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Known as the "Father of English hymnody," Isaac Watts wrote approximately 600 hymns. He showed literary genius even as a boy.
He was born to Isaac Watts, Sr. and his wife Sarah, who were "Dissenters." That is, they were not Anglicans, which was a treasonous offense in those days. About the time that Isaac, Jr. arrived, prematurely, on July 17, 1674, the elder Watts was arrested. Sarah reportedly nursed little Isaac while seated on a stone outside the prison.
In time Watts was released and the young couple soon discovered they had a precocious child. Young Isaac took to books almost from infancy. He loved rhyme and verse. At age seven, he wrote an acrostic spelling out the letters of his name. This acrostic not only showed his brilliance, but also the strong Calvinistic theology which was characteristic of his life.
"I" - I am a vile, polluted lump of earth
"S" - So I've continued ever since my birth
"A" - Although Jehovah, grace doth daily give me
"A" - As sure this monster, Satan, will deceive me
"C" - Come therefore, Lord, from Satan's claws relieve me.
"W" - Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ
"A" - And grace divine impart
"T" - Then search and try the corners of my heart
"T" - That I in all things may be fit to do
"S" - Service to Thee, and Thy praise too.
Once as a child, he reportedly got in trouble for making rhymes out of everyday language. Scolded for this, he replied,
"Oh, Father, do some pity take,
and I will no more verses make."
Watts' studies in language went far beyond everyday rhymes, however. He learned Latin at four, Greek at nine, French at ten, and Hebrew at thirteen. Noticing his abilities, a doctor and some friends offered him a university education, figuring that he would be ordained in the Church of England. Watts turned them down, instead attending the Nonconformist Academy under the care of Thomas Rowe, joining the Independent congregation at Girdlers' Hall in 1693. He left the academy at the age of 20, spending the next two years at home.
Frustrated with the heartless psalm singing of his time, young Watts sometimes criticized the singing at his church. Listening to his concerns one day, Watts' father challenged him, "Well then, young man, why don't you give us something better to sing?" He rose to the challenge by writing his first hymn. It was well received by the congregation of the Mark Lane Independent Chapel, where he attended, and for the next two years, Watts wrote a new hymn for every Sunday. It was during this time that he wrote the bulk of Hymns and Spiritual Songs. These were sung from manuscripts in the Southampton chapel and were published 1707-1709.
Watts moved to London to tutor the children of a wealthy family of Dissenters. He joined Mark Lane Independent Chapel, where he was soon asked to be a teacher, then was hired as associate pastor. He preached his first sermon at the age of 24. In 1702 he was ordained as senior pastor of the congregation, the position he retained to the end of his life. He was a brilliant Bible student and his sermons brought the church to life.
A short and frail man, Watts health began to fail at a young age. When his friends, the Abneys, invited him to visit their estate in 1712, Watts accepted. He ended up staying with them for thirty-six years, writing many of his hymns on their estate and preaching occasionally as his health permitted.
Though German Lutherans had been singing hymns for over a hundred years by Watts' time, Calvinists had not. Calvin preferred that his people only sing psalms. But Watts had become concerned about congregational singing with only grim, ponderous psalms to sing. Wanting to bring New Testament light to the psalms, Watts wrote paraphrases of nearly all of the psalms, publishing them in a hymnal titled Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.
Watts also wrote hymns that departed from the psalms and included more personal expressions. This literary license did not please everyone and some felt his hymns were "too worldly" for the church as they were not based on the Psalms. Yet Watts felt strongly that the Christian church should sing of Christ. He explained his approach to writing hymns this way:
"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 rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, 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."
Watts further explained his philosophy on hymn-writing in his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, a collection of 210 of his hymns:
"While we sing the praises of God in His church, we are employed in that part of worship which of all others is the nearest akin to heaven, and 'tis pity that this of all others should be performed the worst upon earth. That very action which should elevate us to the most delightful and divine sensations doth not only flat our devotion but too often awakens our regret and touches all the springs of uneasiness within us."
In all, nearly 600 hymns are attributed to him. His hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" has been described as the best hymn in the English language. Other well-loved hymns written by Isaac Watts include "I Sing the Mighty Power of God," "Jesus Shall Reign," and "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" After his death, this well-loved writer was honored with a statue in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Born: July 17, 1674, Southampton, England
Died: November 25, 1749 Stoke Newington, England
The popularity of Isaac Watts' hymns caused a tempest in his day. In his day, English congregations predominately sang Psalms, so singing verses that were of "human composure" (such as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross") caused great controversy. One man complained, "Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired Psalms and taken in Watts' flights of fancy." The issue split churches, including one in Bedford, England that was once pastored by John Bunyan.
In America, in May, 1789, Rev. Adam Rankin told the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, meeting in Philadelphia: "I have ridden horseback all the way from my home in Kentucky to ask this body to refuse the great and pernicious error of adopting the use of Isaac Watts' hymns in public worship in preference to the Psalms of David."
We don't know Watts' reaction to these statements, however Dr. Samuel Johnson said of him "by his natural temper he was quick of resentment; but, by his established and habitual practice, he was gentle, modest, and inoffensive."
Enjoying the children of Sir Thomas and Lady Abney, with whom he stayed, Watts published Divine and Moral Songs for Children in 1715. It sold 80,000 copies in a year and has been selling ever since. In the preface he states, "Children of high and low degree, of the Church of England or Dissenters, baptized in infancy or not, may all join together in these songs. And as I have endeavored to sink the language to the level of a child's understanding . . . to profit all, if possible, and offend none."
|Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed||254||208|
|Am I a Soldier of the Cross||573||668|
|As When the Hebrew Prophet Raised||506|
|At the Cross||512|
|Before Jehovah's Awesome Throne||65|
|Blest are the Undefiled||557|
|Come, Dearest Lord, Descend and Dwell||340|
|Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove||332||298|
|Come, Sound His Praise Around||118|
|Come, We That Love the Lord||700||22|
|From All That Dwell Below the Skies||7|
|From Depths of Woe I Raise to Thee||554|
|Give To Our God Immortal Praise||3||16|
|Great God, How Infinite Art Thou!||27|
|Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard||31|
|How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place||469|
|I Sing the Mighty Power of God||119||52|
|I'm Not Ashamed to Own My Lord||505|
|I'll Praise My Maker While I've Breath||79|
|Jesus Shall Reign||441||745|
|My Great Hight Priest||306|
|Join All the Glorious Names||301||85|
|Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come||195||146|
|Let Children Hear the Mighty Deeds||364|
|Lord of the Worlds Above||375|
|My Dear Redeemer and My Lord||238|
|Nature with Open volumn Stands||222|
|Not the Blood of Beasts||242|
|O Bless the Lord, My Soul||78||71|
|O Thou That Hear'st When Sinners Cry||485|
|O God, Our Help In Ages Past||30||78|
|Stand Up, My Soul; Shake Off Your Fears||577|
|The Heavens Declare your Glory, Lord||138|
|There is a Land of Pure Delight||550|
|This Is the Day the Lord Has Made||389|
|We're Marching to Zion||596|
|What Offering Shall We Give?||490|
|What Shall I Render to My God||637|
|When I Can Read My Title Clear||681|
|When I Survey the Wondrous Cross||252||213|
|With Songs and Honors Sounding Loud||127|