers and fasting of the congregation, however, doubts about his health were dismissed and Watts returned to Mark Lane as full pastor in 1702.
The years at Mark Lane were the most important for Watts’s reputation throughout the independent community in London and his prolific writing. When Watts came to the post at Mark Lane, he received only 60 church members from Dr. Chauncy. Under his leadership it grew to 428, and he became known throughout the area for his preaching. During the same time he published his famous Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), added his metered paraphrases of the psalms twelve years later.
Though strong in the faith, Watts struggled with ill health his entire life. After a particularly bad fever in 1712 his good friend Sir Thomas Abney invited him to stay at his residence for a week. The visit lengthened into 36 years under the Abney’s hospitality. Sir Thomas was a wealthy and influential dissenter who had once even been Lord Mayor of London. The Abney family became Watts’s closest friends and even when Sir Abney died his widow welcomed him to stay. He took a special interest in instructing their three daughters, writing his famous Divine and Moral Songs: Attempted in Easy Language for the use of Children, published in 1720, for their instruction in religion and morality. The book contained such well-known hymns of today such as “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” and short pieces of instruction that became standards for school children decades after Watts. This piece discouraging the children from quarrelling is especially famous:
Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so.
But, children, you should never let,
Such angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other’s eyes
How doth the busy little bee
Improve each shining hour.
In works of labor or of skill
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.
Watts spent the rest of his days at the Abneys as a chronic invalid, yet still remained a powerful voice in the non-conforming community of London. He was a bachelor, had no domestic cares, and after being given an assistant at Mark Lane, only had to drive to town occasionally to preach. While these light duties could be disparaged, Palmer argues that:
To Dr. Watts they gave the opportunity of establishing a close bond between himself and his congregation, of gaining a prominent position as a preacher and leader among he Nonconformists, of publishing an amount of prose vast for even a literary person in that voluminous age, of attaining a place – not the of the first rank but indisputable – among the poets of the language, and of moulding the thoughts and kindling the emotions of English Protestant Christians for more than a century.” (Palmer 378)
Indeed, Watts used his time to full advantage, not only writing hymns, sermons, and poetry, but popularizing and summarizing the knowledge of the day through writings in logic, astronomy, geography, grammar, pedagogics, and ethics. He published over 600 hymns, three volumes of sermons, twenty-nine treatises on theology, and fifty-two other publications. His textbook on logic was standard at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale. At Oxford it was used over one-hundred years. Watts remained at the Abneys until his death on 25 November 1748.
Watts’s influence carried over to his Puritan brethren in New England. Watts clearly intended his hymns for use in the colonies as well, viewing them as an extension of Great Britain. He even titled his paraphrase of Psalm 107 “A Psalm for New England.” Frederic Palmer held that “The formative influence of Watts, especially upon the religious life of New England, has been profound.” This influence, however, was not immediately felt. Watts based his hymns on themes of scripture instead of literal translations. Conforming to the regulative principle of only using things specifically commanded in the scripture in worship services, New England puritan churches thought paraphrases improper for use in services. Clunky literal translations of the psalms were still considered the only appropriate songs. Coupled with a poor memory of the tunes to go with them and limited instruction in churches led to congregational singing that was “chaotic and dissonant.” This began to change in the early part of the century. To bring back a sense of order and harmony in congregational singing, some pastors introduced singing in parts, even hiring “singing masters” to instruct their congregations.  At the same time the hymns of Watts were being introduced in New England. The growing acceptance of the new singing led to broad controversy, but the continued support of influential leaders such as Cotton Mather and Solomon Stoddard led to a growing acceptance of the new hymns. By the time Jonathan Edwards moved to Northampton in 1726, Mather and Stoddard had made the new singing a regular part of worship services, and their congregations were learning Watts’ hymns in private meetings. Charles Wesley reprinted some of the hymns again in 1737 and 1739, and during the revivals of Edwards and Whitefield Watts became immensely popular in the colonies.
During the Great Awakening believers found in the hymns of Watts the aesthetic and emotional component that had been missing in earlier metered psalms. Rigidly literal translations of the psalms for singing—such as found in the Bay State Songbook—were crude poetically and limited musically. The more graceful poetry of Watts set to tuneful music had a power that was missing earlier. Watts’s hymns provided a more eloquent and powerful musical form to express repentance for sin and joy at salvation. Whitefield recognized this power of song that stirred the affections and gave expression to inward revival. He would begin his preaching with a Watts hymn in order to “mobilize his audience, to transform them from passive viewers to participants. …Whitefield would turn the focus on them, describing them as actors in a divine drama and challenging them to play their roles.” Jonathan Edwards also used the hymns of Watts in his congregation, popularizing them further.
Throughout their lives Watts and Jonathan Edwards maintained correspondence and supported each other. Edwards introduced Watts’s hymns to his congregation and Watts read Edwards A Faithful Narrative to his congregation in England. Watts was interested in the events of the Great Awakening and frequently exchanged correspondence with Whitefield and others in New England. He was initially apprehensive and severely critical of the open-are meetings and irregular proceedings of Whitefield, but after recognizing the preacher’s “zeal and good sense” admitted that Whitefield was “raised up by God and “He does more good by his wild notes than we with all our set music.” Whitefied, in turn, spoke of Watts as “that sweet singer of Israel, and my worthy and honoured friend.”
The songs and hymns of Watts continued to grow in popularity and have a profound influence on American Christianity. Edwards eventually used the hymns of Watts almost to the exclusion of the old psalm,s and ultimately the hymnbooks could be found in the pews of all major denominations throughout the colonies. The longevity of Watts’s hymns attests to their timelessness and depth of expression that has stirred the hearts of countless believers. This was only possible because Watts wrote his hymns and songs with a mature understanding of praise. He explained his own views best in a short essay:
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….How inconsiderable an offering is this for a God! And yet so condescending is his love, that he looks down, and is well pleased to receive it.
Watts’s hymns came out of a deep desire to bring a pleasing offering to God. They served to turn people’s hearts toward God in orderly worship that incorporated beautiful Eighteenth-Century harmony with flowing poetry. Over two-and-a-half centuries later, the hymns of Watts are still in many ways influencing and guiding the worship of Christians all over the world.
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