Isaac Watts: A poet in awe of his Creator

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Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts (1674–1748) was a Christian preacher who composed some 750 hymns. In doing so, virtually single-handedly, he inaugurated congregational hymn singing as we know it today. He also wrote nine volumes on logic, astronomy, and philosophy, in which he explored the limits of reason, and discussed God’s creation as an expression of His power. He engaged with many of the scientific ideas of his time, including those of his contemporary, Isaac Newton.

Isaac Watts was born in Southampton, England on 17 July 1674, the eldest of nine children. His father, a schoolmaster, also named Isaac, was a Dissenter or non-conformist, i.e. a Protestant who did not think the Church of England had departed far enough from the beliefs and practices of Roman Catholicism. When little Isaac was born, his mother, Sarah, who was descended from a Huguenot family that had fled from France,1 was under considerable strain because Isaac’s father was in jail (for several months) because of his beliefs.2

A juvenile poet

Growing up, young Isaac enjoyed reading and especially liked rhyming verse. On one occasion, during family devotions, he saw a mouse climbing up the bell-pull and was heard to giggle. Questioned by his father, he replied that he had seen a mouse run up the rope and the thought had come into his mind:

“There was a mouse for want of stairs
Ran up a rope to say his prayers.”3

At first intrigued, and then annoyed at Isaac’s continued rhyming, his father ordered him to stop. Isaac didn’t. Punishment loomed, and Isaac burst out:

“O father, do some mercy take,
And I will no more verses make.”4

Fortunately for the world, he did not follow through on this youthful repudiation.

One day when Isaac was six, Sarah found some meaningful verses he had written down and she wondered if her son had composed them himself at such a young age. So she seated him at the kitchen table and asked him to write a poem. This he promptly did, using the letters of his own name in the form of a 10-line acrostic that showed the depth of his theological understanding at such an early age:5

I am a vile polluted lump of earth,
S o I’ve continu’d ever since my birth;
A lthough Jehovah, grace doth daily give me,
A s sure this monster Satan will deceive me,
C ome, therefore, Lord, from Satan’s claws relieve me.
W ash me in Thy blood, O Christ,
A nd grace divine impart,
T hen search and try the corners of my heart,
T hat I in all things may be fit to do
S ervice to Thee, and sing Thy praise too.

Also at age six, Isaac saw a very bright comet with a spectacularly long tail pass overhead. It was known variously as the Great Comet of 1680, Kirch’s Comet (in honour of its discoverer) or Newton’s Comet (who used it to test Kepler’s laws of planetary motion—and they passed the test with flying colours). Isaac frequently spoke about this, as it left a deep impression on his young mind and probably contributed to the interest he later developed in astronomy.

A talented linguist

Isaac showed linguistic genius early. From age four he was taught Latin by his father. Then at the free grammar school in Southampton, he went on to learn Greek at age 9, French at age 10, and Hebrew at age 13. These were all taught by a Mr John Pinhorne, who carefully directed and stimulated his young pupil’s genius.6

Trusting in Christ at age 15

Isaac’s head knowledge of the doctrines of Christianity came from growing up in a Christian home where his father led family devotions. And his father was also an outstanding example to him of someone whose faith meant willingness to suffer even to the point of imprisonment rather than deny fundamental beliefs. In 1688, Isaac recorded in his diary that he “Fell under considerable convictions of sin”, and the following year, aged 15, he more fully trusted in Christ.7

A Southampton physician, Dr John Speed, noticed Isaac’s intellectual ability and offered to pay for his education at an English University. However, entrance to Oxford or Cambridge required allegiance to the Articles of the Church of England, so Isaac refused the offer. Instead, at age 16, he went to Newington Green, London, to study at the non-conformist Academy of Thomas Rowe, a leading academic among the Dissenters.8

Four years later, well educated in theology, the higher branches of mathematics, natural phenomena, and philosophy, he returned home, where he spent a further two years in reading, meditation, and prayer.

Hymn writer par excellence

At that time (before the use of hymnbooks), the main form of musical involvement by English congregations was to intone paraphrases of the Psalms. One Sunday, after a service, Isaac opined that the way the Psalms were rendered lacked the dignity and beauty that he felt should characterize every part of Christian worship. His father challenged him to produce something better.

He promptly wrote his first hymn, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb”, which was well received by the Chapel he attended, and for the next two years he wrote a new hymn for every Sunday. So commenced the work for which Isaac Watts is best remembered, the writing of theologically sound, biblically rich, and devotionally moving hymns, as a means of praise to God and edification of the singers.

In this, he was the originator of the English congregational hymn, which was a new genre of poetry that expressed piety, praise, and devotion to God in rhymed verse. In time, the avalanche of hymns he produced brought about a complete reformation in the worship of hundreds of thousands of Christians during Watts’s lifetime. Reprinted again and again since then, his hymns have been a blessing to many millions of people worldwide.

Part of Watts’s genius was to adapt the praise themes of various Psalms to express Christian experience and devotion in rhyme, i.e. as David might have composed them had he lived in our day.

His best known hymn is probably “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”9 (on the theme of Psalm 90); other favourites include “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” (Psalm 72), “Joy to the World” (Psalm 98), “This is the Day that the Lord Hath Made” (Psalm 118); as well as: “At the Cross”, “Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed”, “Come Ye That Love the Lord”. And probably the most loved, as well as being one of the most concise theologically and profound evangelistically, is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:

Wikimedia Commonsisaac-watts-statue
Statue of Isaac Watts in Abney Park, London.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er his body on the tree:
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Pastor and counsellor

In 1702, Watts became pastor of the Dissenting Chapel at Mark Lane in London. Here his greatest concern was to preach the Gospel—in total dependence upon God for results. In a nearby friend’s house where he lived, he had access to what he called his “secret chamber” to which he would “retire from the world and converse with God and with his own heart”. Here he daily sought God, examined his soul, and drew his strength. Concerning this he said: “Abandon the secret chamber and the spiritual life will decay.”10

Unfortunately, physically he was often in bad health, although this gave him great empathy with others.

In 1707, Watts published his Hymns and Spiritual Songs. These were set to music by a host of later composers, and came to be sung all over the English-speaking world. The passionate, devotional, and intense emotions of his hymns had strong impact in the religious life of African-American slaves, “to whom the title of Watts’s book is thought to have come down in the form of the noun ‘spiritual’ to describe a religious song.”11

Colourized picture illustrating Watts’s “Against Pride in Clothes”, from an 1866 edition of his Divine and Moral Songs.

Eventually, because of a continuing fever, Watts had to leave his Ministry as pastor in 1712. He was invited to spend a week at the home of wealthy Dissenter Sir Thomas Abney in Hertfordshire, and ended up staying there for the remaining 36 years of his life. Here, he continued to write poetry, as well as printed sermons and prayers, and books on grammar, pedagogy, ethics, psychology, astronomy, geography, and 29 treatises on theology.

The most widely circulated of all his publications was his Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1720). Thoroughly familiar with Genesis, Watts wrote a children’s poem entitled “Against Pride in Clothes”, the first verse of which reads:

Why should our garments, made to hide
Our parents’ shame, provoke our pride?
The art of sin did ne’er begin
Till Eve our mother learnt to sin.

God as Creator

Watts was impressed by the power and workmanship of an all-wise Creator as seen in the intricate design of plants and animals. Discussing the complexity that is found among plants, he wrote: “… these plants have no understanding … they have no such thing as sense belonging to them; and we immediately recur to the wisdom of God the Creator and we ascribe the contrivance and the honour of it to him alone.”12

Watts discussed the idea that living things come from living things and that one of the manifestations of the mind and power of the Creator is an inbuilt mechanism for the diversity of plants and animals to reproduce themselves ‘according to their kind’. He wrote:

“[Y]ou will never grant it is owing to the skill of the parent-animals, that such swarms of wondrous young animals are propagated in successive ages” but “according to the common laws of nature and motion which [God] has established, each to produce his own image.
“Such is the workmanship of God … who has provided to replenish the world with plants and animals to the end of time, by the wondrous contrivance of his first creation, and the laws he then ordained.
“Thus every whale, eagle, and apple-tree, every lion and rose, fly and worm in our age, are as really the work of God, as the first which he made of the kind … This is wisdom becoming a God, and demands an eternal tribute of wonder and worship.”13

Watts, Newton, and gravity

The cover of Watts’s book, Logic, as published in the USA in 1805.

Isaacs Watts was fascinated by Newton’s ideas about gravity. In 1726, he published a textbook on Astronomy entitled The Knowledge of the Heavens and the Earth made Easy: Or the First Principles of Astronomy and Geography Explained by the Use of Globes and Maps, which was used in British and American universities (for example, Yale) for over a century.

According to Watts, the systematic study of the heavens enlarged his understanding of the immense power of God and the magnificence of His creation. He delighted in the fact that Newton’s law of gravity simply explained the motions of the planets around the Sun.

Watts’s book on logic

Watts wrote a textbook on logic, the full title of which was: Logic, or the Right Use of Reason, in the Inquiry After Truth: with a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as Well as in the Sciences. First published in 1724 to teach children he tutored, it became the standard text on logic at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale, and was so used well into the 19th century.14

Watts addresses proper thinking under the four basic functions of the human mind: perception, judgment, reasoning, and disposition, and expounds the ways our fallen sinful nature prejudices our mind’s ability to reason as we should. Overall he prioritizes the importance of finding truth rather than just defending a viewpoint.

 © Dean and Chapter of Westminster. Used with permissionWatts-Isaac-_DL18_-Westminster-Abbey-copyright
Marble monument to Isaac Watts in the South Choir Aisle of Westminster Abbey. It shows Dr Watts seated in his study, with an angel guiding his pen.

Watts discusses the construction of true and false arguments (or ‘sophisms’, i.e. a clever but false argument, especially one used deliberately to deceive).15 One example of a false argument is ignoratio elenchi (literally ‘ignorance of refutation’ but really ‘irrelevant conclusion’), also known as the ‘straw man’ fallacy (where one opponent easily knocks down a position that was not asserted by the other opponent). Others are petitio principii (‘a begging of the question’ or taking for granted a point to be proved), arguing in a circle, and non causa pro causa (‘the assignation of a false cause’). Watts gives the example of astrologers who erroneously attribute the cause of certain events in people’s lives to the various positions of the planets.

Academic honours

In 1728, Watts’s services to religion and literature were recognized by the academic establishment. The Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen honoured him with a Doctorate of Divinity. Concerning this, dictionary author and literary critic Dr Samuel Johnson wrote approvingly: “Academic honours would have more value if they were always bestowed with equal judgment.”16

Isaac Watts died in 1748, aged 74. His tomb is at Bunhill Fields Cemetery, London. There is a bust of him in the south choir aisle at Westminster Abbey, and a statue in Southampton bears a verse of his hymn based on Psalm 117:

From all that dwell below the skies,
Let the Creator’s praise arise:
Let the Redeemer’s name be sung
Through every land, by every tongue.

As his biographer David Fountain says, “It well expresses Watts’s ardent desire that his Lord and Saviour should have the utmost praise. It was the sole object to which he directed all his great endeavours.”17

Published: 4 July 2019

References and notes

  1. The Huguenots were French Protestants who suffered severe persecution, so many fled to England as refugees. Return to text.
  2. Fountain, D., Isaac Watts Remembered, Gospel Standard Trust Ltd, Herts, UK, pp. 11– 12, 1978. Return to text.
  3. Fountain, ref. 2, p. 13. Return to text.
  4. Bond, D., Isaac Watts: A Child Poet, ligonier.org, 7 May 2014. Return to text.
  5. Fountain, ref. 2, p. 14. Return to text.
  6. Fountain, ref. 2, p. 20 Return to text.
  7. Fountain, ref. 2, p. 104, (book ref. 8), biographer David Fountain comments: “Only 12 years earlier Bunyan, in his Pilgrim’s Progress, set forth a pattern of the Christian experience in which Christian bore his burden for some time before gaining relief at the cross.” Return to text.
  8. Fountain, ref. 2, pp. 22. Return to text.
  9. Usually sung at Remembrance Day services. Return to text.
  10. Fountain, ref. 2, p. 41. Return to text.
  11. Isaac Watts, Encyclopedia.com. Return to text.
  12. Watts, Isaac, The Works of the Rev. Isaac Watts, D.D., in Nine Volumes, Volume 8, Essay IX, London, 1813, p. 447. Return to text.
  13. Watts, ref. 12, pp. 431–32. Return to text.
  14. A modern edition is Watts, Isaac, Logic or the Right use of Reason in the Inquiry after Truth, Cosimo Classics, New York, 2007. Return to text.
  15. Watts, ref. 14, pp. 248–250. Return to text.
  16. Fountain, ref. 2, p. 79. Return to text.
  17. Fountain, ref. 2, pp. 99–100. Return to text.