Isaac Watts

Today’s Journey Through Scripture Readings: Job 30-31; Acts 13:26-52

There are only so many hours in a day and I am finding I am running out of them. As many of you know, I am making a career change and will begin teaching government and economics when the fall semester begins. I am spending time reading the lessons for those courses. I also have a certification exam to prepare for. With an upcoming “VBS for Grown-ups” event in my church later this month and regular sermons to prepare Sunday mornings between now and the end of the month. Something has to give. I am not going to drop the blog but I am going to do some of the writing I need to do for VBS for Grown-Ups and use it in the blog. The Scripture readings for Journey Through Scripture will still be above as they have been all year.

A boy in his late teens complained for some time about the singing in church: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”. His father, tired of his complaints, challenged him to write something better. The following week, the adolescent Isaac presented his first hymn to the church, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb,” which received an enthusiastic response. The young man’s name was Isaac Watts. He would repeat essentially the same words toward the end of his life.

Isaac Watts was born in 1674. His father was a non-conformist pastor, something not overly accepted throughout Great Brittan. Additionally, church’s independent of the Church of England was illegal during Watts lifetime. Dr. Isaac Watts, D.D. spent time in prison for his Nonconformist sympathies (all that simply means is, he would not embrace the established Church of England). Eventually, Watts’ father was eventually freed from prison. Isaac respected his father’s courage and remembered his mother’s tales of nursing her children on the jail steps.

Young Isaac showed genius early in his life. It is said that he was learning Latin by age 4, Greek at 9, French (which he took up to converse with his refugee neighbors) at 11, and Hebrew at 13. Watts’ academic prowess helped him to catch the attention of several wealthy townspeople. These wealthy patrons offered to pay for Watts university education at Oxford or Cambridge, feeling certain Watts would then enter the service of the Church of England. By he was 16 Watts visited London to gain his spiritual training at a Nonconformist academy.

For the next five years, Watts would work as a tutor before entering the ministry following in his father’s footsteps as a Nonconformist. In 1702 he became a pastor serving Mark’s Lane Independent Chapel in London. Mark’s Lane was one of the most influential congregation in London outside the Church of England.

A year into his ministry, Watts began having signs of mental illness. The disease would the disease would impact him for the rest of his life. As a result, Watts delegated more of his work to his assistant. Watts would resign from his congregation in 1722.

In 1707 Watts published Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Technically speaking, the publication wasn’t a collection of hymns or metrical psalms. The collection, though not rigid to Watts’ nonconformist faith, became the most popular gathering of English hymns of all time.

Watts didn’t reject the metrical psalms preferred by the Nonconformists; he simply wanted to see them sung with more passion. “They ought to be translated in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day,” Watts wrote.


Many of Watts’ peers didn’t recognize and couldn’t understand these translations. How could “Joy to the World” really be Psalm 98? Or “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” be Psalm 72, or “O God Our Help in Ages Past” be Psalm 90?

Watts argued that he deliberately omitted several psalms and large parts of others, keeping portions “as might easily and naturally be accommodated to the various occasions of Christian life, or at least might afford us some beautiful allusions to Christian affairs.” Furthermore, where the psalmist fought with personal enemies, Watts turned the biblical invective against spiritual adversaries: sin, Satan, and temptation. Finally, he said, “Where the flights of his faith and love are sublime, I have often sunk the expressions within the reach of an ordinary Christian.”

Such quotes brought criticism. “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts’s flights of fancy,” protested one detractor. Others dubbed the new songs “Watts’s whims.” Can you imagine the season of Lent without “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

Watts was more than a poet. He was also a scholar of note, especially in his later years. He wrote nearly 30 theological treatises; essays on psychology, astronomy, and philosophy; three volumes of sermons; the first children’s hymnal; and a textbook on logic that served as a standard work on the subject for generations.

Watts’ poetry and hymns are his legacy and earned him praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Benjamin Franklin published his hymnal, Cotton Mather maintained a long series of correspondence.

John Wesley acknowledged Watts as a genius—though Watts maintained that Charles Wesley’s hymn “Wrestling Jacob” was worth more than all of his own hymns.

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

With Joy and Thankfulness,

Copyright 2018, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved


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