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Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748)


Isaac Watts

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1674 – 1748

The “father of the English hymn” was unusual in many respects. A short man (five feet tall), his sickly body was capped with a disproportionately large head. Virtually all portraits depict him in a large gown with large folds — an obvious attempt at having him appear less grotesque.

A working pastor, he wrote a textbook on logic that was used for decades at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale.

He wrote a tome on metaphysics (the branch of philosophy that deals with “being”) even as his book of children’s poetry (the first such book to be published) went through 95 editions within 100 years of publication.

No other thinker has published a major work on astronomy as well as age-graded catechisms for youngsters (the first for five-year olds!).

His hymns have been translated into dozens of languages from Armenian to Zulu.

His voice was thin, and his recurring psychiatric illness (at times incapacitating him) was common knowledge; yet whenever he was well enough to preach crowds hung on words they knew to pour from a heart wrapped in the heart of God.

The eldest of eight children, Watts was born in troubled times. Dissenters (those who refused to conform to the established church) were not only denied access to the universities and suitable employment; they were also liable to prosecution and punishment for no greater “crime” than persistently worshipping God according to their conscience. Watts’s father, a Dissenter, was imprisoned one year after he was married. His wife gave birth while her husband was in jail. She regularly nursed the infant Isaac on the jail steps in the course of visiting her husband.

The youngster was plainly precocious. He had learned Latin by age four, Greek at nine, French at eleven, and Hebrew at thirteen. French was not usually studied in English elementary schools during the 1600s, but Watts was raised in Southampton, and Southampton was a city of refuge to hundreds of refugees who were fleeing persecution in France. The boy thought he should know French so that he could converse with his neighbours.

A physician recognized the teenager’s intellectual gifts and offered to finance his education at either Oxford or Cambridge. But regardless of his brilliance Watts would be admitted to either university only if he were willing to renounce the convictions that had exacted terrible suffering from his parents. He wouldn’t surrender conviction to expediency. As a result he went to a Dissenting Academy, the post-secondary institution for those barred from the universities. While completing his formal education he wrote much poetry, most of it in Latin.

In this era hymns weren’t sung in English churches. German Lutherans had been singing hymns for over 100 years. Calvinists in France and Switzerland, however, had not. Calvin had wanted his people to sing only the psalms of scripture. English Protestants of Calvinist parentage had adopted the practice of singing only metrical psalms in worship. These metrical arrangements were awkward (“But we remember will the name/Of our Lord God alone”), the mood was ponderous, the tone of the entire service dreary. One day Watts discovered he couldn’t endure any of it a minute longer. Returning from the service one Sunday morning he complained vehemently to his father about the stodgy psalm-singing that put people off worship. “Why don’t you write a hymn suitable congregational singing?”, his father challenged him. Throughout the afternoon Watts did just that, and at evening worship that day the congregation sang hymn #1, “Behold the glories of the Lamb”. Six hundred and ninety-six followed.

Not everyone thanked him. Some of his contemporaries complained that his hymns were “too worldly” for the church. One critic fumed, “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts’s flights of fancy!”. His hymns outraged many people, split congregations (most notably the congregation whose pastor, years earlier, had been John Bunyan, the author of an English classic), and got pastors fired. Still, the multi-talented thinker knew what his preeminent gift was and why he had to employ it.

Watts, like other hymn-writers of his era, wrote of God’s seizure of the human heart and God’s transmutation of our understanding. Yet Watts was unique in his emphasis on the backdrop of God’s intercourse with the human heart: the cosmos in its unspeakable vastness. Watts sees the drama of the incarnation and the cross, the dereliction and the resurrection, as seemingly small events that are in fact possessed of cosmic significance. Watts’s universe is simply more immense than anything other hymn-writers imagined. (Perhaps this is to be expected from an astronomer!)

Convinced of the immensity of God and immersed in the passion of God, Watts himself was possessed of the profoundest experience or God.

Turn, turn us mighty God,
And mould our souls afresh;
Break, sovereign grace, these hearts of stone,
And give us hearts of flesh.

By age 50 he was a national figure, esteemed now by Anglicans and Dissenters alike. John Wesley (an Anglican) had long acknowledged the genius, discipline and piety of Watts, and when Wesley came to publish his first hymn book, one-third of the its hymns were Isaac’s. An able theologian as well, he found 44 pages of his Ruin and Recovery in Wesley’s The Doctrine of Original Sin.

As unusual as he was in appearance, gifts, productivity and psychiatric history, Watts was not unusual at all in one important respect. Like all Christians this logician knew that God is to be loved with the mind, and therefore reason must never be discounted in the exercising of faith or the discipline of the Christian life. Yet he knew too that the mystery of God himself, while never irrational, is finally oceans deeper than anything reason can fathom.

Where reason fails,
With all her pow’rs,
There faith prevails
And love adores.


Victor Shepherd