He contributed greatly to the promotion and re-direction of English hymns, so much so, that he has been called the “father of English hymnody”, and produced over 750 hymns during his lifetime.
The Dissenters (later called Nonconformists) were folk who separated from the Church of England because of differences of belief. Primarily it was because they did not believe the state should interfere with the church.
This was not popular in his time, and his father had been imprisoned twice for holding those views.
As a young boy Isaac Watts displayed an early poetic talent.
It was during family prayers on one occasion that Isaac the younger showed his poetic skill, While they were at prayer Isaac was heard to titter. His father demanded the cause of his merriment. “Because”, he replied, pointing to the bell-rope by the fireplace, “I saw a mouse run up that and the thought came into my mind,
“There was a mouse, for want of stairs,
Ran up a rope to say his prayers.”
Before he reached age 16, he had already learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He furthered his education from 16 to 20 at a Nonconformist Academy, and did ministerial work, tutoring, and book writing for the rest of his life.
Isaac Watts’ book of Psalms was a new step in the development of English hymn writing. Up until that point, Protestant English hymns had been largely influenced by John Calvin’s practice of putting Biblical poetry into rhyming meter. The general rule was to be as faithful to the original text as possible.
Isaac Watts was to change this direction. How this came about is described as follows:
It was his father who embarked Watts on his career as a hymn writer. In those days a paraphrase of the Psalms was widely used in the Dissenting churches. According to Watts’ judgment of them, they were crude renderings and did not express the joy and dignity of Christian worship. When Watts complained to his father about composition and the singing, his father exhorted him to attempt something better. Watts immediately wrote:
“Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst the Father’s throne,
Prepare new honours for His Name
And songs before unknown”.
Watts’ desire to write new expressions of praise and worship was because he saw a great need. He had no desire for personal glory and honour. His brother, Enoch, also encouraged Watts to apply himself to this noble endeavour. A few extracts from a letter he wrote to Isaac, are worth noting.
Referring to Isaac’s poems and the ones he sought to replace, Enoch wrote,
“Yours is the old truth stripped of its ragged ornaments and appears, if we may say so as younger by ages, in a new and fashionable dress”.
Referring to the crude and dreary renderings, Enoch wrote:
“There is in them a mighty deficiency of that life and soul which is necessary to raise our fancies and kindle and fire our passions. I have been persuaded from a great while since, that were David to speak English, he would choose to make use of your style.”
So Watts went a step beyond the traditional practice and purposely interpreted the Old Testament passages in the light of the New Testament gospel and the fulfilments of prophecy that took place in the first advent of Jesus Christ, and the development of the early church. He made the Old Testament speak in the language and understanding of the New Testament. He explains it this way in the introduction to the book:
I come therefore to explain my own design, which is this, To accommodate the book of Psalms to Christian worship. And in order to do this, it is necessary to divest David and Asaph, &c. of every other character but that of a psalmist and a saint, and to make them always speak the common sense, and language of a Christian.
Attempting the work with this view, I have entirely omitted several whole psalms, and large pieces of many others; and have chosen out of all of them, such parts only as might easily and naturally be accommodated to the various occasions of the Christian life, or at least might afford us some beautiful allusion to Christian affairs.
These I have copied and explained in the general style of the gospel; nor have I confined my expressions to any particular party or opinion; that in words prepared for public worship, and for the lips of multitudes, there might not be a syllable offensive to sincere Christians, whose judgments may differ in the lesser matters of religion.
- Where the Psalmist uses sharp invectives against his personal enemies, I have endeavoured to turn the edge of them against our spiritual adversaries, sin, Satan, and temptation.
- Where the flights of his faith and love are sublime, I have often sunk the expressions within the reach of an ordinary Christian:
- Where the words imply some peculiar wants or distresses, joys, or blessings, I have used words of greater latitude and comprehension, suited to the general circumstances of men.
- Where the original runs in the form of prophecy concerning Christ and his salvation, I have given an historical turn to the sense: there is no necessity that we should always sing in the obscure and doubtful style of prediction, when the things foretold are brought into open light by a full accomplishment.
- Where the writers of the New Testament have cited or alluded to any part the Psalms, I have often indulged the liberty of paraphrase, according to the words of Christ, or his Apostles. And surely this may be esteemed the word of God still, though borrowed from several parts of the Holy Scripture.
- Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it.
- Where he speaks of the pardon of sin, through the mercies of God, I have added the merits of a Saviour.
- Where he talks of sacrificing goats or bullocks, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God.
- When he attends the ark with shouting into Zion, I sing the ascension of my Saviour into heaven, or his presence in his church on earth.
- Where he promises abundance of wealth, honour, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory, and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament.
And I am fully satisfied, that more honor is done to our blessed Saviour, by speaking his name, his graces, and actions, in his own language, according to the brighter discoveries he hath now made, than by going back again to the Jewish forms of worship, and the language of types and figures.
The experiment was highly successful and renovated the use of Psalmody from that point forward.
His other large poetical work called Hymns and Spiritual Songs, which was divided into three parts:
- Hymns composed upon Bible verses
- Hymns of human composure, but illustrative of the spirit of true worship
- Hymns composed for the Lord’s Supper
These hymns were so well-written that they eventually overcame the opposition to “hymns of human composure” which had hindered reformed music practice.
The Bible itself makes room for both the inspired Word, as well as our own experience, in the following verse:
11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
The Lutherans had seen this over a hundred years earlier, but for Protestants of the reformed tradition, it took the work of Isaac Watts to finally show the way. Watts demonstrated the valid place of hymns of personal experience, which were both doctrinally pure, and of high literary quality.
These two collections of Hymns and Psalms laid the groundwork for the blossoming of English hymn-writing that was to go into full swing with the Methodist revival, which followed soon after.
There are seven songs in our church songbook which are derived from Isaac Watt’s Psalms and Hymns:
- By Words and Actions
- Glorious Sight
- Holy Law
- How Beauteous Are Their Feet
- New Sabbath
- Secure Abode
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