Biography of Pastor Isaac Watts

Pastor Isaac Watts who was born on 17 July 1674 and lived until 25 November 1748, was an English Congregational minister, hymn writer, theologian, and logician. He was a prolific and popular hymn writer and is credited with about 750 hymns. His works include "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", "Joy to the World", and "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past". He is recognized as the "Godfather of English Hymnody"; many of his hymns remain in use today and have been translated into numerous languages.

The Reverend
Isaac Watts
Isaac Watts from NPG.jpg
Portrait by an unknown artist
17 July 1674
Southampton, Hampshire, England
25 November 1748 (aged 74)
Stoke Newington, Middlesex, England
Hymnwriter, theologian
Known for
"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", "Joy to the World", "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past"

Isaac Watts
Father of English hymnody

In his later years, Isaac Watts once complained about hymn singing in church: "To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion."

He had been bemoaning such since his late teens. His father, tired of his complaints, challenged him to write something better. The following week, the adolescent Isaac presented his first hymn to the church, "Behold the Glories of the Lamb," which received an enthusiastic response. The career of the "Father of English Hymnody" had begun.

Head of a genius

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). His father was eventually freed (and fathered seven more children), but Isaac respected his courage and remembered his mother's tales of nursing her children on the jail steps.

Young Isaac showed genius early. He was learning Latin by age 4, Greek at 9, French (which he took up to converse with his refugee neighbors) at 11, and Hebrew at 13. Several wealthy townspeople offered to pay for his university education at Oxford or Cambridge, which would have led him into Anglican ministry. Isaac refused and at 16 went to London to study at a leading Nonconformist academy. Upon graduation, he spent five years as a private tutor.

In 1702 he became pastor of London's Mark Lane Independent (i.e. Congregational) Chapel, then one of the city's most ...

Isaac Watts was the writer.

The young Isaac Watts revealed a poetic gift within his parents' home. The mature Isaac Watts used his God-given gift to write inspiring sacred songs which affected hundreds of thousands of believers in God in his life-time and millions more since his death. He has been described as the father of the English hymn.

From his earliest days Isaac Watts was accustomed to hear the Word of God read by his father and to hear him pray also. His father was a godly Dissenting minister who twice suffered imprisonment because of his convictions. Such a father was a great help to young Isaac Watts. Isaac was the eldest of nine children, and when he was eleven years old, his father wrote a letter to all his children in which he exhorted them "frequently to read the Scriptures — get your hearts to delight in them — above all books and writings account the Bible the best and read it most — lay up the truth of it in your hearts". The wise father also exhorted them to pay attention to prayer and godly living. When Isaac was fifteen years old he trusted the Lord Jesus as His own personal Saviour. His father's godly example and wise counsel had borne fruit. A few years after this, Isaac spent two and a half years at home studying the Scriptures and praying. The Lord was preparing His servant for his important contribution to Christian worship and praise.

Watts' high intellectual promise induced a physician in Southampton and other friends to offer him an education at one of the Universities for eventual ordination to the Church of England. This he refused and entered a Nonconformist academy. He preached his first sermon at the age of 24, and afterwards preached frequently. He was made pastor of the well-known Independent congregation in Mark Lane, London, in 1702. He was a very efficient preacher and was dignified in the manner in which he presented the truths of Holy Scripture. He deprecated the use of theatrical gestures in order to embellish his preaching. In order that his hearers might understand what he said, he concentrated on simplicity and clarity. His prayers were not pompous or verbose. It was God to whom he prayed, not man. A desire for public acclaim and reputation was far from his mind.

Watts never stooped to decry other servants of the Lord. Intellectually he was well endowed for the Lord's service and for the work for which he is best known — a hymn writer. When he was sixteen years old he had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French, and later excelled in natural philosophy and higher mathematics. Although he was never strong and often ill, Watts applied himself diligently to acquire learning which would help him in his service for the Lord. In his beautiful little poem, "How doth the little busy bee", there are two lines which have become household words: "for Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do".

It was his father who embarked Watts on his career as a hymnwriter. In those days a paraphrase of the Psalms was widely used in the Dissenting churches. According to Watts' judgment of them, they were crude renderings and did not express the joy and dignity of Christian worship. When Watts complained to his father about composition and the singing, his father exhorted him to attempt something better. Watts immediately wrote:

"Behold the glories of the Lamb Amidst the Father's throne,

Prepare new honours for His Name And songs before unknown".

Watts' desire to write new expressions of praise and worship was because he saw a great need. He had no desire for personal glory and honour. His brother, Enoch, also encouraged Watts to apply himself to this noble endeavour. A few extracts from a letter he wrote to Isaac, are worth noting. Referring to Isaac's poems and the ones he sought to replace, Enoch wrote, "Yours is the old truth stripped of its ragged ornaments and appears, if we may say so as younger by ages, in a new and fashionable dress". Referring to the crude and dreary renderings, Enoch wrote: "There is in them a mighty deficiency of that life and soul which is necessary to raise our fancies and kindle and fire our passions. I have been persuaded from a great while since, that were David to speak English, he would choose to make use of your style".

Watts knew that he would suffer criticism when he sought to change the existing songs into purer Christian worship. In his judgement the Psalms were pre-Christian worship and many expressions in them, such as imprecatory prayers, were not suitable for Christians to sing. Carefully he wove New Testament teaching into the Old Testament Psalms and other Old Testament teachings such as the offerings and the priesthood. The Christian world is indebted to him for his excellent labours. He set a standard and gave an example that was followed by many capable hymn writers after him. The Christian Church will continue to sing Watts' hymns as long as it is left in testimony in this world. Many of his beautiful hymns are not connected with Old Testament back grounds but are his own inspired compositions replete with scriptural expressions.

The hymns that Watts wrote are over 500 in number and many of them are "the fruit that remains". Wherever believers on the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, meet together for worship, ministry or prayer, his hymns are used. They are suitable vehicles for praise to God the Father and to His Son, Jesus Christ. Help and comfort are also supplied for believers who are needy and burdened.

Since the day it was first used that sublime composition "When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of Glory died" has moved, humbled and challenged untold numbers of Christians. The third verse, See from His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flowed mingled down" has been described as the finest stanza in Christian hymnology. That may be disputed but it is sufficient that it has been suggested. "Not all the blood of beasts, On Jewish altars slain" has obvious connections with Jewish worship, but points the Christian to the one great sacrifice of Christ. It is a beautiful hymn to be used at the remembrance of the Lord Jesus in His Supper, as is another beautiful hymn of Isaac Watts "Alas and did my Saviour bleed". These hymns are marked by reverence and deep appreciation of the Lord's sufferings and death. Thanks and praise to God are expressed in his "Our thanks to God most High, The Father of our Lord" and sincere appreciation of God's great mercies as seen in the hymn "My soul repeat His praise". The Creator and Redeemer God is praised in a beautiful composition "O God how wide Thy glory shines". "Jesus shall reign where e'er the sun" anticipates the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ and "Break forth and sing the song Of glory to the Lamb" reminds its singers of the sacrificial glory of Christ. "Come let us join our cheerful songs, And thus approach the Throne" is an invitation to all those who love Christ to celebrate His supremacy in glory at God's right hand. "Join all the glorious names Of wisdom, love and power" is an exhilarating hymn in asserting the unique and numerous glories of Christ. The Great High Priesthood of Christ is graphically portrayed in "With joy we meditate the grace Of God's High Priest above" and in "O Lord in Thee our eyes behold a thousand glories more". These compositions and many more, provide a legacy of song and praise that Watts has left for the people of God in Christ until they sing the new song in glory.

C.H. Spurgeon told an amusing story which involved Watts' hymns. His grandmother promised him a penny for every hymn of Watts that he memorised. Spurgeon was so efficient in his memory work that his grandmother reduced the reward to a half penny, and eventually a farthing. Spurgeon loved the hymns of Isaac Watts.

The busy life of Isaac Watts ended in his seventy fourth year. He overcame the continual bodily weakness that afflicted him for twenty six years, and pursued an active life of service for God and His beloved people. He was greatly loved by those who knew him intimately. He died confident in his Saviour's love, remarking that he rested in the many wonderful promises that he found in Holy Scripture. A friend who visited him before he died wrote about him "I never could discover, though I was frequently with him, the least shadow of doubt as to his future everlasting happiness, or anything that looked like an unwillingness to die". A friend asked how he was and he replied, "Waiting God's leave to die".

There is a bust of Isaac Watts in Westminster Abbey. He has been honoured by those who have appreciated the contribution he has made to the English speaking peoples. The best honour Watts has is when his hymns are sung, not to his praise, but to the praise of God the Father and to His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

List of Isaac Watts' Hymns in 'Spiritual Songs 1978'

3 O God, we see Thee in the Lamb

43 Not all the blood of beasts

60 Our thanks to God most high

87 Jesus shall reign where'er the sun'

95 Break forth and sing the song

102 Come let us join our cheerful songs

144 Salvation! Oh, the joyful sound. [The chorus is by Theodulf of Orleans c. 821]

228 Join all the glorious names

281 With joy we meditate the grace

283 When I survey the wondrous cross

346 Lord of the worlds above. Except verse 2. A paraphrase of Ps. 84

349 My soul, repeat His praise

355 Come ye that love the Lord

403 Alas! and did my Saviour bleed?

464 O God how wide Thy glory shines

467 Oh Lord in Thee our eyes behold a thousand glories more

Birth: July 17, 1674, Southampton, England
Death: November 25, 1749, Stoke Newington, England
Known as the "Father of English hymnody," Isaac Watts wrote approximately 600 hymns. He showed literary genius even as a boy.

He was born to Isaac Watts, Sr. and his wife Sarah, who were "Dissenters." That is, they were not Anglicans, which was a treasonous offense in those days. About the time that Isaac, Jr. arrived, prematurely, on July 17, 1674, the elder Watts was arrested. Sarah reportedly nursed little Isaac while seated on a stone outside the prison.

In time Watts was released and the young couple soon discovered they had a precocious child. Young Isaac took to books almost from infancy. He loved rhyme and verse. At age seven, he wrote an acrostic spelling out the letters of his name. This acrostic not only showed his brilliance, but also the strong Calvinistic theology which was characteristic of his life.

"I" - I am a vile, polluted lump of earth 
"S" - So I've continued ever since my birth 
"A" - Although Jehovah, grace doth daily give me 
"A" - As sure this monster, Satan, will deceive me 
"C" - Come therefore, Lord, from Satan's claws relieve me.

"W" - Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ 
"A" - And grace divine impart 
"T" - Then search and try the corners of my heart 
"T" - That I in all things may be fit to do 
"S" - Service to Thee, and Thy praise too.

Once as a child, he reportedly got in trouble for making rhymes out of everyday language. Scolded for this, he replied,

"Oh, Father, do some pity take, 
and I will no more verses make."

Watts' studies in language went far beyond everyday rhymes, however. He learned Latin at four, Greek at nine, French at ten, and Hebrew at thirteen. Noticing his abilities, a doctor and some friends offered him a university education, figuring that he would be ordained in the Church of England. Watts turned them down, instead attending the Nonconformist Academy under the care of Thomas Rowe, joining the Independent congregation at Girdlers' Hall in 1693. He left the academy at the age of 20, spending the next two years at home.

Frustrated with the heartless psalm singing of his time, young Watts sometimes criticized the singing at his church. Listening to his concerns one day, Watts' father challenged him, "Well then, young man, why don't you give us something better to sing?" He rose to the challenge by writing his first hymn. It was well received by the congregation of the Mark Lane Independent Chapel, where he attended, and for the next two years, Watts wrote a new hymn for every Sunday. It was during this time that he wrote the bulk of Hymns and Spiritual Songs. These were sung from manuscripts in the Southampton chapel and were published 1707-1709.

Watts moved to London to tutor the children of a wealthy family of Dissenters. He joined Mark Lane Independent Chapel, where he was soon asked to be a teacher, then was hired as associate pastor. He preached his first sermon at the age of 24. In 1702 he was ordained as senior pastor of the congregation, the position he retained to the end of his life. He was a brilliant Bible student and his sermons brought the church to life.

A short and frail man, Watts health began to fail at a young age. When his friends, the Abneys, invited him to visit their estate in 1712, Watts accepted. He ended up staying with them for thirty-six years, writing many of his hymns on their estate and preaching occasionally as his health permitted.

Though German Lutherans had been singing hymns for over a hundred years by Watts' time, Calvinists had not. Calvin preferred that his people only sing psalms. But Watts had become concerned about congregational singing with only grim, ponderous psalms to sing. Wanting to bring New Testament light to the psalms, Watts wrote paraphrases of nearly all of the psalms, publishing them in a hymnal titled Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.

Watts also wrote hymns that departed from the psalms and included more personal expressions. This literary license did not please everyone and some felt his hymns were "too worldly" for the church as they were not based on the Psalms. Yet Watts felt strongly that the Christian church should sing of Christ. He explained his approach to writing hymns this way:

"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 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."

Watts further explained his philosophy on hymn-writing in his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, a collection of 210 of his hymns:

"While we sing the praises of God in His church, we are employed in that part of worship which of all others is the nearest akin to heaven, and 'tis pity that this of all others should be performed the worst upon earth. That very action which should elevate us to the most delightful and divine sensations doth not only flat our devotion but too often awakens our regret and touches all the springs of uneasiness within us."

Some of Watts' paraphrases are still widely sung today. "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" is a paraphrase of Psalm 90, "Joy to the World" is from Psalm 98, "Jesus Shall Reign," from Psalm 72.

In all, nearly 600 hymns are attributed to him. His hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" has been described as the best hymn in the English language. Other well-loved hymns written by Isaac Watts include "I Sing the Mighty Power of God," "Jesus Shall Reign," and "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" After his death, this well-loved writer was honored with a statue in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Born: July 17, 1674, Southampton, England

Died: November 25, 1749 Stoke Newington, England

The popularity of Isaac Watts' hymns caused a tempest in his day. In his day, English congregations predominately sang Psalms, so singing verses that were of "human composure" (such as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross") caused great controversy. One man complained, "Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired Psalms and taken in Watts' flights of fancy." The issue split churches, including one in Bedford, England that was once pastored by John Bunyan.

In America, in May, 1789, Rev. Adam Rankin told the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, meeting in Philadelphia: "I have ridden horseback all the way from my home in Kentucky to ask this body to refuse the great and pernicious error of adopting the use of Isaac Watts' hymns in public worship in preference to the Psalms of David."

We don't know Watts' reaction to these statements, however Dr. Samuel Johnson said of him "by his natural temper he was quick of resentment; but, by his established and habitual practice, he was gentle, modest, and inoffensive."

Enjoying the children of Sir Thomas and Lady Abney, with whom he stayed, Watts published Divine and Moral Songs for Children in 1715. It sold 80,000 copies in a year and has been selling ever since. In the preface he states, "Children of high and low degree, of the Church of England or Dissenters, baptized in infancy or not, may all join together in these songs. And as I have endeavored to sink the language to the level of a child's understanding . . . to profit all, if possible, and offend none."

Page numbers in Trinity Hymnal (1990) and The Worshiping Church (1990)
Title Trinity Worshiping
Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed 254 208
Am I a Soldier of the Cross 573 668
As When the Hebrew Prophet Raised 506
At the Cross 512
Before Jehovah's Awesome Throne 65
Blest are the Undefiled 557
Come, Dearest Lord, Descend and Dwell 340
Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove 332 298
Come, Sound His Praise Around 118
Come, We That Love the Lord 700 22
From All That Dwell Below the Skies 7
From Depths of Woe I Raise to Thee 554
Give To Our God Immortal Praise 3 16
Great God, How Infinite Art Thou! 27
Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard 31
How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place 469
I Sing the Mighty Power of God 119 52
I'm Not Ashamed to Own My Lord 505
I'll Praise My Maker While I've Breath 79
Jesus Shall Reign 441 745
My Great Hight Priest 306
Join All the Glorious Names 301 85
Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come 195 146
Let Children Hear the Mighty Deeds 364
Lord of the Worlds Above 375
My Dear Redeemer and My Lord 238
Nature with Open volumn Stands 222
Not the Blood of Beasts 242
O Bless the Lord, My Soul 78 71
O Thou That Hear'st When Sinners Cry 485
O God, Our Help In Ages Past 30 78
Stand Up, My Soul; Shake Off Your Fears 577
The Beautitudes 527
The Heavens Declare your Glory, Lord 138
There is a Land of Pure Delight 550
This Is the Day the Lord Has Made 389
We're Marching to Zion 596
What Offering Shall We Give? 490
What Shall I Render to My God 637
When I Can Read My Title Clear 681
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross 252 213
With Songs and Honors Sounding Loud 127
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide
Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended
All For Jesus
All Glory, Laud and Honor
Alleluia, Sing to Jesus
America the Beautiful
And Can It Be
Angels We Have Heard on High
Away In a Manger
Be Thou My Vision
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Come, Christians, Join to Sing
Crown Him with Many Crowns
Eternal Father, Strong to Save
Fairest Lord Jesus
For the Beauty of the Earth
Gentle Mary Laid Her Child
God of Our Fathers
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
Hallelujah, What a Savior
He Leadeth Me: O Blessed Thought
Holy, Holy, Holy
I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art
I Sing the Mighty Power of God
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
It Is Well with My Soul
Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts
Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Lift High the Cross
Like A River Glorious
Make Me a Captive, Lord
May the Mind of Christ My Savior
My Jesus, I Love Thee
Now Thank We All Our God
O Come All Ye Faithful
O Come O Come Emmanuel
O God, Our Help In Ages Past
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus
Onward, Christian Soldiers
Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven
Rejoice the Lord Is King
Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us
Silent Night
Soldiers of Christ, Arise
The Church's One Foundation
The Lord's My Shepherd
Thine Be the Glory
This Is My Father's World
We Are God's People
We Come O Christ To You
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross



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