The ABYSS Project: Boorstin’s ‘The Image’

A Little Introduction

This is the inaugural entry in what I hope to make a weekly, or at least occasional, feature. I have taken the title for the feature – basically a book review segment – from a reference I believe that C.S. Lewis made to the contemporary period. Somewhere in the past, I think I remember reading him referring to his own time (with literature in mind) as ‘the abyss of the present.’ In Lewis’s introduction to Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation, he argues briefly but convincingly for the study of old books on the basis that previous ages do not have the same blind spots as our own. Therefore writers from the past may serve as correctives to some of our own underlying misconceptions and preconceived notions about the world we live in. Lewis wryly observed there that ‘to be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.’

In the spirit of modern trendiness, I have titled the feature ‘ABYSS’ in capitals to indicate that I have an acronym in mind. The acronym is ‘About Books You Should Study’, and in the spirit of Lewis I will try to prefer older books to the new. Nevertheless, I already know that I will need to make a few exceptions, so bear with me. I intend to bring to your attention literature you may never have come across in the hope of prodding you toward the leisure of reflective study with profitable works.

boorstin_image

Down to Business

The first book under consideration has brought me nearly into agreement with one of its recent reviewers (advertised on the back cover): ‘a book every American needs to read every few years.’ I have read it a few times now, and each time through it has been a remarkable refresher. The book is historian Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

It almost qualifies as an ‘old’ book even now, having been published over half a century ago in 1961. Boorstin lived through most of the radical transitions of the 20th century (1914-2004) and remains one of my favorite writers of history. His career saw him teaching at various prestigious universities and working as the twelfth Librarian of Congress (1975-87). His trilogy on the forming of the American nation is fascinating and worth the time if you have it.

The Image is one of his shorter works, and arguably one of his greatest. The organizing principle of the book is his observation that American people have ‘Extravagant Expectations’ – that we expect to receive from the world more than it has to offer us, and that we expect to have an almost limitless power to shape our world. Boorstin develops this main idea along several lines to show the effects our desires have had on the shaping of modern culture; the effects might be summarized in his words from the introduction: ‘We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality.’

Each very readable and engrossing chapter (and I don’t say that about many books from heavyweight thinkers) documents a transition that took place alongside what Boorstin calls the ‘Graphic Revolution’, a period roughly corresponding to the development of mass printing and image-distributing technologies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These cultural sea changes he refers to as ‘From News Gathering to News Making’, ‘From Hero to Celebrity’, ‘From Traveler to Tourist’, ‘From Shapes to Shadows’ (referring to art forms), ‘From Ideal to Image’ (referring to the paradigm of our thinking), and ‘From the American Dream to American Illusions’, the last of which he hesitatingly terminates with a question mark, as if to say that he hopes we aren’t so far gone that there isn’t any turning back.

In this book, Boorstin is recognized as having coined the term ‘pseudo-event’, referring to an ‘event’ that is not actually a spontaneous happening in the world, but a ‘happening’ of ambiguous origin orchestrated by someone for the consumption of others. He first describes these events in their most simple form as he briefly recounts the history of the institution of ‘the news’ in American society. Where newspapers in the colonial era generally reported things that happened in the world, and thus might not have an edition for a month or two when world events slacked off, the gradual transformation of the ‘news’ into big business and entertainment fostered the development of events made up, by journalists or others with an interest at stake, purely for the purpose of being reported. This is the origin, for example, of the modern press conference. These pseudo-events, as Boorstin ably demonstrates, tend to spawn other pseudo-events ‘in geometric progression’, giving us the sense that something is ‘happening’ out in the world around the clock when all that is happening is the churning of the news machinery in the creation of its constantly obsolescing product. Pseudo-events ‘arouse news hunger in the very act of satisfying it.’

Boorstin also observed in this book that while a hero was known for his exploits, his character, his towering virtues or his outstanding flaws, a celebrity is someone who is ‘known for his well-knownness’, a living tautology, the human pseudo-event. While we used to respect the ‘big man’, we now look for the ‘big name’. Real heroes cannot survive long in the memory of our present society because in order to do so, they have to acquire the qualities of celebrities to hang on to the spotlight for more than a few minutes of air time. We, as a people, no longer have heroes that serve as external sources to fill us with purpose. ‘These new-model “heroes” [celebrities] are receptacles into which we pour our own purposelessness.’

In the remaining chapters, the author has written a number of insightful passages on tourism – modern ‘travel’ making the world a stage for pseudo-events: ‘The tourist gets there without the experience of having gone’; on art – ‘as never before in art, it has become possible for the great, the famous, and the cliche to be synonymous’; and on the patterns of our thinking – ‘paradoxically, too, the more we know about the tricks of image building, about the calculation, ingenuity, and effort that have gone into a particular image, the more satisfaction we have from the image itself.’

At the root of the modern manifestations Boorstin examines in The Image is the problem stated in the introduction: our expectations of what the world offers and what we can make of it are extravagant. In order to satisfy them, we have transformed our lives in this society. We have traded spontaneous reality for an ever-multiplying parade of illusions and replaced ideals with images. In the process, we seemed to have gained control of the governance of what we now perceive as ‘reality’, but at what cost? Is it possible for us to see things as they are anymore?

If it is, the first step is to properly see the illusion. Boorstin’s work is the most helpful set of lenses fit to the purpose of which I am aware.

Happy reading!

Ken Myers: Church and Culture

Ken Myers has transformed my thinking over the last several years in at least two ways. He has directly influenced my patterns of reflection and behavior through lectures I heard (beginning with a Classical Education conference in 2008), and he has indirectly altered many areas of my life and my family’s life through the bibliography trail he always seems to leave behind him. I’m still reading books I learned about through his work and I am still wrestling with questions about Christianity, culture, media, the arts, and the kingdom of God because of him.

I’m posting this because I stumbled upon an interview with Ken that hit a number of high points that resonated with me. I am in total agreement with his stance on the transformative, mind-renewing need of our modern church. In the clip below Ken talks briefly about attentiveness, deliberation, technology, silence, and the importance of eating meals together (among other things). If some of what you hear resonates with you, you might want to check out Ken’s periodical over at Mars Hill Audio.

Lectures he delivered at the ACCS Conference in Austin (Summer 2008) can be heard for free over at WordMP3.com. There are four – three are near the top of the list on that page, and the lecture on music, “With Choirs of Angels”, is further down.

Psalm 2

Why are the nations in an uproar
And the peoples devising a vain thing?
The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers take counsel together
Against Yahweh and against His Anointed, saying,
“Let us tear their fetters apart
And cast away their cords from us!”

He who sits in the heavens laughs,
The Lord scoffs at them.
Then He will speak to them in His anger
And terrify them in His fury, saying,
“But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.”

“I will surely tell of Yahweh’s decree:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.'”

Now therefore, O kings, show discernment;
Take warning, O judges of the earth.
Worship Yahweh with reverence
And rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way,
For His wrath may soon be kindled.

How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!

In the first Psalm we got a broad-stroke contrast between the righteous and the wicked, and we learned the necessity of being counted among the congregation of the righteous. In the second Psalm we step back from the pictures of individuals, and even assemblies, to view the cosmic reality that undergirds the urgent lesson of the first. God has promised to give the whole world to His Anointed One, His Messiah.

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In this Psalm, we hear three different speakers and the Psalmist’s commentary on what they say. His comments begin and end the Psalm, and he begins with the futility of the nations’ resistance to God’s reign. “Why are the nations in an uproar?” Why do the kings of the earth plot and scheme together, as though they could overthrow the reign of the Creator God and His chosen Instrument? It’s a rhetorical question with an obvious implication: the earth’s rulers are impotent in the face of Yahweh and His Anointed. Nevertheless, in spiritual blindness they continue their plotting: “Let’s throw off their cords and break their shackles! We will do what we please.” The thought is the same as what we find in Jesus’ parable about the man who went to receive a kingdom for himself and then return; while he was gone, the people sent a delegation after him saying, “We will not have this man to rule over us” (Luke 19:14).

The next speaker we hear is Yahweh Himself, and we are told that as He reflects upon the indignant rebellion of the kings of the earth, He laughs them to scorn. Yahweh does not fear men, whom He made from the dust of the ground. Sadly, this story doesn’t end in laughter, but in fright and terror: “He will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury.” His word to the kings of the earth is that He has installed His King (the Hebrew is emphatic there) at Zion. Similarly, the implication is that the nations are “a drop in the bucket” when compared with the great King whom Yahweh has appointed.

We then hear the third speaker – the Anointed Himself, whom we understand now to be Jesus Christ – claiming the relation of Sonship to Yahweh and relating what He was told by His Father. The nations are to be given to the Messiah for ownership, for judgment, for breaking and shattering. The Son will possess what the Father possesses, and the plans of the nations will fail at the end to deliver them from His everlasting reign.

The final word given by the Psalmist is a caution: “Get your world view straight! Yahweh reigns now, and His Anointed has been promised the nations as a gift.” They will not be able to throw off His chains in the end. If they are discerning, they will worship with reverence, rejoice with trembling, and give over entirely to the Son before His wrath is kindled.

And so ought we to do. Do we see Yahweh as presently reigning King, subduing enemies under His feet and handing over the nations to His Son? Do we have a proper vision of His majestic glory, his terrible wrath and fury, and his kind patience in turning people to Himself and His ways? Does our vision of the triune God, remarkably described in this Psalm, draw us to reverent and joyful worship?

If these things are true of us, we may be confident of the blessing promised at the conclusion for “all who take refuge in Him”! Do not be surprised that the rulers of the earth will not suffer Yahweh’s Messiah to rule over them. Do not fear them! In their resistance, they will fail; in His swift judgment, they will fall. See the big picture: Kiss the Son; be among the congregation of the righteous; and be there because the nations have been promised to Him who reigns over all and blesses His own.

Quick Note: Reformed Radio

This is just a post-it to recommend the new online/iOS radio from Ligonier to any and all. Sound teaching, brief news reports, excellent music; the programming will improve your day and draw your thoughts to Christ. Bravo to all involved! My workdays in the shop are already looking brighter.

Refnet Christian Radio

(Just click the “Listen Online” button on the page I’ve linked above.)

Soli Deo Gloria

Psalm 1

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law [torah] of Yahweh,
And in His law [torah] he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For Yahweh knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.

wisdom_tree

I remember hearing a sermon on this Psalm preached by Ralph Davis, my pastor at Woodland Presbyterian, a number of years ago. I was impressed with his summary statement. Early in the sermon, he emphasized that the reason this Psalm is at the front end of the Psalter is to throw emphasis on how important it is that we belong to the congregation of the righteous. To us, Psalms 100, 103, 95, 23, or even 73 might seem like much more natural fits for the opening of a book of praise. God in His Spirit saw things differently.

In the opening of the Psalter we are encouraged to think on the stark (and eternal) differences between the wicked and the righteous, and prompted to examine ourselves to see if we belong to the latter group or not. What are the characteristics of the righteous? He is, first of all, blessed. He is happy in God. Why? The ground of this blessing is given in the progression illustrated in the first three lines – he is blessed who does not “walk,” “stand,” or “sit” in this way or in this company. I am reminded here of the parallel from Deuteronomy 6, the command to teach God’s ways to one’s children when we lie down, when we stand up, when we walk by the way – poetic longhand for “at all times and in all life’s affairs from small to great.” The righteous doesn’t walk according to wicked counsel – the direction of his life comes from God, which we will see illustrated below. He does not stand in the path, or the way, of sinners – his behavior is not like theirs. He doesn’t sit in the seat of the scoffer – in other words, he doesn’t belong to that group or associate himself with them. A primary characteristic of the righteous (and happy) man is that he is separated; we first learn about him by understanding who he is not and what he doesn’t do.

But what does the righteous man do, and what is the result? In God’s law he meditates continually. The Hebrew word we translate “law” here is torah, which is broader in meaning than “the direct commands of God.” Torah refers to all the revelation of God to men – narrative history, wisdom, and even the Psalter itself. We get the idea here that God’s revealed truth is something the righteous man mulls over all the time. Perhaps the stories, commands and proverbs are running through his mind (and over his lips) the way popular radio songs run through ours. I think that ought to make us stop, by the way, and consider our own habits. Why? Consider the third verse.

The results of his meditation are shown by a simile: He will be like a tree planted by a stream – he bears fruit and his works prosper. Obviously, we are being given the brief summary from the divine perspective and not the day-to-day details of the life of the righteous. The Psalmist knows we may read those elsewhere in the Scriptures. He is concerned to give us the big picture because it is necessary for us to keep that vision in view through the storms that will come. The righteous bears fruit and prospers – strong trees weather storms. We must not ignore what, in the Psalmist’s view, gives strength to the tree: continual meditation on the thoughts of God given to men.

The contrasting picture of the wicked is as brief as it is desperate. He is emphatically “not so!” He is not a tree, nor even a sheaf of wheat, but chaff, driven by the wind. His life is, in the end, not substantial; no fruit is borne, and, as we read elsewhere, his end is to be burned. In contrast to the righteous, notice what the wicked lack (again, I’m remembering Davis’ sermon here):

They are not justified before God (they will not stand in the judgment).

They do not commune with God or His people (sinners will not be in the assembly of the righteous).

They have no hope (their way will perish, or lead them to destruction).

If we can’t hear it clearly enough yet, the Psalmist is saying to us, “You don’t want to be one of them! They are NOT blessed – on the contrary, they’re unhappy, unjustified, alienated, and ultimately damned!” Are you part of the congregation of the righteous? There remains one final encouragement from the Psalmist to ensure that you are: Yahweh knows the way of the righteous. He is intimately acquainted with those who love Him, and He designs, oversees, acts in and works in their way from beginning to end. The righteous, who love Yahweh’s torah, will not be forsaken.

Are we a part of that congregation? How do we know? We can start by heeding the opening words of the Psalter: how do we walk? Where do we stand? With whom do we sit? And what is the meditation of our hearts by day and night? Our walk will confirm to us our end. If we would bear the peaceful fruit of righteousness, and if we would sing the praises of God with His people, we must carefully consider where we stand in light of the Psalmist’s preface of admonition. First things first.

Watts: “He Takes But What He Gave”

Watts

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,

ISAAC WATTS.”

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.

His Battle

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.

His Legacy

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.