"Joy to the world, the Lord is come / Let earth receive her King / Let every heart, prepare him room / And heaven and nature sing."
In his later years, Isaac Watts once complained about hymn singing in church: "To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion."
He had been bemoaning such since his late teens. His father, tired of his complaints, challenged him to write something better. The following week, the adolescent Isaac presented his first hymn to the church, "Behold the Glories of the Lamb," which received an enthusiastic response. The career of the "Father of English Hymnody" had begun.
Head of a genius
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). His father was eventually freed (and fathered seven more children), but Isaac respected his courage and remembered his mother's tales of nursing her children on the jail steps.
Young Isaac showed genius early. He was learning Latin by age 4, Greek at 9, French (which he took up to converse with his refugee neighbors) at 11, and Hebrew at 13. Several wealthy townspeople offered to pay for his university education at Oxford or Cambridge, which would have led him into Anglican ministry. Isaac refused and at 16 went to London to study at a leading Nonconformist academy. Upon graduation, he spent five years as a private tutor.
In 1702 he became pastor of London's Mark Lane Independent (i.e. Congregational) Chapel, then one of the city's most influential independent churches. But the following year, he began suffering from psychiatric illness that would plague him for the rest of his life. He had to pass off more and more of his work to his assistant and eventually resigned in 1712.
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His illness and unsightly appearance took its toll on his personal life. His five-foot, pale, skinny frame was topped by a disproportionately oversized head. Almost every portrait of him depicts him in a large gown with large folds—an apparent attempt by the artists to disguise his homeliness. This was probably the reason for Elizabeth Singer's rejection of his marriage proposal. As one biographer noted, "Though she loved the jewel, she could not admire the casket [case] which contained it."
Reaching the ordinary Christian
Though German Lutherans had been singing hymns for 100 years, John Calvin had urged his followers to sing only metrical psalms; English Protestants had followed Calvin's lead.
Watts's 1707 publication of Hymns and Spiritual Songs technically wasn't a collection of hymns or metrical psalms, but it was a collection of consequence. In fact, it contained what would become some of the most popular English hymns of all time, such as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."
Watts didn't reject metrical psalms; he simply wanted to see them more impassioned. "They ought to be translated in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day," he wrote. Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament followed in 1719.
Many of his English colleagues couldn't recognize these translations. How could "Joy to the World" really be Psalm 98? Or "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun" be Psalm 72>, or "O God Our Help in Ages Past" be Psalm 90?
Watts was unapologetic, arguing that he deliberately omitted several psalms and large parts of others, keeping portions "as might easily and naturally be accommodated to the various occasions of Christian life, or at least might afford us some beautiful allusions to Christian affairs." Furthermore, where the psalmist fought with personal enemies, Watts turned the biblical invective against spiritual adversaries: sin, Satan, and temptation. Finally, he said, "Where the flights of his faith and love are sublime, I have often sunk the expressions within the reach of an ordinary Christian."
Such looseness brought criticism. "Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts's flights of fancy," protested one detractor. Others dubbed the new songs "Watts's whims."
But after church splits, pastor firings, and other arguments, Watts's paraphrases won out. "He was the first who taught the Dissenters to write and speak like other men, by showing them that elegance might consist with piety," wrote the famed lexicographer (and Watts's contemporary) Samuel Johnson.
More than a poet, however, Watts was also a scholar of wide reputation, especially in his later years. He wrote nearly 30 theological treatises; essays on psychology, astronomy, and philosophy; three volumes of sermons; the first children's hymnal; and a textbook on logic that served as a standard work on the subject for generations.
But his poetry remains his lasting legacy and earned him acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Benjamin Franklin published his hymnal, Cotton Mather maintained a long correspondence, and John Wesley acknowledged him as a genius—though Watts maintained that Charles Wesley's "Wrestling Jacob" was worth all of his own hymns.