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Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

Isaac Watts was born in Southampton. Because his family were Dissenters or Non-Conformists (i.e. Protestants who did not think that the Church of England had departed sufficiently from the beliefs and practices of Rome, and who accordingly refused to conform to it), he did not attend Oxford or Cambridge, but instead was educated at the Dissenting Academy in Stoke Newington, London, until 1694. He then began a two year period of writing, of which more later. In 1696 he became tutor and chaplain to the family of Sir John Hartopp of Leicestershire. In 1699 he became assistant minister at Mark Lane Independent (i.e. Congregational) Chapel in London, and full pastor in 1702. Then his health failed. In 1712 he was invited to spend a week at the home of the wealthy Dissenter Sir Thomas Abney in Hertfordshire. He ended up staying there for the rest of his life, devoting himself to writing. His works included, Logic, Or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth, a standard text at Oxford and elsewhere for several generations. His poems and songs for children were extremely popular, and became the object of parody in Alice in Wonderland (where "How doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour," became, "How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail"). He died 25 November 1748.

(Note on the wealthy Dissenter: Because they could not study at Oxford or Cambridge, or go into professions such as law or the established clergy, bright young men of Dissenting families usually went into business or science or technology instead, and had a tendency to become prosperous. The wealthy Nonconformist is (or was) a standard British stereotype.)

When he was older, he complained of the bad quality of writing in the metrical Psalters of his day. His father promptly challenged him to do better, and he undertook the effort. During his lifetime he wrote about 600 hymns altogether, but most of his best efforts were turned out between his graduation from school when he was 20 and his taking a job teaching when he was 22. During these two Golden Years, hymns poured from his pen with the impetus of true genius.

Many of Watts's hymns are based on psalms, though some more loosely than others. In the above list, I have supplied psalm numbers. On the other hand, some of his hymns are not straightforward verse translations of Psalms or other songs taken from the Scriptures, and for this Watts was criticized by those who thought it wrong to sing "uninspired hymns". He replied that, "...if we can pray to God in sentences that we have made up ourselves (instead of confining ourselves to the Our Father and other prayers taken directly from the Scriptures), then surely we can sing to God in sentences that we have made up ourselves". He added that the Psalms do not deal with specifically Christian themes except in hidden language, and that it is fitting that Christians should include in their worship open and clear proclamations of the acts of God in Christ.

Little beyond Watts' basic life history has been recorded for posterity.  His work itself has received the majority of scholastic attention. As mentioned above, Watts came from a humble family in Southampton, England. He was educated by his father and taught, from the youngest age, Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. A promising youth, Watts was offered a university education in which he would learn towards the end of being ordained as an Anglican minister. Following in his fathers footsteps, Watts refused the offer and received his higher education from a Nonconformist Academy. Upon graduating from the Academy at age twenty, he returned home where he took to writing hymns. The bulk of his great works were produced in these two "golden" years proceeding his graduation.

Watts was officially introduced in America in 1729, with Benjamin Franklin's reprinting of Psalms of David  originally having been printed in England some two decades previous. For the most part Watts' work was not accepted in American churches until the 1740s with the Great Awakening. George Whitefield's lively preaching style needed to be supplemented with something other than the dissonant sounds of the dry metric Psalms. Watts, along with a few other English hymnists, proved to be the perfect remedy. Whitefield played a great role in introducing hymn-singing to New England, and consequently "quickened an interest in hymn-singing, and increased the popularity of Watts' work." The American Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards even commented in 1742 that his Northampton congregation sang Watts' hymns, almost to the exclusion of Psalms. Watts and Edwards had a mutual respect for one another and each made the other's work well-known in his own land through printing, and through allowing the other's work in their pulpit. For Watts, this meant reading Edwards' A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God  to his congregation and overseeing its printing; for Edwards this meant introducing Watts' hymnody into regular worship services.

Watts' real profession was not hymnody. His first vocation was as a minister in a Church of Christ in London. Several of his sermon manuscripts survive today, yet little is known about him as a shepherd of the people of God in London. This could be due to his health, which failed and remained poor before he had even reached age thirty. Though he remained a minister for many years, he required an associate minister to assist in guiding his congregation. Watts never married, and actually lived with the family of Sir Samuel Abney for more than thirty years, primarily due to his health. He was considered an invalid for the majority of his life. His "happy day"—the day that "finish[ed] the long absence of my beloved, and place[d] me within sight of my adored Jesus"—finally arrived in November of 1748.

Among Watts' most-loved works, in both Old and New England and the world over, have been "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?" and "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past." Today, though hymns have somewhat been replaced by the modern praise chorus, Watts' influence on England, America, and the rest of the Christian hymn-singing world must not be overlooked. Flip through any hymnal and one will find page after page of work ascribed to Isaac Watts. He was "radical, experimental, and adventurous" for his day, and we can thank him for his great hymns that point toward God's mercy and man's sinfulness in a way that makes God seem sweet to the soul.

 
 
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