Thursday, May 11, 2006

Isaac Watts: His Life and Hymnody (Part 1)

I did a research paper in grad school on Isaac Watts. He was best known as the "father of English hymnody" and the author of hymns such as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "Joy to the World." His life story is an interesting read. Here is part one of several entries...

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Isaac Watts was a man whose passion for theology and love for words spilled over into a life that was consumed by faith and expressed in hymnody. Paul Westermeyer writes that “Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley were the chief English-speaking hymn writers of the eighteenth century.” Watt’s who was also known as, “The Father of English Hymnody”, contributed volumes of hymns to the church. These hymns have impacted Christians of all denominations and classes, and are still making an impact today. Following the tragedy in this country on September 11th, 2001 many of us watched the ecumenical service hosted in the Washington Cathedral where the words were sung “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.” The words of Watts in this hymn are cutting just as deep and comforting just as powerfully as when they were first written in the early 18th century. (9) It is no wonder that his hymns still strike a cord in the heart of Christians today. They do so because they were born out of Watt’s own suffering as a clergymen in a persecuted vein of the church, and as a man who suffered his entire life with physical ailments. He was truly a man whose words were born out of life experience and whose gift to the church will continue to influence generations to come.

Isaac Watts was born July 27, 1674 in Southampton, England. He was the eldest of nine Children and was raised under the strong influence of his father who was an English Puritan and an outspoken dissenter from the Anglican Church. His father was a tremendous influence in both the intellectual and theological development of this young boy. At age four Watts began to learn Latin and in the following several years became a student of Greek, Hebrew, and French. Watts revealed his love for words and poetry at an early age. Legend tells that once his Father became so irritated by Isaac’s persistent rhyming that he began to whip him while Isaac cried out,

O father, do some pity take
And I will no more verses make!

Another childhood story tells of Watts blurting out with laughter during one of the family devotion times. When questioned by his father about the reason for his outburst, he declared that he had just seen a mouse crawl up the bell tower rope and he stated in verse:

A mouse for want of better stairs,
Ran up a rope to say his prayers.

The religious environment of Isaac’s youth was full of controversy and persecution. Watt’s Father fell subject to this persecution in that he was jailed on multiple occasions for his outspoken religious views as a Puritan and dissenter to the church of England. His mother actually gave birth to Isaac while his father was spending one of his several sentences in prison. It was said that, before and after her regular visits with his father, baby Isaac was often nursed by his mother on the front steps of the jailhouse. The Puritan belief system that Watts was born into, was greatly influenced John Calvin, the 16th century reformer. Puritans passionately agreed with Calvin’s message that the church needed to, "go back to what they could learn from the early church; Christian music (and other fundamental doctrines and practices) had to conform, with everything else, to what they read there."

Ironically, this religious system fought the use of hymns in worship, believing that the Psalms were the only appropriate text for church singing. Watt’s would later be quoted regarding this ideology stating, “the ancient writers were to be imitated, they were not to be copied.” Despite some of the “controversial” struggles within the church, Isaac grew to love and embrace the Puritan faith and doctrines. Though many Puritans of the day criticized Watt’s use of hymns, he had no problem reconciling his passion for hymnody and his theology for the church. As a youth Watts once came home from church and complained to his Father about his absolute boredom with the monotony of metric psalms in worship. His father replied with a challenge that if he didn’t like it, that he should write something himself that was worth singing. Watts immediately rose to the occasion and within hours produced his first hymn “Behold the Glories of the Lamb” which was sung that Sunday evening in the evening church service. This was the first of hundreds of hymns that would flow from the pen of Isaac Watts. Because this first hymn was so well received, within the next two years (from age 18-20) Watts wrote a total of 210 hymns that constituted his famous collection “Hymns and spiritual Songs”, which was published in 1707. This was the first real hymn booking the English language.


Vitamin Z said...


In blog world you are not allowed to just copy and paste an old paper that you wrote. That is cheating. I won't stand for it. You have to have original thoughts that are strictly born from your line of thinking of the current day. I expect better from you in the future.

scooterpastor said...


Anything is game in blogworld. All you need to do is read your blog to see that.

C-Dub said...

Interesting article there Scott...and a very funny reply back to Vitamin "z" she that same girl who had that graduation song hit the pop charts a few years back? Anyway, funny stuff and always entertaining to read yours and Raymond's blogs.