Songs of Christmas…Joy to the World

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This is part 11 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

“I don’t like church music. It’s boring. There’s nothing to it. It has no life. It’s uninspired. It’s monotonous. There is no joy. There is no life.”

Many of us us who are parents have heard these words or something that is similar from our teenage children. As a pastor, not only did I hear it from my own kids, I have heard it from a lot of church kids too, sometimes even in relationship to contemporary music that really wasn’t contemporary enough (in their defense, many Christian songs sung in churches today are 30 years old or older, that isn’t very contemporary). I once heard a preacher friend say, “old contemporary is actually new traditional.”

I think it safe to say, The words of complaint I opened this post with are not anything uncommon. I doubt it would surprise any of us to hear them.

What would you say that these words didn’t come from a teenager, at least not a teenager of the 21st century. The person who said those words (actually I paraphrased them) was Isaac Watts, a late 17th early 18th century pastor, theologian and lyricist. He said those words, to who else? His father. Who responded with words to the effect of, “If you don’t like the music, do something about it.”

Those words from his father were challenge enough to get Watts to react in a constructive way. He started writing music. At the time, it wasn’t well received. Many people called him a heretic. Others said he was “a tool of the devil (some of us may have heard those words in relationship to some of the music we listened to at one time or another). Though not well received, during his lifetime, Watts wrote more than 600 hymns.

One of these 600 hymns was a song based on Psalm 98. It was to become Watts most popular and well known song. He was inspired by the words of the psalmist, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice and sing praise.” Focusing on this verse and the next five verses, Watts composed a four stanza poem he intended to be sung to the tune of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” he gave the title, “Joy to the World.” It would take awhile for the song to catch on. People in his native England were less than keen on what they saw as Watts rewriting the Psalms.

Fast forward some forty plus years and move across the Atlantic to a part-time church choir director, music teacher and full-time banker named Lowell Mason. Mason didn’t believe he could make a living in music so he worked as a banker but never lost interest in music. He continued to write both lyrics and music. “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” is among Mason’s credits.

In 1836 Mason composed a song he gave the name “Antioch.” He had no lyrics for the tune but three years later he discovered Watts’ poem “Joy to the World” fit his tune “Antioch” perfectly. On the American side of the Atlantic, people were listening and “Joy to the World” became a popular song.

One of the most interesting things about “Joy to the World” is that it is not really a Christmas song. Instead it is a song that could truly be sung at anytime of the year. With the exception of the words, “The Lord is come,” there is nothing about the Nativity in the song. It is unclear why American Christians made the song popular as a Christmas carol.

Another interesting thing about the Watts hymn, more than 2 centuries after Watts wrote the lyrics it inspired a country-western singer name Hoyt Axton to write a new song by the same title that was performed by the rock group “Three Dog Night.” The group released the song in February of 1971.

Several years ago, Cindy, the boys and I were traveling to our parents’ homes late on Christmas Eve after Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at the church I was serving at the time. We had the car radio playing. It was one of those radio stations that plays Christmas music all night on Christmas Eve. As we were listening the Isaac Watts carol with music written by Lowell Mason came on. Imagine our surprise, when in the middle of the song, the chorus of Hoyt Axton’s version was a part of the arrangement. “Joy to the world. All the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me.”

We were surprised to hear that. I hadn’t really thought about it until just recently. I never knew who performed the song but when I was reminded of it as I was preparing to write this blog I thought I would see if I could find it. I don’t know if it is the same version or not, I really can’t remember and neither could Cindy, but I found a Mariah Carey version. If you would like you can listen to it on You Tube at, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFlxHzFpNUE.

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Isaac Watts’ old poem, mixed with the chorus of a secular song. I can’t help but think this music rebel of his day would smile and perhaps nod his head in approval. After all, he was writing about joy.

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Watts

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joy_to_the_World

Author:

"The Pastor Ponders" is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. Bishop and I live in Sweeny, Texas where I am the pastor of First United Methodist Church. I have served here for the past two years. For the past 27 years I have served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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