What the Psalmist David was to ancient Israel -- Isaac Watts was to England and Colonial America.
The writing and singing of hymns and spiritual songs have been a major part of the worship of the church since the days of ancient Israel. In fact, singing as an expression of worship and adoration of the LORD has also been a spiritual weapon in the life of the Christian Church and a source of inspiration and encouragement to thousands of saints throughout the ages of time.
No doubt ever since our ancient Israelite forefathers engaged in the act of worship toward the true and living God, singing of hymns has been an expression of the human soul, for who God is and for what He has done. This is clearly seen in the experience of Moses and the children of Israel after the crossing of the Red Sea in their deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 15:1-21).
It is very evident in God’s dealing with His people that He has always had special chosen servants whom He has anointed in writing hymns and spiritual songs that have been long-lasting significant tokens of God’s grace to His people. Among the many saints that the Lord anointed for this special purpose was Isaac Watts, the father of English hymnody.
Isaac Watts was born on July 7, 1674, in Southampton, England. He was the eldest of nine children born into the home of Deacon Enoch Watts, a Puritan who ministered in the Congregational Church. As a religious dissenter not adhering to the established church order and doctrine of that day, Enoch Watts spent much time in prison and was not home at the time of his son Isaac’s birth. At a very early age, Isaac showed exceptional aptitude for study and learned Latin at the age of five, Greek at nine, French at eleven and Hebrew at thirteen. For twelve years, his mother taught him the writing of rhyme and verse. Isaac developed a habit of rhyming his everyday conversation that became very annoying to his father. Being very irritated with young Isaac’s incessant rhyming, one day his father severely scolded him and young Isaac responded with, "Oh father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make."
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour comtempt on all my pride
-- Isaac Watts
Being raised in a Christian home by very Godly parents, Isaac learned to deeply appreciate the Word of God and the doctrines and services of the church, but was very disappointed and concerned about its music. Thinking that the traditional music was very droning, dull and lifeless, he constantly complained to his father who irritatingly exclaimed, "Why don’t you give us something better, young man!"
Accepting his fathers reprimand as a challenge, Isaac Watts set about to "modernize" the Psalms and to give to the Church hymns that were of deep meaning and quality, yet were singable for church congregations. The following Sunday, Isaac presented to his father his first attempt at hymn writing which included these lines:
Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst His Father’s throne;
Prepare new honors for His name,
And songs before unknown.
From that humble beginning in 1692, the pen of Isaac Watts has brought about a revolution in the singing of the Christian Church that still resounds after three centuries of praise and worship. In 1707 he published his first book of hymns entitled HYMNS AND SPIRITUAL SONGS, which had sixteen editions in his lifetime.
He also published DIVINE AND MORAL SONGS FOR CHILDREN in 1715 and THE PSALMS OF DAVID IMITATED IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT in 1719.
Altogether he wrote more than 600 hymns for the church plus rhyming verse and poetry for educational tutoring. These hymns were widely accepted throughout the English-speaking world and were welcomed by the early American colonists, as they were brought over from the old world by new English immigrants. The hymn books of the churches of New England during the time of the American Revolution were largely filled with the songs of Isaac Watts. During the war, while American colonists were engaged in battle with British soldiers, they ran out of ‘wad’ for their muskets. A local pastor who was nearby ran into the church and gathered up the hymn books. He then proceeded to tear out the pages and give them to the soldiers to be used as wadding in their muskets, as he yelled out "give 'em Watts, boys!" Thus is the origin of the modern term of anger, "to give them 'watt' for."
Among some of Isaac Watts' most well-beloved and popular hymns are: Joy to the World; 0 God Our Help in Ages Past, based on Ps. 90; When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, from St. Paul’s admonition in Galatians 6:14; I Sing the Mighty Power of God; When I Can Read My Title Clear; Alas and Did My Savior Bleed also known as, "At the Cross"; Am I a Soldier of the Cross?; and Come We That Love the Lord also known as, We’re Marching to Zion.
Isaac Watts was educated at Stoke Newington Academy and afterward worked as a private tutor for several years. At the age of twenty-eight he became the senior pastor of the nonconformist Mark Lane Church of London, which position he held for the rest of his life.
Having suffered from smallpox when he was fifteen years old, Isaac Watts remained sickly and in poor health his entire life. In spite of this disability he became an outstanding theologian and master pulpiteer which attracted the Lords and Ladies of London to become part of his congregation. He was so loved by his church that to prevent him from resigning they hired an assistant to preach when he was physically unable.
Besides suffering from frailty of health all his life, Isaac Watts only stood five feet tall with an oversized head and large nose which gave him a very ugly and grotesque appearance. In spite of his physical disadvantages, he was a brilliant, mild-mannered, loving and magnetic personality that transformed the musical worship of the Christian Church for the last three centuries.
His powerful gospel preaching and inspirational hymns earned him not only a monument in his honor in Westminster Abbey, but a special reverence in the hearts of millions of saints.
Regardless of his popularity and success as an intellectual genius, poet, educator, pastor and reformer, because he was a nonconformist and dissenter of the Church of England, he was not allowed to be buried within the city limits of London. Therefore, he was laid to rest in Bunhill Fields with his fellow churchmen outside of the city walls in 1748 at the age of seventy-four.
The general themes of most of the songs composed by Isaac Watts are the sovereignty of God, the efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ for man’s salvation and the consecration of the believer.
"O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth. Sing unto the Lord, bless His name, show forth His salvation from day to day."—Psalm 96:1-2
Official Isaac Watts biography