Here is a continuation of a paper I wrote several years ago on the life and hymnody of Isaac Watts. You can click here to read the first installment. The following is the second of three entries on an amazing man is known as one of the most influential of all hymn writers.
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As Watts grew older his intellectual capabilities were so impressive that a wealthy physician offered to pay his full tuition to one of England’s top Universities. Though the offer was almost too generous to turn down, Watt’s quickly did so, sighting that enrollment at these universities required one’s membership in and allegiance to the Anglican church (whose teachings were contrary to his Puritan beliefs). He instead attended a “dissenters” academy that was created for those who were barred from attending the universities associated with the Anglican church. Following his graduation from the academy, he became a tutor for five years. In these years Watt’s wrote hundreds of his hymns. In 1707 he issued his first hymnal “Hymns and Spiritual Songs”. In the next few years Watts became the assistant and then Pastor at an independent congregation in London. Unfortunately he became too sick to carry on the responsibilities of a Pastor. Due to these health reasons he was forced to move in with a friend Sir Thomas Abney. Having never regained his health, Watts spent the next 36 years of his life in the Abney’s home.
All his life Isaac Watts was riddled with physical health problems. As he grew to manhood Watts was known as a “A short man (five feet tall), his sickly body was capped with a disproportionately large head.” He once began corresponding with a woman who fell in love with his poetry. Unfortunately, when Watts finally met the woman she was so repelled by his sickly and awkward appearance that she wrote, “Mr. Watts, I only wish I could admire the casket (jewelry box) as much as I admire the jewel." Though he never married her, they remained friends for thirty years. Watt’s theology was so important to him that some believe it was the reason for his final and most severe physical deterioration. E.E. Ryden writes,
In addition to being a preacher and a poet, Watts was an ardent student of theology and philosophy, and wrote several notable books. Always frail in health from childhood, his intense studies finally resulted in completely shattering his constitution, and he was compelled to give up his parish.
As a philosopher and theologian “Watts published 52 other works, including a book of logic used in the universities, books on grammar, pedagogy, ethics, psychology, astronomy, geography, three volumes of sermons, and 29 treatises on theology.” For many years some of his writings were used as texts for university courses at both Oxford and Cambridge University. Students of Watts say Watts was “influenced heavily by the scientific discoveries of Boyle and Newton. These scientific philosophies of the day turned his attention toward nature and gave him an admiration for the created order of the universe. Much of this played out in the songs which are rich with natural imagery.”
Watt’s hymns were often very reflective of his theological belief system. This was both the foundation of their success as well as a source of controversy within the Christian community. As a seven year old he wrote the following verse that would reflect of one of his more controversial theological beliefs.
I am a vile polluted lump of earth
So I've continued ever since my birth;
Although Jehovah grace does give me,
As sure this monster Satan will deceive me.
Come therefore, Lord, from Satan's claws relieve me.
His belief in the “depravity” of man was included in his Children’s hymnal in 1713 entitled “Divine Songs for Children”. Though the majority of his hymns were warmly accepted, his ones that spoke of man’s wickedness were spitefully criticized. Ian Bradley wrote that Watt’s theology of teaching about hell to children was “a hangover from the wilder excesses of eighteenth-century evangelicalism and was to have less and less of a place in the more genteel atmosphere of Victorian hymnody.” John Mason Neale was just as critical of Watts as Bradley. Neale represents “the path the Oxford-Cambridge movement took toward an embrace of hymnody.” As a child he was forced to memorize many of Watts hymns from “Divine Songs for Children”. The strong beliefs of Calvinism terrified him and he was greatly offended by the Evangelical doctrines and teachings on conversion. He grew to hate these hymns and “vowed to free our poor children from the yoke of Watts.” He ultimately responded by writing his own hymn book for children “Hymns for Children” in 1842.
Twelve years after the publication of his first hymnal “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” Watts published “Psalms of David” in 1719. In his own words Watts said this hymnal was rendered “in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship.” Some examples of the influence of the psalms in his writings are:
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His Kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
From all that dwell below the skies
Let the Creator’s praise arise;
Let the Redeemer’s Name be sung
Through every land, by every tongue.
E.E. Ryden noted several other examples of Watts hymns that were influenced by the psalms, writing:
No Christmas service seems complete without singing his beautiful paraphrase of Psalm 98, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Another hymn, “O God, our help in ages past,” based on Psalm 90 is indispensable at New Year’s time, reminding us in language, both solemn and sublime, of the contrast between the brevity of human existence and the eternity of God