There has likely not been anyone as prolific in the field of hymn writing, nor marked by such heights of hymnology, as Isaac Watts. A diminutive musical genius, he stood a total of five feet in height, yet His gigantic shadow still falls upon us in this age.
Isaac was born July 27, 1674 at Southampton, England, the eldest of nine children. His father was a Dissenter from the Anglican Church and on at least one occasion was thrown in jail for not following the Church of England. Isaac followed his father’s strong Biblical faith. He was a very intelligent child who loved books and learned to read early. He began learning Latin at age four and went on to learn Greek, Hebrew, and French as well. He showed a propensity to rhyming from an early age, and often even his conversation was in rhyme (some people we know speak in alliteration!). His father became quite annoyed at this and told him to stop. When the rhyming persisted, the father started to spank him, and little Isaac cried out:
“O father, do some pity take
And I will no more verses make.”
Isaac would not follow the national Church of England, and so he was not able to attend the Universities of Cambridge or Oxford. No one apologized in that day for discrimination. He went to an academy sponsored by Independent Christians. It was during this time that he began as never before to study the Scriptures. In 1707 he published his first edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs.
He knew suffering and illness. The Lord used Watts’ sufferings to produce a gentle, modest, and charitable spirit. Out of his compassion, one-third of his small allowance was given to the poor. Watts’ tenderness to children can be seen reflected in his lovely Divine Songs for Children, published in 1715.
The road to becoming a writer of hymns was quite unique in Watts’ experience. In the time in which he lived congregations sang only the Psalms in the churches. One day he complained to his father, AThe church ventures to sing a dull hymn or two at church, in tunes of equal dullness.” At which point, his father told him, “Why don=t you write some yourself, then?” So be careful what you complain about!
Watts would often take Psalms and paraphrase them into rhyme. Examples of Watts’ method can be seen in his paraphrases of Psalm 72 into the hymn “Jesus Shall Reign Wher’er the Sun,” Psalm 90 into “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and Psalm 98 into “Joy to the World.”
We are indebted to none other than Ben Franklin for his assistance in making Watts known in the American colonies. He was the first to publish Watts’ psalm paraphrases in America in 1729. Franklin was not the only American publisher to take an interest in Watt’s hymns. His hymns were published in Boston, in 1739. They were well-loved by Americans of the Revolutionary period.
Besides over 600 hymns, 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. After his death on November 25, 1748, a monument to Watts was erected in Westminster Abbey. His greatest monument, however, are the hymns to his God still used by us today. He has rightly been called the Father of English Hymns.
But there is a lesson from his life, in the truth that you cannot have it all. Though he had a beautiful soul, apparently Isaac Watts was not much to look at. He was frail and often sickly. His head seemed too large for his five-foot-tall body; his small, piercing eyes and hooked nose did not enhance his appearance. A lady, Miss Elizabeth Singer, once fell in love with Isaac by reading his poetry. This led to a correspondence between them. When she met him face to face, however, she was very disillusioned, though he fell in love with her. He asked her to marry him, but her reply was, “Mr. Watts, I only wish I could admire the casket (jewelry box – the outer person) as much as I admire the jewel.” Watts never married, though the two remained good friends for over 30 years
A few of his hymns which we sing today include:
- Alas and did My Savior Die
- Not all the Blood of Beasts
- When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
- Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun
Illness, discrimination, even a lack of physical appearance could have caused him to wallow in self-pity and despondency. Instead, he left a rich legacy to future generations through the hymns he contributed to us.