Isaac Watts:  Abridged from Wikipedia

Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts (17 July 1674 – 25 November 1748) was an English Christian hymnwriter, theologian and logician. A prolific and popular hymn writer, his work was part of evangelization. He was recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody”, credited with some 750 hymns. Many of his hymns remain in use today and have been translated into numerous languages.

Life

From an early age, Watts displayed a propensity for rhyme. Once, he responded when asked why he had his eyes open during prayers:

A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.

Receiving corporal punishment for this, he cried:

O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.

Born in Southampton, England, in 1674, Watts was brought up in the home of a committed religious Nonconformist; his father, also Isaac Watts, had been incarcerated twice for his views. At King Edward VI School, Watts had a classical education, learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Isaac Watts held religious opinions that were more non-denominational or ecumenical than was at that time common for a Nonconformist; he had a greater interest in promoting education and scholarship than preaching for any particular sect.

Taking work as a private tutor, Watts became acquainted with Sir Thomas Abney and Lady Mary.

On the death of Sir Thomas Abney in 1722, the widow Lady Mary and her last unmarried daughter, Elizabeth, moved all her household to Abney Hall from Hertfordshire. She invited Watts to continue with their household. He lived at Abney Hall until his death in 1748.

Watts  left an extensive legacy of hymns, treatises, educational works and essays. His work was influential amongst Nonconformist independents and religious revivalists of the 18th century.

Watts and hymnody

Watts’ introduction of extra-Biblical poetry opened up a new era of Protestant hymnody as other poets followed in his path and he also introduced a new way of rendering the Psalms in verse for church services.  Watts proposed that the metrical translations of the Psalms as sung by Protestant Christians should give them a specifically Christian perspective.

He used immediacy of personal pronouns to invest his texts with personal spirituality and he presented affirmative Christian doctrine with confidence.

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.

Logic and his other writings:

Watts wrote a text book on logic which was particularly popular; its full title was, Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. This was first published in 1724, and it was printed in twenty editions and became the standard text on logic at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, being used at Oxford for well over 100 years. 

Watts followed the Logic in 1741 by a supplement, The Improvement of the Mind. This also went through numerous editions and later inspired Michael Faraday.

On his death, Isaac Watts’ papers were given to Yale University in the Colony of Connecticut, which was established by Nonconformists.

Hymns

Watts’ hymns include:

  • Joy to the world (based on Psalm 98, arranged in the 19th century by American Lowell Mason to an older melody of Handel)
  • Come ye that love the Lord (often sung with the chorus [and titled] “We’re marching to Zion”)
  • Come Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove
  • Jesus shall reign where’er the sun (based on Psalm 72)
  • O God, Our Help in Ages Past (based on Psalm 90)
  • When I survey the wondrous cross
  • Alas! and did my Saviour bleed
  • This is the day the Lord has made
  • ‘Tis by Thy strength the mountains stand
  • I sing the mighty power of God
  • My shepherd will supply my need (based on Psalm 23)
  • Bless, O my soul! the living God (based on Psalm 103)

Here is a more recent rendering of the text “This is the Day the Lord Has Made” by John Rutter.  It is one of the mot beautiful hymns I have known.

Some Online Sources:

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