Few men in the history of Christian literature have soared as high or sparkled as long as the little giant born on July 17, 1674, in Southampton, England.
Isaac Watts came from bold and adventurous stock. His grandfather died as a naval commander in the Dutch War, and his father was sitting in jail as a nonconformist when Isaac was born. His sharp mind was honed on Latin at four, Greek at nine, French at eleven, and Hebrew at thirteen.
By the time he was a teen-ager he found church music to be very monotonous and dry, so Watts complained to his father. The lifeless repetition of Psalms set to dreary tunes did not seem conducive to warm worship. His deacon father gave him a terse challenge: “Young man, give us something better!” Watts took the challenge seriously.
Other people had tried to alter the custom, but the opposition was harsh. A famous preacher, Robert South, warned that “enthusiasm” was “worse than popery.” Christians were very leery of hymns of “human composure.”
Benjamin Keach, a Baptist pastor in London, introduced a hymn in a communion service and six years later tried one at Thanksgiving. Fourteen years later he presented one in a morning service, after which the church split and a minority started a songless church.
Samuel Wesley, father of John, called the metrical renderings of Psalms “scandulous doggrel.” But when King James ordered that hymns be included in the services, fierce opposition forced him to rescind the order.
At the age of twenty Watts began his bold adventure by writing “Behold the Glories of the Lamb.” By the time he was twenty-two he had written hundreds of hymns and was teaching them to the congregation to which he preached.
While it is uncertain how many he wrote, he was extremely prolific, and Winchell published an edition of 761 Psalms and hymns by Watts in 1823. It is not uncommon to find twenty or more of his hymns in modern hymnals, 275 years after they were written. “Joy to the World,” “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed?,” “At the Cross,” and “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” are among his best known. Matthew Arnold called “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (based on Galatians 6:14) the greatest hymn in the English language. John Wesley may have considered “I’ll Praise My Maker While I Breathe” his favorite and reportedly was reciting it when he died. “Come We That Love the Lord,” “We’re Marching to Zion,” and “When I Can Read My Title Clear” are a few more of the titles that gave Watts claim to the title “Father of English Hymnody.”
While Watts was not the first English hymn writer and did not compose the music, he completely turned the tide with his overwhelming success. He lived to see the day when many churches in England refused to sing any hymn other than a Watts hymn. Doddridge wrote to Watts concerning the effect on his congregation, “I had the satisfaction to observe tears in the eyes of several of my people; and after the service was over some of them told me they were not able to sing, so deeply were their minds affected.”
Watts’s stated goal was “to write down to the level of the vulgar capacities and to furnish hymns for the meanest of Christians.” He based many of his hymns on the Psalms and, explaining his intentions to Cotton Mather in 1717, said: “ ’Tis not a translation of David that I pretend, but an imitation of him, so nearly Christian hymns that the Jewish Psalmist may plainly appear, and yet leave Judaism behind.”
For all of his gifts, Watts led a weak and difficult life. He barely reached five feet tall and was continuously sick. He had hoped to marry Elizabeth Singer, but she reportedly replied, “While I love the jewel, I cannot admire the casket.”
He remained a bachelor all of his seventy-five years. Attempting to take a typically poetic view of life, he wrote:
Had I an arm to reach the pole,
or grasp old ocean with a span,
I must be measured by my soul
The Mind’s the standard of the man.
Despite his handicaps, Watts was a forceful and successful preacher. In March, 1702, he became the full-time pastor of the Mark Lane Independent Chapel in London. He served there for ten years, and twice the growing congregation had to move to larger facilities.
In 1712 his health failed him markedly. He went to recuperate for a week or two at the residence of Sir Thomas Abney and remained there for thirty-six years. Only occasionally did he visit his pulpit, where he remained titular minister.
During this time he turned to other literary pursuits for which he became enormously famous. In 1705 he had published a book of poetry, Horae Lyricae. He also completed four volumes of hymns, but they were only part of the story. Earlier in his ministry Watts had tutored children, and in 1715 he wrote The Divine and Moral Songs for Children, which became a landmark in English children’s literature. It was so popular that for a hundred years it sold as many as 80,000 copies annually. Six generations of children were brought up to know “How doth the little busy bee.…”
His attention also centered on astronomy, philosophy, social concerns, and prayers. His theology was often controversial, but he led the battle against deism.
The World to Come was translated into several languages. Guide to Prayer was well received. The Improvement of the Mind was eulogized by Johnson. Logic, or the Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry of Truth (1725) was used as a standard textbook. Until the early nineteenth century, his books were used in classrooms at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Yale.
Watts published a total of fifty-two books, twenty-nine of them on theology. He received the highly prized Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1728.
Success and fame did not automatically give Watts’s hymns acceptance in America. Many of his hymns are heavy with the majesty of God, and revolution-conscious Americans saw in them references to the British throne. Nevertheless his friends and supporters broke the barrier.
Revivalism under John and Charles Wesley helped establish hymnody in the Colonies, and the Wesleys included some of Watts in their hymnal. Benjamin Franklin published an edition of Watts’s hymns, but it proved a financial failure. A few years later, however, they became very well accepted. Watts edited a book entitled Systems of Praise especially for America, and it became immensely popular during the Great Awakening. He even entitled Psalm 107 “A Psalm for New England.”
The accomplished and devoted author died of a stroke on November 25, 1748. He was buried in a Puritan cemetery at Burnhill Fields as an extremely respected man. Three monuments were erected to him, in Abney Park, Southampton Park, and Westminster Abbey.
One can only speculate how long the hymns of Isaal: Watts will live. Yet many will agree that English Christendom has been spiritually richer for being able to sing them.
This very gifted man taught us humility when he gave us these words to sing:
When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
NORMAN V. HOPENorman V. Hope is Archibald Alexander Professor of Church History at Princeton Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey. He has the Ph.D. from Edinburgh University.
To understand Watts’s contribution to English hymnody one must understand what had been happening in the matter of praise in public worship before his day. “In the Middle Ages,” says Roland H. Bainton in Here I Stand, “the liturgy was almost entirely restricted to the celebrant and the choir. The congregation joined in a few responses in the vernacular.”
But the Protestant Reformers insisted that the offering of praise to God in the public worship of the sanctuary was both the privilege and the duty of the whole congregation. Accordingly, Luther—who Bainton says “may be considered the father of congregational song”—wrote hymns of his own for the corporate worship of his Lutheran churches. Of these the greatest and best-known is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” that great battle hymn of the Reformation. Luther started a tradition of such eminent hymnologists as Georg Neumark (1621–81), author of “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee,” and Paul Gerhardt (1607–76), who composed such hymns as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” and “Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me.”
John Calvin was just as eager as Luther that the singing in church should be done by the whole worshiping congregation. But he disliked hymns “of human composition.” He thought that the only kind of praise that should be offered to God in public worship was what He himself had provided in his holy Word, the Bible—that is to say, the Psalms, the hymnbook of the Second Temple. Calvin therefore had the Psalms rendered into meter for the worship of the Genevan church over which he presided, and the metrical Psalms became the staple of public praise in Calvinistic churches—e.g., in the Netherlands and Scotland—and even in England, particularly in the Congregational or Independent churches, of which Watts was a minister.
This, then, was the tradition of public praise into which Watts entered. Apparently it was not very inspiring or uplifting. Watts himself spoke about it thus: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and the thoughtless air, that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is on their lips, might tempt even a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of inward religion” (Works, IV, 253). Watts therefore set about the task of revitalizing congregational singing. The way in which he proposed to do this was to orient the Psalms in a Christian direction, to make David “speak like a Christian.” If “we would prepare David’s Psalms to be sung by Christian lips,” he said,
we should observe these two plain rules: First, they ought to be translated in such a manner as we would have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day. And therefore his poems are given us as a pattern to be imitated in our composures, rather than as the precise and invariable matter of our psalmody.… [The second principle is] the translation of Jewish songs for gospel worship [Works, IV, pp. 378, 379].
What kind of hymns did Watts produce? They were of uneven quality, as might have been expected in one who wrote a vast amount. He could write sheer doggerel; for example:
Let dogs delight to bark and bite
For God hath made them so,
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For ’tis their nature to.
Birds in their little nests agree
And ’tis a shameful sight
When children of one family
Fall out, and chide, and fight.
But at his best Watts deals with the greatest themes of Christian experience and devotion, the Christian centralities of “ruin, redemption, and regeneration,” with a depth of conviction, a grace and dignity, and a cosmic range and sweep that few hymnwriters have ever equaled, much less surpassed. Examples of such hymns are “There Is a Land of Pure Delight,” “Joy to the World,” “Come We That Love the Lord,” “Blest Morning, Whose First Dawning Rays,” and “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun”—a remarkable hymn, considering that it was written long before the beginning of the great Protestant missionary movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Perhaps his two greatest hymns are “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Concerning the former hymn the late Joseph Fort Newton said that it “is almost the religious national anthem of English-speaking folk” (River of Years), and he quotes George Bernard Shaw as having said to him (Newton) this: “Doctor, I would rather have written that hymn than all my foolish plays.”
In the Life of John Watson, by Sir William Robertson Nicoll, it is recorded that Matthew Arnold, the distinguished English literary critic, on the last day of his life in 1888 attended morning worship in the Sefton Park Presbyterian Church of Liverpool, England, in which his brother-in-law, with whom he was staying at the time, was a regular worshiper. The minister of the church, Dr. John Watson, preached a sermon on “The Cross of Christ,” and one of the hymns sung during the service was Watts’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Arnold, on reaching his brother-in-law’s home after the service, repeated the lines of Watts’s hymn, declaring it to be the finest in the English language.
A judicious and balanced estimate of Watts’s contribution to British hymnody is the statement of Dr. W. B. Selbie, former principal of Mansfield College, Oxford:
Watts laid all the Churches under obligation by his hymns. Some of them, no doubt, are now entirely obsolete, but there are others which will live as long as sacred song does. And it may be said of all of them that they were so great an improvement on anything that had gone before as to amount to a revolution [Nonconformity, p. 164].
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more