Ye monsters of the bubbling deep Your Master’s praises spout; Up from the sands ye docclings peep, and wag your tails about.
Such was the state of psalm-singing in churches when Isaac Watts was young. He complained about the quality of the songs, and his father challenged him to write something better. The following week Isaac—about age 20—presented his first hymn to the church and received an enthusiastic response. The career of the “Father of English Hymnody” had begun.
At Isaac’s birth in 1674, his father was in prison for his Nonconformist sympathies (that is, he would not embrace the established Church of England). Young Isaac showed genius, studying Latin, French, Greek, and Hebrew by age 13. Several wealthy townspeople offered to pay for his university education, which would, however, lead him into the Anglican ministry. Isaac refused and at 16 went to London to study at a leading Nonconformist academy. Upon graduation, he spent six years as a private tutor. In 1702 he became pastor of an influential Independent church in London, which he served for the rest of his life.
Described as slight, pale, and somewhat homely, Watts suffered rejection from a Miss Elizabeth Singer. One source says that “though she loved the jewel, she could not admire the casket [case] which contained it.”
Serious illness in 1712 brought Watts to the home of Sir Thomas Abney, and there he remained for life, tutoring the children and pastoring his nearby church when he was physically able. Poor health caused him to abandon the ministry for about four years, but he pastored for fifty and was admired as a teacher.
In 1707 Watts published a collection of 210 hymns, entitled Hymns and Spiritual Songs, one of the first English hymnals. Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament came in 1719. Watts considered that the psalms “ought to be translated in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day.”
He thus composed freer translations that emphasized the gospel. “Joy to the World,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “I Sing the Almighty Power of God” are just a few of his 600 hymns. Watts wrote “Jesus Shall Reign,” the first “missionary” hymn, decades before the modern missionary movement. He actually moved church singing into a new era.
Watts was a scholar of wide reputation. He wrote nearly thirty theological treatises; essays on psychology, astronomy, and philosophy; three volumes of sermons; the first children’s hymnal; and a textbook on the logic that was used at Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge. For his work, the University of Aberdeen conferred the Doctor of Divinity degree upon him.
After battling illness for his last thirty years, Watts died in 1748. A monument was erected in Westminster Abbey. Samuel Johnson observed: “Few men have left behind such purity of character or such monuments of laborious piety.”
Watts’ hymns include:
- Joy to the World (based on Psalm 98, tune by an unknown composer using fragments from Handel, first published in England in 1833, popularized by American Lowell Mason)
- 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)
- Our God, Our Help in Ages Past (based on Psalm 90)
- When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
- Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed
- How Sweet and Aweful Is the Place
- This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made
- ‘Tis by Thy Strength the Mountains Stand
- ‘When I Can See My Title Clear
- I Sing the Mighty Power of God (originally entitled Praise for Creation and Providence from Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children)
- My Shepherd Will Supply My Need (based on Psalm 23)
- Bless, O My Soul! the Living God (based on Psalm 103)
How many times have you sung one of his songs? I bet you do since you were a child. Isaac Watts is a great example of leadership, dedication, and putting talents in the service of God for worship.
Do you know any other musician as remarkable as him? Let us know if you would like to know more about remarkable musicians and facts about worship or sign up for our newsletter.