Lying on his deathbed in 1748, at the age of seventy-four, Isaac Watts said to a friend that he remembered an aged minister who used to say that the most learning and knowing Christians, when they come to die, have only the same plain promises of the gospel for their support as the common and the unlearned. “And so I find it; they are the plain promises of the gospel that are my support, and I bless God they are plain promises, which do not require much labor or pain to understand them, for I can do nothing now but look into my Bible for some promise to support me, and live upon that.” It was a remarkable statement from a born scholar, a pastor, a man fluent in several languages both living and dead, who had written during his young life a work which would spend more than a century as the logic textbook for the most prestigious universities in Britain — schools he never attended himself. On the occasion of his death on November 25 of that year, a close friend named Mr. Parker wrote in a letter to Isaac’s brother, “May God forgive us all, that we have improved no more by him, while we enjoyed him!”
Watts was no typical man; his wit, his sharp intellect, his living faith in the atonement, his rock-solid, principled theological stand, and (I think) most of all, his tremendous heart, would be missed dearly. But his legacy would remain with the church far longer than he ever imagined.
Isaac Watts lived through a period of unusual transition in British history. When he was born in July of 1674, the first of nine children, his mother had to take baby Isaac to a local prison for Nonconformists to visit his father. The Stuart family was on the throne, Charles II having retaken power after the years of the Long Parliament, and persecution was common for those who met outside the Church of England. When Isaac was young, avenues to prosperity were available only through conformity to the Church of England. By contrast, when he died in 1748, Methodism was practically taking over many parts of the nation under the more tolerant reign of George II. John Bunyan died when Watts was fourteen years old. This was the era of Newton, Locke, and Dryden, and of Samuel Wesley, the father of John and Charles.
His father, also Isaac, was a Nonconformist shoemaker who ultimately, after short spells in prison and two years in exile (until the Stuart abdication), started a very successful boarding school for the sons of wealthy families at home and abroad. His mother was likely of French Huguenot descent, from one of the families that had earlier fled the persecution of the Catholic church in France. Isaac’s father would live to be eighty-five years old; when he died, Isaac was sixty-three. The relationship between them (in maturity) might best be indicated through this letter, sent from son to father near the time of the father’s passing:
“Honoured and dear sir,
“It is now ten days since I heard from you, and learned by my nephew that you had been recovered from a very threatening illness. When you are in danger of life, I believe my sister is afraid to let me know the worst, for fear of affecting me too much. But as I feel old age daily advancing on myself, I am endeavouring to be ready for my removal hence; and though it gives a shock to nature when what has been long dear to one is taken away, yet reason and religion should teach us to expect it in these scenes of mortality and a dying world. Blessed be God for our immortal hopes, through the blood of Jesus, who has taken away the sting of death! What could such dying creatures do without the comforts of the gospel? I hope you feel those satisfactions of soul on the borders of life which nothing can give but this gospel, which you taught us all in our younger years. May these divine consolations support your spirits under all your growing infirmities; and may our blessed Saviour form your soul to such a holy heavenly frame, that you may wait with patience amidst the langours of life for a joyful passage into the land of immortality! May no cares nor pains ruffle nor afflict your spirit! May you maintain a constant serenity at heart, and sacred calmness of mind, as one who has long passed midnight, and is in view of the dawning day! ‘The night is far spent, the day is at hand!’ Let the garments of light be found upon us, and let us lift up our heads, for our redemption draws nigh. Amen.
“I am, dear sir, – your most affectionate obedient son,
Among the anecdotes from Watts’ childhood in Southampton is a story relating that before Isaac could even speak properly, when he was handed coins, he would try to say “a book! A book! Buy a book!” He began studying Latin at age four with his father, who during his childhood also helped him to gain proficiency in Greek and Hebrew. He picked up a good deal of French before he got much older. Young Isaac studied at the grammar school in his hometown under a local church rector named John Pinhorne, who recognized Watts’ promise but died before much of his potential was realized. Watts wrote very few memoirs, but we do find in them a note suggesting that he was converted at the age of 15, in 1689.
Dr. John Speed, a physician in Southampton, offered to pay Isaac’s way to Oxford or Cambridge while a young teenager. Knowing this would mean having to conform to the established church, Isaac refused the offer; he knew that he was refusing the only path to religious prosperity in Britain. Following the principles his father had instilled, in 1690, at age 16, he went to study at a Dissenter’s Academy in a part of London called Stoke Newington. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe (among other things), had studied at the same Academy. While studying, in 1693 Isaac became a member of an Independent (congregational) Church pastored by Charles Morton, who would later move to America and become one of the first vice presidents of Harvard University.
By all accounts, Watts was an exceptional student: his instructor, who had previously been ejected from Westminster Abbey, reported that Isaac always excelled, never required a reprimand, and applied himself vigorously to any task. One of the methods he likely applied (because he recommends it later in his book called On Improving the Mind) was the abridging of eminent works in the field of interest. We also have some evidence that he interleaved books he studied, so as to put relevant material from other works beside the material already in the books. He became good friends with a number of fellow students at the Academy, and two of his closest, Josiah Hart and John Hughes, conformed to the Church of England after graduating and secured stable, relatively wealthy futures in the Church’s hierarchy. Far from disowning them, Watts maintained ties and communication by letter for many years afterward.
Upon returning home after studies in 1694, at age 20, Watts was rather disappointed with the quality of the material – mostly metrical psalms – being used for singing in worship at his family’s church. His father encouraged him to take a stab at producing something better. He started with one hymn, which was well received; followed it with another, and then another, until he had produced a small hymnbook of his own over the course of about two years, from age 20 to 22. The majority of the hymns Isaac wrote were produced during this period, and he is credited with the composition of over six hundred hymns. More on this later.
In 1696, Watts left home and returned to Stoke Newington to take a position as tutor in the house of Sir John Hartopp, in whose home Richard Baxter had designed and partly written The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. Hartopp was a member of John Owen’s church (Mark Lane Independent Church), a committed Nonconformist connected to Oliver Cromwell’s family by marriage, and the father of seven daughters and two sons. It is believed that during his stay at Sir John’s, Watts conceived of many or most of his later literary works and wrote a number of them.
Isaac preached his first sermon at Mark Lane Church, in 1698, on his twenty-fourth birthday. The next year, he became assistant minister to Isaac Chauncey (whose father had taught Greek at Cambridge), and was ordained as pastor of the church in 1702. Many British nobility, soldiers of the Commonwealth period, and relations of the Cromwell family were also members of this church. Two years later in 1704, due to the condition of the Mark Lane building, the church moved to Pinner’s Hall, also a hot spot for Puritan ministry: Baxter, Owen, Manton and Howe had all preached there.
Isaac had always been frail, but after being ordained as pastor, his health seemed to fail continually. Sometimes bouts with illness kept him from study and work, even at this early period of his life, for five months or more at a time. The church brought in an assistant minister under Watts in 1703, for by then it had become apparent that this condition was not temporary. In 1708, the congregation moved again to Duke Street to accommodate growth.
As his health took a nose dive in 1712, another wealthy dissenter who attended Watts’ church, a man named Sir Thomas Abney, invited Watts to spend a week at his lavish home (called Theobalds) in Hertfordshire. Watts wore out his welcome there, staying with the Abney family for thirty six years — that is, for the rest of his life.
Isaac’s brother had written to him in 1700 in an attempt to convince him to publish his hymns for the greater benefit of the church. Always humble, always self-deprecating, it took a lot more encouragement from others and seven years before Watts published the first edition in 1707. The copyright was sold to a Mr. Lawrence, the publisher, for 10 pounds sterling. In 1719, he would publish his edition of the Psalms for singing, selling the copyright for the same price.
Unfortunately, very little is known about the details of Watts’ conduct as pastor. We have many general affirmations of his character, wit, learning, understanding, and ability, and a few surviving sermons. He was known as a man of contemplation, and lived a comparatively hermetic existence. He never married. He battled illness continually over the course of a long life in a frail body, but he was also known for redeeming his time, engaging in activities like writing on horseback. He attempted to refuse his salary when he was unable to preach due to health, but the church would not allow it. He ensured that at least a third of his income went to charity. His preaching was admired locally but, due to his condition, unlike many members of the class to which he belonged, he never traveled outside the few places he had always lived. He saw very little even of England, and nothing of the continent or the rest of the world.
As we have already said, Watts died in the house of Lady Abney in 1748, age 74, after a long fight; pastor for fifty years, author of a number of substantial books on intellectual matters as well as volumes of poetry and hymns. I would like to spend a few moments looking at his battle and his legacy.
From his memoirs, we learn that Watts had a bout with a critical illness at least as early as his young teenage years. Those bouts never stopped. He was once kept from both work and study for five months, and later in life, for four entire years. When you hear in his work matters concerning darkness of the soul, inward pains, and sleepless nights, these were not just pithy sayings. He wrote directly out of experience. As far as we can tell, he went for extended periods in his life with little sleep other than what he could get with medication. But he persevered, content to receive what God gave.
And this was not his only fight. He was harassed and persecuted for years by another pastor, a very politically motivated local pastor named Thomas Bradbury.
Bradbury told Watts that he was “profane, conceited, impudent, and pragmatical;” He said, “You are mistaken if you think I ever knew, and much less admired, your mangling, garbling, transforming, etc., so many of your songs of Zion; your notions about psalmody, and your satirical flourishes in which you express them, are fitter for one who pays no regard to inspiration, than for a Gospel minister, as I may hereafter show in a more public way…” And from another of these letters: “Should any one take the liberty of burlesquing your poetry, as you have done that of the Most High God, you might call it personal reflection indeed; when I consider that most of those expressions are adopted either by the New Testament or the evangelical prophets, I tremble at your mowing them together, as though you were resolved to make the songs of Zion ridiculous…” And later, “Do you think that the ministers of London are to stand still while you tear in pieces eight great articles of their faith? And must everyone who answers your arguments be accused of personal reflections?”
The only complete correspondence of Watts published during his life was that between him and Mr. Bradbury. Watts always replied meekly, calmly, and with solid argument, while Bradbury seemed to rave like a madman. Watts replied to one such tirade as follows:
“I acknowledge with respect and thankfulness the kind opinions you have entertained of me, and I really value all the care you have shown not to grieve my spirit, whensoever I see it practiced. I easily believe, indeed, that your natural talent of wit is richly sufficient to have taken occasions from an hundred of passages in my writings to have filled your pages with much severer censures. In the vivacity of wit, in the copiousness of style in readiness of scripture phrases, and other useful talents, I freely own you for my superior, and will never pretend to become your rival. But it is only calm and sedate argument that weighs with me in matters of controversy, nor will I be displeased with any man for showing me my mistakes by force of argument, and in a spirit of meekness; it is only in this manner truth must be searched out, and not by wit and raillery.”
Bradbury answered: “Your profession of ‘seeking the truth’ is very popular, and I do not wonder to find it so often in all your writings; but then there is such a thing as ‘ever learning, and not being able to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ And it is pity, after you have been more than thirty years a teacher of others, you are yet to learn the first principles of the oracles of God. What will our hearers think of us when we succeed the greatest men of our late age in nothing else but their pulpits? Is there no certainty in the words of truth? Was Dr. Owen’s church to be taught another Jesus, that the Son and Holy Spirit were only two powers in the divine nature? Shall the men who planted and watered so happy a part of the vineyard have all their labours rendered in vain? Shall a fountain in the same place send forth sweet water and bitter? What need is there of a charge?”
Certainly this is one of the hardest afflictions for a shepherd of God’s people to bear, and he bore it for many years. If you are suffering through a similar trial, take heart! Christ has overcome the world, and his strengthening power is as much with us now as it was with Isaac.
Though so few details of his life were left to us, his hymns and psalms have become a substantial chunk of the heritage of Christianity. What is more, Watts was largely responsible for the fact that we have any English hymn tradition at all.
When Watts was young, churches in Britain did not frequently have singing as a part of the service. The minority of churches who sang would sing versified Psalms in unison, some of which were rather clunky and unaesthetic. Dissatisfied with the situation at his home church in Southampton (as I mentioned already), Watts wrote hundreds of hymn texts, many of them based on Scripture, between the ages of 20 and 22. As you might expect, he received a great deal of criticism from traditionalists and was forced in print and in person to argue his case (“If we can pray to God in our own words, may we not likewise sing to Him?”). On the whole, as his music passed from church to church, it began to receive wide acclaim from the beginning of the 18th century, and his songs became the basis for English Christian hymnody. Watts set the tone (emotional subjectivity, doctrinal objectivity) for most of the great hymn writers who would follow in that tradition: Charles Wesley, Augustus Toplady, John Newton, William Cowper, and many more.
Watts was introduced to America with Ben Franklin’s 1729 printing of the Psalms, but was not generally accepted in the American churches until the Great Awakening in the 1740’s. George Whitefield had a great part in spreading Watts’ hymns in England and America, and Jonathan Edwards mentioned in 1742 that his congregation sang Watts almost to the exclusion of the Psalms. (Watts likewise read Edwards’ Faithful Narrative of Surprising Conversions to his congregation in London.) As his hymns spread throughout American churches, they also inspired a generation of American hymn writers. His legacy lives today in many of the hymns we sing from week to week at Redeemer Baptist and elsewhere. Among the best known of his hundreds of texts are “Joy to the World,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed,” and “Jesus Shall Reign.”
The title of this entry comes from another one of Isaac’s texts, which I present below in closing. I thought it fitting for rounding out the discussion of his perseverance through difficulty. His Psalms and Hymns may be freely obtained in many formats at CCEL online. Most, like the one below, are untitled.
Naked as from the earth we came,
And crept to life at first,
We to the earth return again,
And mingle with our dust.
The dear delights we here enjoy,
And fondly call our own,
Are but short favours borrowed now,
To be repaid anon.
‘Tis God that lifts our comforts high,
Or sinks them in the grave;
He gives, and (blessed be His name!)
He takes but what He gave.
Peace, all our angry passions, then,
Let each rebellious sigh
Be silent as His sov’reign will,
And every murmur die.
If smiling mercy crowns our lives,
Its praises shall be spread;
And we’ll adore the justice too
That strikes our comforts dead.