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By universal consent the title, “Father of English Hymnody,” is bestowed upon Isaac Watts. English hymns had been written before the time of Watts, notably the beautiful classics of Ken and Addison; but it remained for the genius of Watts to break the iron rule of psalmody in the Reformed Church which had continued uninterrupted since the days of Calvin.

Watts was born in Southampton, England, July 17, 1674. His father was a “dissenter,” and twice was imprisoned for his religious views. This was during the time when Isaac was still a baby, and the mother often carried the future poet in her arms when she went to visit her husband in prison.

When Isaac grew up, a wealthy man offered to give him a university education if he would consent to become a minister in the Established Church. This he refused to do, but prepared instead for the Independent ministry.

Early in life young Watts had revealed signs of poetic genius. As a boy of seven years he had amused his parents with his rhymes. As he grew older he became impatient with the wretched paraphrases of the Psalms then in use in the Reformed churches. These views were shared generally by those who possessed a discriminating taste in poetry. “Scandalous doggerel” was the term applied by Samuel Wesley, father of the famous Wesley brothers, to the versified 216 Psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins, who had published the most popular psalm-book of the day.

When young Watts ventured to voice his displeasure over the psalm-singing in his father’s church in Southampton, one of the church officers retorted: “Give us something better, young man.” Although he was only eighteen years old at the time, he accepted the challenge and wrote his first hymn, which was sung at the following Sunday evening services. The first stanza seems prophetic of his future career:

Behold the glories of the Lamb

Amidst His Father’s throne;

Prepare new honors for His Name,

And songs before unknown.

The hymn met with such favorable reception that the youthful poet was encouraged to write others, and within the next two years he produced nearly all of the 210 hymns that constituted his famous collection, “Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” published in 1707. This was the first real hymn-book in the English language.

Twelve years later he published his “Psalms of David,” a metrical version of the Psalter, but, as he himself stated, rendered “in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship.” Indeed, the Psalms were given such a distinctively Christian flavor that their Old Testament origin is often overlooked. Witness, for example, the opening lines of his rendition of the Seventy-second Psalm:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun

Does his successive journeys run.


In addition to being a preacher and a poet, Watts was an ardent student of theology and philosophy, and wrote several notable books. Always frail in health from childhood, his intense studies finally resulted in completely shattering his constitution, and he was compelled to give up his parish.

During this period of physical distress, the stricken poet was invited to become a guest for a week in the home of Sir Thomas Abney, an intimate friend and admirer. The friendship continued to grow, and inasmuch as Watts did not improve in health, he was urged to remain. He finally so endeared himself to the Abney family that they refused to let him go, and he who had come to spend a week remained for the rest of his life—thirty-six years!

The great hymnist died on November 25, 1748, and was buried at Bunhill Fields, London, near the graves of John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe. A monument to his memory was placed in Westminster Abbey, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an Englishman.

To Isaac Watts we are indebted for some of our most sublime hymns. “When I survey the wondrous cross” has been named by Matthew Arnold as the finest hymn in the English language, and most critics concur in the judgment. Certainly it is one of the most beautiful. John Julian, the noted hymnologist, declares that it must be classified with the four hymns that stand at the head of all English hymns.

Other hymns of Watts continue to hold their grip on the Christian Church after the passing of two centuries. No Christmas service seems complete without singing his beautiful paraphrase of the ninety-eighth Psalm, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Another hymn, “O God, our help in ages past,” based on the ninetieth Psalm, is indispensable 218 at New Year’s time. Then there is the majestic hymn of worship, “Before Jehovah’s awful throne,” as well as the appealing Lenten hymn, “Alas, and did my Saviour bleed?” And who has not been stirred by the challenge in “Am I a soldier of the cross?” Other hymns by Watts include such favorites as “There is a land of pure delight,” “Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove,” “O that the Lord would guide my ways,” “My dear Redeemer and my Lord,” “How beauteous are their feet,” “Come, sound His praise abroad,” “My soul, repeat His praise,” “O bless the Lord, my soul,” “Lord of the worlds above,” “Lord, we confess our numerous faults,” “In vain we seek for peace with God,” “Not all the blood of beasts,” “So let our lips and lives express,” “The Lord my Shepherd is,” and “When I can read my title clear.”

Although Watts never married, he deeply loved little children, and he is the author of some of the most famous nursery rhymes in the English language. The profound genius that produced “O God, our help in ages in past” also understood how to appeal to the childish mind by means of such happy little jingles as, “How doth the little busy bee” and “Let dogs delight to bark and bite,” as well as by the exquisite cradle-song:

Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber;

Holy angels guard thy bed;

Heavenly blessings without number

Gently falling on thy head.

Sleep, my babe, thy food and raiment,

House and home, thy friends provide;

All without thy care or payment,

All thy wants are well supplied.


How much better thou’rt attended

Than the Son of God could be,

When from heaven He descended,

And became a child like thee.

Soft and easy is thy cradle,

Coarse and hard thy Saviour lay,

When His birthplace was a stable,

And His softest bed the hay.

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