Isaac Watts, Dissenter

Isaac Watts was one of the most prolific hymnwriters to come out of the Great Awakening in England, earning the title of “Father of English Hymnody”. His work helped to establish hymn singing as part of modern Protestant worship, it influenced his colleagues, many of whom became nearly as prolific hymnwriters as he, and it set an example of hymnwriting for the church to come. We still sing many of his texts today, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Joy to the World,” “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun,” “Come, ye that love the Lord,” and “Our God, our help in ages past,” and “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath,” which was the hymn on John Wesley’s lips as he died. These and more are an integral part of our church’s hymnody, and will likely continue to be among the most loved hymns of the church.

Watts’ hymns are inspired by both his fierce Calvinist theology and his identity in the tradition of Dissent, the Christian movement that wished to separate from the Church of England in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The tenets of Calvinism: the glory and sovereignty of God, the total depravity of human, the security of the elect, and the all-sufficient atonement of Christ, can be found throughout his hymns. Watts’ commitment to this theology and his love of rhyme and verse already at a very young age can be seen in this acrostic that Watts made of his name at age seven:

“I” – I am a vile, polluted lump of earth
“S” – So I’ve continued ever since my birth
“A” – Although Jehovah, grace doth daily give me
“A” – As sure this monster, Satan, will deceive me
“C” – Come therefore, Lord, from Satan’s claws relieve me.

“W” – Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ
“A” – And grace divine impart
“T” – Then search and try the corners of my heart
“T” – That I in all things may be fit to do
“S” – Service to Thee, and Thy praise too.

As the story goes, from childhood Watts was frustrated with the lifeless, dirge-like metrical Psalm singing of his time (I’ve written before about the awkwardness of some of these metrical Psalm translations.) In later years he articulated this exasperation that had begun in his youth: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” One day, the young Watts just couldn’t take it anymore and complained to his father, to which the elder Watts replied, “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?” This challenge issued to a spiritually convicted young man resulted in the writing of over 800 hymns, many of which are still beloved by the church today, and ultimately the fundamental transformation of church music.

Watts learned Latin at four, Greek at nine, French at ten, and Hebrew at thirteen. He devoured books, and seeing his academic potential, he was offered a position at university where it was expected he would join the clergy of the Church of England. He refused, however, and instead attended a dissenting academy in London run by Thomas Rowe. This decision cemented his sense of apartness from the established church, and Watts began on a path toward leadership in the Dissenting church.

He could not have done otherwise, though. Watts’ father, an ardent dissenter, was imprisoned three times for his religious beliefs, the last sentence forcing him into hiding for several years. The acceptance of a place at an Anglican university would have been the betrayal of the cause his father had suffered for.

Watts went to London a year after the Toleration Act of 1689, which granted legitimacy to the Dissenting Church, acknowledging the right of people to hold beliefs and opinions that were not those of an established church. Watts became a force within the oppositional culture that had just been made legal. This now-legalized Dissenting movement, its principles seen as contrary to monarchical and Episcopal government (that is, not supportive of the government-established Church of England) had been so very recently persecuted; Watts’ father and his peers bore the burden of persecution that allowed his son to now worship independently. When Watts the younger returned to the Congregational Church of his hometown, his formerly persecuted father was now a prominent member and leader.

It was in this context that Watts first began writing and publishing hymns. He wrote with passion and determination to reinforce the identity of the gathered church, that church that is gathered in the fellowship of ardent faith. He read the Bible in the Puritan tradition, using one part of Scripture to interpret another, yet always conscious that faith and love are the keys to a right reading: only with faith and hope does the Bible includes both prophecy and fulfillment. He wrote his texts with an intensity that displayed his conviction to share the Gospel, using “plain sense” so that through his hymns, the Bible would teach the truth of God for the edification of the hearer.

Watts’ hymns are beloved and have stood the test of time because of his skill in writing profound theology in a practical way, with a concise and clever presentation of complex theological ideas. He used simple rhymes and assonance, with standard meters like common (8.6.8.6), short (6.6.8.6), and long (8.8.8.8), to make his hymns accessible to even the non-musical worshipper. He utilized repetition and parallelism to help the people learn the hymns, and often set the texts to tunes they already knew. His hymns are full of drama, connecting the wonder of the Good News with our emotional and spiritual response to these theological truths.

Watts used some of his hymns as tools in the theological disputes between the Dissenting Church, the Church of England, and the Roman Catholic Church. Most daringly, he wrote a hymn with an assertion that Jesus himself is present at the Lord’s table, which was a distinctly Dissenting belief and defiant of the Church of England. His hymns also spoke of sitting around the table with Jesus rather than the Anglican practice of kneeling– “Here pardon’d Rebels sit”, because the noncomformists believed that the inner spirit of the worshipper was more important than his bodily posture. Watts’ hymns on Christian experience derive from his personal experience of persecution as a part of the Dissenting church, and he rejoiced in this persecution, seeing it as a validation of his faith.

An example of Catholic criticism can be found in his Psalms of David in his version of Psalm 115, titled “Popish Idolatry reproved,” one verse of which reads:

Our God fram’d all this Earth, these Heav’ns he spread,
But fools adore the Gods their Hands have made:
The kneeling Crowd with Looks devout behold
Their Silver-Saviours, and their Saints of Gold.

In his other writings he spoke about the fundamental theology behind dissenting worship using metaphors of architecture; the eye and ear were not to be distracted by earthly beauty, such as was found in the gilt and ornate ornamentation of Cathedrals. Rather, a concentration on what was important– the severities of sin and the glories of redemption, required that like the simple architecture of their meeting-houses, Dissenting hymns should be deliberately simple, with a distinct flavor of Puritan severity. This was never more clear than in Watts’ hymnwriting. One example is found in “When I Survey”:

Were the whole Realm of Nature mine
That were a present far too small.

Watts used the simple word “Present” deliberately; the word was changed by nineteenth-century books to “offering” in order to make the hymn sound more “dignified” and “churchy”, and in that change, the authentic voice of dissent was lost.

Though Watts was unapologetic in his beliefs– in fact, he actively poked and prodded the established Church in many of his texts– he reminded his readers that nonconformists should be demonstrating to the papists and the members of the Church of England the character of a mind convinced of sin and of saving grace. Armed with his study of the Bible, Watts was authoritative about the truth of the Good News, uncompromising about the fellowship of the dissenting church and his denouncement of the practices of the papists and the Anglicans.

After his death, Watts was praised by scholars and theologians for his pedagogical writings, and especially for his contribution toward the furthering of authentic corporate worship and private devotion. The respect in which he was held compelled even many in the Church of England to recommend imitation of Watts’ faith and devotion, though they cautioned against following his Dissenting beliefs.

One can learn so much by reading the hymns of Watts from two perspectives: that of the modern church, and that of Watts’ own experiences. His texts that speak of rejoicing in persecution come from his personal experience as part of the persecuted Dissenting church, and yet they can speak to us in new ways within the modern church. His warning against non-authentic worship are just as valid today, though the criticisms take different forms than they did in his lifetime. His commitment to simplicity of diction stemming from his Puritan heritage can remind us even today that worship is not about gilt and ornamentation, but rather about the turning of the inner spirit toward God.

The hymn-writing revolution of the Great Awakening took off largely thanks to Watts. And this is what I find the most compelling: the Book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible. Yet the metrical Psalm singing tradition had turned these prayers so stale and passionless, sapping their power and beauty, that it took a departure– indeed, a rejection– of the use of metrical Psalms in order to return prayer to the singing of the church. That is the biggest gift that Watts gave the church– he turned music into prayer, and taught the church how to pray with their songs once again.

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