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. ...

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