The Golden Age of Hymns: A Gallery of the Hymn Writers' Hall of Fame
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
The homely scholar who moved congregational singing into a new era
Ye monsters of the bubbling deep
Your Master’s praises spout;
Up from the sands ye docclings peep,
and wag your tails about.
Such was the state of psalm singing in churches when Isaac Watts was young. He complained about the quality of the songs, and his father challenged him to write something better. The following week Isaac—about age 20—presented his first hymn to the church and received an enthusiastic response. The career of the “Father of English Hymnody” had begun. At Isaac’s birth in 1674, his father was in prison for his Nonconformist sympathies (that is, he would not embrace the established Church of England). Young Isaac showed genius, studying Latin, French, Greek, and Hebrew by age 13. Several wealthy townspeople offered to pay for his university education, which would, however, lead him into Anglican ministry. Isaac refused and at 16 went to London to study at a leading Nonconformist academy. Upon graduation, he spent six years as a private tutor. In 1702 he became pastor of an influential Independent church in London, which he served for the rest of his life. Described as slight, pale, and somewhat homely, Watts suffered rejection from a Miss Elizabeth Singer. One source says that “though she loved the jewel, she could not admire the casket [case] which contained it.” Serious illness in 1712 brought Watts to the home of Sir Thomas Abney, and there he remained for life, tutoring the children and pastoring his nearby church when he was physically able. Poor health caused him to abandon the ministry for about four years, but he pastored for fifty and was admired as a teacher. In 1707 Watts published a collection of 210 hymns, ...