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Isaac Watts


    Colossians 3:13-17


Watts wrote them superbly, yet he wrote eversomuch more than his 697 hymns. A textbook on logic, for instance, that was used for years at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. Not to mention his two books on geometry and astronomy. Upset at the inability of students to handle the English language creditably, he penned The Art of Reading and Writing English. It was followed by his Philosophical Essays (with its appendix, “A brief Scheme of Ontology”, ontology being that branch of philosophy that discusses being), then by Improvement of the Mind (this was actually a “how-to-study” book, and even A Discourse on the Education of Children and Youth. A minister for virtually all of his adult life, Watts also published ten volumes of sermons and scores of theological treatises.

Isaac Watts was born in 1674, the eldest of eight children, six of whom survived. The last quarter of the 17th century was a troubled time in England. Dissenters (those who refused to conform to the established church) were not only denied access to suitable employment and the universities; Dissenters were liable to prosecution and imprisonment for no greater “crime” than persisting in worshipping God according to their conscience. Watts’s father, a Dissenter, was imprisoned one year after he was married. His wife, Watts’s mother, gave birth to Isaac while her husband was in jail. She regularly nursed her infant son on the jail steps in the course of visiting her husband. (When Isaac was nine years old his father was jailed a second time — for six months — for the same offence: refusing to conform to the worship-practices of the established church.)

Young Isaac 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 youngster thought he should know French so that he could converse with his neighbours.

A physician recognized the boy’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 Dissent and conform to Anglicanism. He wasn’t willing. (Had his father suffered for nothing?) He would never 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 Watts wrote much poetry, most of it in Latin. Upon leaving the Academy at age 20 he wrote his first hymn, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb” — yet did so only when challenged sharply by his father.

The writing of his first hymn was significant in view of the fact that hymns weren’t sung in English churches. German Lutherans had been singing hymns for over 100 years. Calvinists in Switzerland and France, however, had not. The Calvinists disdained hymns as unscriptural and popish. 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. The texts of these metrical psalms were poetically crude and frequently ludicrous; for instance,

Ye monsters of the bubbling deep,
Your Master’s praises spout,
Up from the sands ye coddlings peep,
And wag your tails about.

The texts were ludicrous, the mood was ponderous, the tone of the entire service dreary, and 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 psalm-singing that put people off worship. “Why don’t you write a hymn suitable for congregational singing?”, his father retorted. In the course of the afternoon Watts did just that, and the congregation sang hymn #1 the same evening.

Yet it must not be thought that Watts disesteemed the psalms. Far from it. So highly did he value them, in fact, that he immediately set about rewriting the metrical versions in a smoother idiom. Compare the metrical version of Psalm 20 with Watts’s version:

In chariots some put confidence,
Some horses trust upon;
But we remember will the name
Of our Lord God alone. (Metrical)

Some trust in horses train’d for war,
And some of chariots make their boasts;
Our surest expectations are
From Thee, the Lord of heav’nly hosts. (Watts)

(As relatively smooth as Watts’s hymn-line was, it would be made even smoother by 18th century poets such as Charles Wesley.)

Not everyone thanked Watts for his efforts. 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 have 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, himself the author of an English classic), and got pastors fired. Still, Watts knew what his preeminent gift was and why he had to employ it.

Needless to say we of Streetsville United Church, having been thoroughly exposed to the genius of Charles Wesley, cannot help comparing the hymnwriting of Wesley and Watts.

Wesley’s hymns concern themselves chiefly with God and the individual human heart: their relations, their estrangement, their reconciliation, their union. Watts writes of this too, but with a major difference: the backdrop of God’s intercourse with the human heart is the cosmos in its unspeakable vastness. Watts sees the drama of the incarnation and the cross, the dereliction and the resurrection, as apparently small events that are in fact possessed of cosmic significance. Watts’s universe is simply more immense than anything Wesley imagined. For Watts nature is more prodigious, time more extensive, eternity more awesome. (This is not to say that Wesley is inferior. Indeed no one would rate Watts a better poet. Wesley had more poetic skill than Watts, and more thorough training in the forms of classical poetry. It is simply to say that Watts’s universe was larger.) It is said of Milton that he is the English poet who, above all others, makes the reader aware of the sky. In the same way Watts, with his fondness of astronomy, singularly makes the reader aware of the hugeness of the firmament.

There are technical comparisons as well of the poetry of Watts and Wesley. Wesley preferred a six-line stanza, but when writing a four-line stanza usually rhymed first and third lines as well as second and fourth. Watts preferred a four-line stanza and usually rhymed only the second and fourth lines. As a result Watts’s stanzas tend to read less compactly than Wesley’s. While Wesley combined Anglo-Saxon expressions (they are customarily blunt, one-syllable words like “hit”) with Latin expressions (usually multi-syllable words like “transported” or “ineffable”), Watts wrote page after page of hymns lacking even one word with a Latin derivation (despite the scores of Latin poems that he wrote). Watts evidently preferred to write hymns in words of one syllable.

Watts was a man with limitless appreciation of the passion of God. He himself was possessed of the profoundest experience of God. Listen to him:

Here at the cross, my dying God
I lay my soul beneath thy love.


The mount of danger is the place
Where we shall see surprising grace.


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

(Note that the last line, “And give us hearts of flesh”, consists of six words of one syllable each.)

Watts was accorded the recognition he deserved. By age 50 he was a national figure, esteemed by Anglicans and Dissenters alike. John Wesley had long acknowledged the genius, discipline and piety of Watts, and when Wesley came to publish his first hymn book, one-third of its hymns were Isaac’s. When John Wesley published his tract, The Doctrine of Original Sin, he incorporated 44 pages of Watts’s earlier work, Ruin and Recovery.

The poetic genius of Watts is evident. Yet since few poets (if any) have made a living from poeticizing, how did Watts manage to survive?

Upon graduating from the Academy Watts eked out a living as tutor to the son of a well-to-do English merchant. He never thought for a moment, however, that this was his vocation. In 1702, when he was 27 years old, he was called to a pastorate in London. The next ten years were spent fruitfully and happily as Watts immersed himself in the relentless round of responsibilities that every pastor must attend to — at the same time as he wrote books, treatises, poems and hymns.

The easygoing ten years were ended abruptly by a major illness from which he never recovered fully. While he was unable to work during his illness he asked the congregation to discontinue his salary. The congregation refused, and instead raised it so that he could pay his medical bills.

The illness incapacitated him for four years. When the worst of it abated he was left frail, fragile, sickly. In addition there was an apparently non-specific psychiatric component to his now-chronic weakness. On the one hand he wasn’t sick enough to die for another 38 years; on the other hand, he wasn’t sickness-free enough to be well. A wealthy benefactor, Thomas Abney, invited him to his home to assist his recovery. He gratefully accepted, and went on to live there for the rest of his life.

Watts preached whenever he could. There were periods when he could preach with little interruption, as well as periods when he was simply deranged and couldn’t function at all.

In 1739, at age 65, Isaac suffered a stroke that left him able to speak but unable to write. A secretary was provided for his dictated poems and hymns.

He died on 25th November, 1748.

Isaac Watts was unusual in many respects. A short man (five feet tall), his frail body was capped with a disproportionately large head. Virtually all portraits of him depict him in a large gown with large folds, an obvious attempt at having him appear less grotesque.

Unusual? How many working pastors write a textbook on logic that is used for decades by the preeminent universities of the English-speaking world?

Unusual? Who among us can write a book on metaphysics that probes ontology, and at the same time write a book of children’s poetry that goes through 95 editions within 100 years of its publication?

Unusual? Who has written hymns that have been translated into dozens of languages from Armenian to Zulu?

Unusual? What modern thinker has published a learned tome on astronomy and also published graded catechisms (one for five-year olds, another for nine-year olds, another for twelve-year olds)?

Watts was unusual: he regularly gave away one-fifth of his income, deploying his tithe locally yet also sending it as far afield as Germany and Georgia to help beleaguered people there.

Yet surely he was most unusual in that the jockey-sized man, ugly as well, handicapped by a thin voice and a history of psychiatric illness, could appear in a pulpit whenever sanity overtook him and draw hundreds who hung on words rising from a heart that hearers knew to be wrapped in the heart of God.

Watts was not unusual in one important respect. Like all Christians he 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 oceans deeper than reason can fathom. Who among us would say anything else? Then it is proper for us to conclude with a four-line stanza Isaac Watts wrote concerning the fathomless mystery of God.

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

                                                                                                      Victor A. Shepherd
October 1994

Isaac Watts

The singing of God’s praise is the part of worship most
clearly related to heaven; but its performance among us
is the worst on earth. (I.W.)