In the annals of hymn writing, Isaac Watts shines as a leading luminary. In most Reformation countries, hymns were employed in worship but seldom in the English church before Watts was born. Anglicans sang the Psalms. Psalm singing, which had at first been a welcome innovation, become a dreary, unmelodious chanting. Each line was first read out by a clerk and then sung. Through Isaac Watts' influence, that changed.
Watts was born in Southampton, England on this day July 17, 1674. He fell under conviction in 1688 and learned to trust Christ in a personal way a year later. No doubt his father's influence was felt here, for his father was twice imprisoned for refusing to bend to the Church of England beliefs. Later Isaac refused to take an all-expenses-paid education rather than conform himself to the Church of England. After attaining his education under more difficult circumstances, Watts became a preacher. He gave his first sermon on this day, his birthday, July 17, 1698, at Mark Lane in London. His qualities were such that the church soon named him its assistant pastor. Shortly afterward he became seriously ill and suffered such poor health the remainder of his life that he was often unable to carry out his church duties.
A kindly friend, Sir Thomas Abney took him under his roof and there he lived thirty years. The church also showed much wisdom and charity in continuing to support him despite his fevers and neuralgia. A lady who fell in love with him from reading his hymns is said to have rejected him close up upon finding him small and far from handsome.
Despite his lack of beauty, Watts wrote inspiring poems which were attractive to worshippers. Scarcely a hymnbook today in the English speaking nations is without one or more of his hymns. Psalm singing had fallen into a sad state and church leaders were seriously questioning what to do. Watts boldly called for a new kind of psalm, rewritten in light of the New Testament gospel. "We preach the gospel and pray in Christ's name, and then check [stifle] the aroused devotions of Christians by giving out a song of the old dispensation."
Acting on his own word, he published a collection of Christianized psalms in 1719. Even before this, in 1707, he published his Hymns and Spiritual Songs. They include "Joy to the World." These, not his sermons, are his true gift to the church and inspired Charles Wesley's even more successful endeavors.
Watts faced fierce opposition. Many church leaders were opposed to his efforts and some called his hymns "Watt's Whims." The common people, however, delighted in them. Eventually the Church of England revised its stand and began adding hymns to their worship. His most famous songs point to Christ:
"When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride."
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- Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity. Editor Tim Dowley. Berkhamsted, Herts, England: Lion Publishing, 1977.
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- Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120 leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde company, 1945.
Last updated April, 2007.