November 25 – Isaac Watts

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Isaac Watts, faithful servant

Isaac Watts   (1674 – 1748)

Isaac Watts is sometimes called “the father of English hymnody”, not because there were no hymns in English before him but because of the strength of his theology, his poetic skill and the inspiration he gave to later hymn-writers from Charles Wesley onward.

Isaac’s father (also called Isaac) was in prison when his son was born because the older Isaac was a strong Dissenter, i.e. one of those who would not conform to the Church of England, the Church “established” by law. Until the 19th century only members of that Church could attend university, so the younger Isaac was educated at a nonconformist academy near London.

In 1699 Watts began his ministry as assistant at Mark Lane Independent Chapel in London and three years later was appointed the senior minister there. In 1712 he became seriously ill and was invited to live with the family of Sir Thomas Abney in Hertfordshire. His health was always fragile and he remained with the Abney household for the rest of his life, becoming the family chaplain. Despite his poor health he was able to continue a limited ministry at the Mark Lane congregation and he also continued writing. His philosophical and theological works were highly regarded.

Watts’s first volume of hymns, many of them based on the psalms, was published in 1707. Another volume published in 1715 went through 95 editions by 1810, a testament to their huge popularity. A 20th century commentator George Sampson wrote that “Watts shaped out the pattern of the congregational hymn as we know it”. Some of his hymns which are in common use today are “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath” (a paraphrase of Psalm 146), “Our God, our help in ages past” (a paraphrase of Psalm 90) and “When I survey the wondrous cross”, which is regarded by some as the greatest of all hymns in the English language. Twenty-seven of his hymns and paraphrases are included in the hymnal “Together in Song” (1999), a number exceeded only by Charles Wesley.

Very few hymns have demonstrated the staying-power of the hymns of Watts. His profound knowledge of Scripture, his theological scholarship and his poetic ability combined to produce 600 hymns, many of them of outstanding quality. Whether writing about creation, the person of Christ, salvation, the Word of God or Christian living, Watts nearly always goes to the heart of the matter.  The noted writer Brian Wren (born 1936), whose many hymns are sung across the English-speaking world, has acknowledged his considerable debt to Watts.

by Rev D’Arcy Wood