PICK UP ALMOST ANY modern hymnal, look in the index listing the
composers of the hymns, and the name "Watts, Isaac" has a long list
of hymns beside it. In his long life, Watts wrote over 600 hymns,
and many of them continue to be used by English-speaking Christians
to worship and praise the same Savior Watts loved and served.
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
strongly biblical faith. Isaac 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.
From an early age Isaac had a propensity to rhyming, and often even
his conversation was in rhyme. His father became quite annoyed at
this and told him to stop. When the rhyming persisted, the father
started to whip the boy, and little Isaac cried out:
"O father, do some pity take
And I will no more verses make."
When he was seven, Isaac wrote an acrostic poem on his name which
reflected his theological training:
I am a vile polluted lump of earth
So I've continued ever since my birth;
Although Jehovah grace does give me,
As sure this monster Satan will deceive me.
Come therefore, Lord, from Satan's claws relieve me.
Because Isaac would not follow the national Church of England, he
could not attend the Universities of Cambridge or Oxford. Instead,
he attended an academy sponsored by Independent Christians. Af ter
completing his formal schooling, Watts spent five years as a tutor.
During those years he began to devote himself more diligently than
before to the study of the Scriptures. In 1707 he published his
first edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs.
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
any. A lady once fell in love with Isaac by reading his poetry
and a correspondence ensued. When she met his 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) as
much as I admire the jewel." Watts never married, though the
two remained good friends for over 30 years.
Fever forces new direction
For a few years Watts served as an assistant and then pastor to an
Independent congregation in London. A violent and continual fever
from which he never recovered forced him to leave the pastorate. Sir
Thomas Abney received Watts into his home, and Sir Thomas' family
continued to provide a home and serve as Watts' patrons for the next
Though naturally quick to resentment and anger, 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
Beholding the "brighter discoveries"
Watts' most published book was his Psalms of David, first
published in 1719. In his poetic paraphrases of the psalms, Watts
adapted the psalms for use by the Church and made David speak "the
language of a Christian." Watts explained his method,
. . . Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I
have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the
pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I have added the merits of
a Savior. Where he talks of sacrificing goats or bullocks, I rather
choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the lamb of God . . Where
he promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have
changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory, and life
eternal, which are brought to light by the Gospel, and promised in
the New Testament. And I am fully satisfied, that more honor is done
to our blessed Savior by speaking his name, his graces, his actions,
in his own language, according to the brighter discoveries he hath
now made, than by going back again to the Jewish forms of worship,
and the language of types and figures.
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
Many thanks, Ben!
Benjamin Franklin first published Watts' psalm paraphrases in
America in 1729. Franklin was not the only American publisher to
take an interest in Watt's hymns. In Boston his hymns were published
in 1739. They were well-loved by Americans of the Revolutionary
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 Christ's
church. Why not look in your hymnal's index and notice how many
familiar hymns were penned by the Father of English hymns?