Isaac Watts



Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is important in the history of Christian hymnody for introducing and then mainstreaming in England and the English-speaking world a new type of congregational song -- namely, the modern English hymn. Before Watts, metrical psalmody was the primary type of congregational song used in the worship services of both the Established Church of England and the dissenting churches. By creating and popularizing paraphrases of the Psalms in “modern” English, Watts opened the door to the introduction of true hymnody. Consequently, Isaac Watts was the true shaper of the modern congregational hymn as we know it today and is often called the “Father of English Hymnody.” Isaac Watts was to English hymnody what St. Ambrose was to the medieval Latin office hymn, what Clement Marot was to the French metrical psalm, and what Martin Luther was to the German chorale. At least two dozen of his hymns and psalm paraphrases in current use testify to a legacy that is monumental.

The majority of Watts' hymns were published in two collections:

Hymns and Spiritual Songs ( 1707)

Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719)

Watts is also considered to have been the originator of “children's hymnology” with the publication of Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715), perhaps the first collection of hymns specifically for children. Although successful at the time, many are probably too “severe” to be used for children today.

For example:

How glorious is our heavenly King,
Who reigns above the sky!
How shall a child presume to sing
His dreadful majesty?

and

Why should I love my sports so well,
So constant at my play,
And lose the thoughts of heaven and hell,
And then forget to pray?

Watts’ hymns were incredibly successful, so much so in fact, that by the middle of the 18th century, they became the dominant texts for evangelical revival hymnody both in England and America.


Some Well-known Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts

* MH = Methodist Hymnal, 1989

The Watts School of Hymnody

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) possessed both the vision for and the ability to join two main streams of Christian song --paraphrases of Scripture and devotional lyric poetry--and to produce the two types of true English hymn for which he is justly famous. These two types resulted from his twofold theory of congregational praise:

1. Truly authentic praise had to go beyond the mere words of Scripture to include original expressions of devotion and thanksgiving.

2. If the Psalms were to be used in Christian worship, they must be renovated by giving them Christian content.

Watts set the model for the English hymn where others had tried and only partially succeeded. He was able to create a position for hymns whereby all hymn writers after him were indebted to him. While it may be an oversimplification to say that before Watts English churches sang psalms, and after him they sang hymns, it can be affirmed that until Watts the use of true humanly composed hymns was the exception rather than the rule. By both teaching and example, Watts gave great impetus to hymn writing in England. His successors in the “Watts School” include:

Joseph Addison (1672-1719)

The Spacious Firmament on High (H83, #409*)


Philip Doddridge (1702-1751)

O Happy Day That Fixed My Choice (MH 391)
Awake, My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve (H82*, #546)
Hark! The Glad Sound! The Savior Comes (H82*, #72)
O Ye Immortal Throng (H82*, #284
My God, Thy Table Now is Spread (H82*, #321
O Zion, Tune Thy Voice (H8*2, #543)
O God of Bethel, by Whose Hand (H82*, #709


Joseph Hart (1712-1768)

Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy (MH 340)


Anne Steele (1716-1768)

Father of Mercies, in Thy Word (see Lutheran Book of Worship, #240)

* H82= Episcopal Hymnal, 1982

[from Sing with Understanding, by Harry Eskew and Hugh McElrath (Nashville: Church Street Press, 2nd edition, 1995)


Characteristics of the hymns of Isaac Watts

Watts hymns bear characteristics that left their mark on the form and content of the English hymn for decades.

FORM:

1. Simple : (a) in meter--only common, long, and short meter are used; (b) in vocabulary--predominantly Anglo-Saxon words, with preference for monosyllables (words with only one syllable).
2. A striking opening line, boldly proclaiming the theme of the entire hymn like a headline.
3. Frequent use of repetition and parallelism, following the structural principle of the Psalms.
4. Often half-rhymed with liberal use of imperfect rhymes or mere assonances.
5. Dramatic in its climax, usually expressed in a final stanza.

CONTENT:

1. Comprehensive in scope and cosmic background. Watts was the "master of the enormous conception" (an Erik Routley phrase): awe of the omnipotence of God, spaciousness of nature, the vastness of time and the dreadfulness of eternity.
2. Calvinistic in theology: emphasis on doctrines dealing with the glory and sovereignty of God, the depravity of human nature, the security of the elect and the all-sufficient atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross for the sins of humankind.
3. Christian in focus: Christ exalted and adored above all else as the very center of worship.
4. Liturgical in purpose: inspired by the setting of public worship and conceived for the use of the congregation in public praise.
5. Based in scripture: faithfully paraphrasing Scripture and masterfully incorporating biblical language, allusion and thought.

With these characteristics the prototype of English hymn was set. Thus was brought into being a class of "religious song which his (Watts') own ardent faith made devotional, which his manly and lucid mind made simple and strong, which his poetic feeling and craftsmanship made rhythmical and often lyrical, and which his sympathy with people made hymnic." [Louis F. Benson, The English Hymn (London: George H. Doran Co., 1915), 206.]

Isaac Watts is the one person who most changed the course of English-speaking congregational praise. Though his own hymns made rather slow headway in many congregations in the latter part of the 18th century, they "rode to the dominating position they ultimately held on the wings of Revival." And that revival came with the inspired and indefatigable work of the Wesleys. There was, however, an element of reciprocity here, for Watts' hymns were in turn, a potent factor in promoting that Evangelical Revival.

[from Sing with Understanding, by Harry Eskew and Hugh McElrath (Nashville: Church Street Press, 2nd edition, 1995)


Explore some sites devoted to Isaac Watts

The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts Collection

Isaac Watts: The Official Biography

Isaac Watts' Psalms (with other collections, such as Divine and Moral Songs for Children, 1715 )

Isaac Watts: The FATHER of ENGLISH HYMNODY (gospelcom.net)

DIVINE AND MORAL Songs for CHILDREN, 1715 (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

Selected Poems by Isaac Watts (great portrait of Watts)

Read A Solemn Address to the Deity by Sir Isaac Watts, with comments by Robert A. Sabin.

250th anniversary of the birth of Isaac Watts

Chapel Music in 18th Century England

Some anecdotal stories about Watts

The Hymns of Isaac Watts, A paper on Isaac Watts read to the University Congregational Society in Cambridge on Sunday, October 17, 1937

What happened in the 18th century.



A woman passes a statue of Isaac Watts in a park in central Southampton, England, Dec. 3 1998. In the 250th year since his death the songs of Watts, which include "O God our help in ages past," and "When I survey the wondrous cross," remain a staple of the Christian repertoire. (AP Photo Martin Cleaver)

Isaac tomb at Bunhill Fields, London, England


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