Isaac Watts – Birth to Youth
On July 17, 1674, Isaac Watts entered the world in Southampton. He began reading and writing poetry before he could even fully express himself. He held fast to the Nonconformist views for which his dad had been imprisoned.
So, he was constrained to forego the benefits offered by the great English institutions, which admitted only students from the Church of England.
Nonetheless, he took advantage of the opportunity to study at a Dissenting school in London managed by Mr. Rowe, where he excelled academically while facing significant challenges. I
n school, he followed the established norm of attempting poetry in both English and Latin. He was unwittingly setting himself up for a prosperous and fruitful career.
ISAAC WATTS AND HYMNODY
Early on, Isaac showed a strong interest in reading. Poetry in rhyme was his favorite form. When he was seven years old, he spelled out his name in an acrostic poem. This acrostic was indicative of his lifelong commitment to a strict Calvinist doctrine.
However, Watts’s linguistic research extended much beyond simple rhymes. He began studying Latin at age 4, Greek at 9, French at 10, and Hebrew at 13.
In hopes that he might one day become an ordained minister in the Church, a doctor and some colleagues saw potential in him and volunteered to pay for his university education.
Instead, Watts declined their offer and enrolled at Thomas Rowe’s Nonconformist Academy, joining the independent community at Girdlers’ Hall in 1693.
The following two years were spent at home when he dropped out of the academy when he was 20.
When young Watts attended church, he sometimes expressed displeasure at the emotionless psalm-singing prevalent at the period.
At one point, while listening to Watts’ complaints, his father said, “Well then, young son, why don’t you offer us anything better to sing?”
In response, he composed his first hymn. After its success with the congregants at the Mark Lane Chapel, where Watts was a regular, he continued to write a new melody each week for the subsequent two years.
The majority of his hymns and religious songs were composed during this time. These were first published in 1707–1709 after being sung from manuscripts at the Southampton chapel.
When an affluent Dissenting family in London needed a tutor, Watts made the journey there to help out. Soon after he started attending Mark Lane Chapel, he was invited to teach and eventually taken on as an associate pastor.
At the age of 24, he gave his first sermon. He was confirmed as the congregation’s senior pastor in 1702 and remained in that role until the end of his days. He deeply understood the Bible, and his sermons stirred the community.
Watts, already a short and fragile guy, rapidly deteriorated in health. On the invitation of his friends, the Abneys, Watts traveled to their house in 1712. He stayed with them for 36 years, composed many songs on their property, and gave sermons when his health allowed.
By the time of Watts, German Christians had been singing songs for more than a century, but Calvinists had not. In Calvin’s opinion, only psalms should be sung by his people.
Watts was concerned, however, that the solemn, weighty psalms available for congregational singing may have a dampening effect on worship.
“Psalms of David Emulated in the Words of the New Testament” is a hymnal including paraphrases of virtually all of the psalms written by Watts to shed New Testament light on the psalms.
Aside from the psalms, Watts also penned hymns that had more introspective and reflective language.
His hymns were not centered on the Psalms, which displeased some readers who thought they were “extremely worldly” for the church. But Watts was confident that songs in the church should center on Jesus. This is how he described his method for composing hymns:
“Whereas the Psalmist emphasizes dread of God as the defining characteristic of religion, I have frequently added faith and love.
The forgiveness of sins by God’s grace is mentioned, but I’d rather focus on the atoning work of Christ, the Son of God.
I have substituted grace, glory, and eternal life as revealed in the gospel and prophesied in the New Testament for some of His traditional rewards, such as money, honor, and longevity.”
In total, he is credited with writing about six hundred hymns. Many consider his tribute “Whenever I Survey the Marvelous Cross” to be the finest of its kind written in English.
I Sing the Great Power of God, Jesus Shall Reign, and Am I a Warrior of the Cross are a few of Isaac Watts’ other popular hymns.
A statue of this renowned author was erected in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner after his death.
Isaac Watts’ hymns made quite a commotion during his lifetime due to their immense popularity. Because Psalms were so typical in English churches then, using more “human composure” in songs like “Whenever I Survey the Marvelous Cross” was controversial.
‘Christian congregations have blocked off divinely guided Psalms and engaged in Watts’ flights of fancy,’ one guy griped. This caused division in the congregation that John Bunyan formerly pastored in Bedford, England.
During a meeting of the Lutheran Church in Philadelphia in May of 1789, Adam Rankin said, “I have ridden horses from my residence in Kentucky to request this body to reject the wonderful and virulent error of embracing the adoption of Isaac Watts’ psalms in worship services in choice to the Hymns of David.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson observed of Watts that while “by his natural disposition he was quick of indignation,” he was “gentle, modest, and inoffensive” by his established and regular practice.
After spending time with Sir Thomas and Madame Abney’s children, Watts was inspired to write Divine and Ethical Songs for Children, first published in 1715.
Eighty thousand copies were sold in its first year, and sales have continued steadily since then. In the introduction, he writes, “Everyone’s kids can sing along, whether they’re from a wealthy family or a poor one, whether they were baptized as infants or not.
I’ve tried to use language that even a child might comprehend so that everyone can learn something from it (if possible), and nobody gets offended.”
Fifty-two books (including both prose and poetry) were released under his name throughout his lifetime. He made it to age 75 and was revered as a Dissenting church leader for decades before his passing. In 1748, he passed away on November 25.
Isaac Watts Hymns
Below are some of Isaac Watts hymns;
Joy to the World
When pain and anguish seize me, Lord
Come ye that Love the Lord
Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove
Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun
Our God, Our Help in Ages Past
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed
How Sweet and Awful Is the Place
This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made
Tis by Thy Strength the Mountains Stand
When I Can Read My Title Clear
I Sing the Mighty Power of God
My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
Bless, O My Soul! the Living God