English writer Isaac Watts (1674–1748) was the creator of the English hymn; he was perhaps second only to Martin Luther in importance among the creative figures who forged a devotional musical language in European Protestantism. In the words of an essay on Watts, appearing on the website of the United Reformed Church of the United Kingdom, "Isaac Watts was the man who, virtually single-handed, introduced, developed, invented the hymn as we know it today."
Hymnals might seem to have been fixtures in churches since time immemorial, but before Watts it was psalm singing, not hymns, that formed the main musical component of church services in the English-speaking world. Watts's influence on American religious music was immense. His hymns are still sung today, and several of them, including "When I survey the wond'rous Cross" and "O, God, our help in ages past," are among the best known of all hymns in English. The hymns of "Dr. Watts," as he was known in the American vernacular, were passionate, devotional, intense, and vivid, sometimes to the point of being graphic. They influenced African-American as well as European-American sacred song, and the very name of the chief religious music of African-American Christianity under slavery, the spiritual, was likely taken from the title of one of his printed works.
Nursed Out side Prison
Isaac Watts was born in Southampton, England, on July 17, 1674. His parents were Dissenters—that is, they were not members of the Church of England. They adhered to the Congregational faith. That was a serious matter at the time; Dissenters, depending on the tolerance of the monarch on the English throne, might be allowed to worship freely but were always denied some measure of civil rights and suffered frequent harassment. Watts, the oldest of nine children, was born while his father, also named Isaac, was in prison. His mother nursed him while sitting on a large stone outside the prison gate, carrying on a silent protest against the unjust treatment meted out to her husband.
Watts showed obvious verbal ability as a child. He was often in poor health and would continue to be troubled by frequent illness throughout his life. In spite of this handicap, he began learning Latin when he was four years old and mastered that language along with ancient Greek, French, and Hebrew by the time he was 13. At seven he was writing poetry, improvising clever rhymed retorts to his family when they scolded him for laughing during prayers, and even writing an elaborate ten-line religious acrostic poem, the first letters of each line combining to spell out his own name. His education began with his father and continued at the Free School of Southampton.
By the time he was 16, Watts had impressed a local physician enough to be offered financial support should he decide to attend Oxford University, one of two universities in England at the time. But both Oxford and its counterpart Cambridge were affiliated with the Church of England, and attending would have meant converting to that church—to "conform," in the language of the day. Watts remained true to his religion and turned the doctor down, choosing instead to attend the Newington Green Academy, a Dissenting institution in London operated by the learned Thomas Rowe. Watts wrote poetry and theological texts at the Academy. His course of study prepared him to become a minister, but he did not immediately feel ready to begin preaching after finishing his studies at age 20. He moved back home to his family and continued to read, write, and reflect. His first hymn, "Behold the Glories of the Lamb," is said to have been written after he complained to his father about the dull psalm singing at the family's church in Southampton, and his father encouraged him to see what he could do to solve the problem.
For several years Watts worked as a tutor to the Hartopp family of Stoke Newington. Watts was quoted as saying, in a nineteenth-century biography reproduced on the Christian Biography Resources website, "I cannot but reckon it among the blessings of Heaven, when I review those five years of pleasure and improvement which I spent in his [Sir John Hartopp's] family in my younger part of life. And I found much instruction myself, where I was called to be an instructor." Indeed, Watts penned a great variety of educational writings and was well known for these during his lifetime. The Hartopps were Dissenters as well, and Watts's convictions deepened. On his 24th birthday he gave his first sermon, and in 1698 he became an assistant pastor at the Mark Lane Meeting in London, an Independent (or Congregational) church.
Emphasized Role of Music in Worship
Watts became the congregation's pastor in 1702. Just five feet tall, he was an unprepossessing figure in the pulpit. Health problems continued to plague him, and an assistant had to be appointed to fill in for him after a severe bout with illness in 1703. Despite these problems, Watts was a powerful preacher. The Mark Lane congregation outgrew its quarters and twice had to move to larger facilities, and Watts's sermons began to be collected and printed. Part of his success was due to his emphasis on the role of music in worship. A minister, he felt, should not only write sermons but should seek to involve his congregation in worship through music.
Watts backed up his contention with action. After a volume of his poetry, Horae Lyricae: Poems, Chiefly of the Lyric Kind, in Two Books, was published in 1706, he issued the three-volume Hymns and Spiritual Songs the following year. In 1709 it was reissued in an enlarged edition, and it went on to become one of the most influential publications in the history of Protestantism. The original American edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs was issued in 1741 by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, and Watts's texts were as widely disseminated in the United States as in England. Watts did not write music. Psalms and hymns at the time were sung to tunes that would be known to most members of a congregation or choir (the tune might have the name of a town where it was thought to have come from), and that fit the rhythm and meter of the words. Even so, he created a musical revolution.
A hymn in the most general sense is a song of praise to God, but it is distinguished from a psalm, a lyrical expression of devotion drawn from the Book of Psalms in the Bible. Psalm singing, or psalmody, was the main form of congregational musical involvement in services when Watts came on the scene. Watts's hymns were often based on psalms, but he put them into a moving new language of personal worship that anyone could understand. "In effect," stated the website of the United Reformed Church, "Watts campaigned to evangelize the Hebrew psalms." Watts wrote for average churchgoers. In the preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs he wrote (as quoted on the same website) that "I have aimed at ease of numbers and smoothness of sound, and endeavored to make the sense plain and obvious; if the verse appears so gentle and flowing as to incur the Censure of Feebleness, I may honestly affirm that sometimes it has cost me labor to make it so."
The most immediate impact of Watts's new hymnody was felt among the Dissenting sects, whose members felt new tensions every time the British monarchy changed hands. A Watts hymn such as "O, God, our help in ages past" was heard by Dissenters in literal terms after the death of Queen Anne, who had championed harsher restrictions on them; Watts's image of "shelter from a stormy blast" was a direct way of expressing the emotions they felt at the time, and it continued to serve that purpose in times of crisis for many Britons. It was played on British Broadcasting Corporation radio as World War II broke out.
Hymns Admired by Slaves
The resonances of Hymns and Spiritual Songs and of Watts's later hymns—he wrote about 700 in all—were amplified in the United States, where the passionate emotions of his hymnody fit the temperament of a country founded on dissent. Three hundred years after their compo-sition, Watts's hymns, with music by a host of later composers, still crowd the hymnals of many Christian denominations. Their strongest impact was felt perhaps in the religious life of African-American slaves, to whom the title of Watts's book is thought to have come down in the form of the noun "spiritual" to describe a religious song.
The simple structure of some of Watts's hymns was suited to the call-and-response language of African-American hymnody, and some of them were performed in black churches and congregations in their original form or something close to it. A Watts text such as "When I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies / I bid farewell to every fear, and wipe my weeping eyes / And wipe my weeping eyes, and wipe my weeping eyes / I bid farewell to every fear, and wipe my weeping eyes" had strong connotations for a group of people striving toward literacy, and served as a springboard for African-rooted religious musical performance. More often, the mostly anonymous creators of the spirituals worked Watts's imagery into their own original compositions.
For both black and white Americans, the ideas of personal devotion to Jesus Christ and belief in personal salvation through Christ's suffering were given vivid expression in Watts's texts. "See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down!," Watts wrote in "When I survey the wond'rous Cross." And another verse, "His dying crimson, like a robe / Spreads o'er His body on the tree / Then I am dead to all the globe / And all the globe is dead to me." Charles Wesley, the founder of Methodism and a prolific hymn composer himself, is reported to have said that he would have traded away his own entire output if he could have written that one hymn, and there were other Watts hymns that became equally famous: "Am I a soldier of the cross," "There is a land of pure delight," and the text of the Christmas carol "Joy to the world" being just a few of several dozen Watts texts still in common use.
"Joy to the world" was originally published not in Hymns and Spiritual Songs but in a later Watts volume, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719). Watts continued to write prolifically for the rest of his life. He cut back on his preaching after suffering a serious illness in 1712. Invited to convalesce at the estate of Sir Thomas Abney, the former mayor of London, he ended up staying on with the Abney family for 36 years, until his death in 1748. He devoted himself mostly to writing. His Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (1715) remained in print for over a century and was still well enough known in Victorian England that readers understood and appreciated Lewis Carroll's parody, in Alice in Wonderland, of Watts's couplet "How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour?," which became "How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail?." Watts, sometimes directing his efforts toward the Abneys' children, wrote a grammar textbook (The Art of Reading and Writing English, 1721) and one on logic; he was well known in his own time for these works and for his poetry, in addition to his hymns. He died at the Abney estate in Stoke Newington on November 25, 1748.
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Dictionary of Literary Biography: Vol. 95: Eighteenth-Century British Poets, First Series, Gale, 1990.
Escott, Harry, Isaac Watts: Hymnographer, Independent, 1962.
Southern, Eileen, The Music of Black Americans, Norton, 1997.
History Today, November 1998.
"Isaac Watts, by Robert Southey, abridged by Stephen Ross," Christian Biography Resources, http://www.wholesomewords.org/biography/bwatts2.html (February 7, 2006).
"Perspective: The Importance of Isaac Watts," The United Reformed Church, http://www.urc.org.uk/documents/isaac_watts/watts_index.htm (February 7, 2006).