Isaac Watts: A Biographical Sketch, Part 3
Lady Hartopp in
a chapel window
After two years at home, Watts returned to Stoke Newington and took up residence in the home of Sir John Hartopp in order to be a tutor to his Son. Watts thought very highly of Sir John and referred to him as a gentleman, a scholar and a Christian. He was an exceptionally well educated man with vast interests, especially astronomy, but above all he loved the Scriptures. Watts spent five years in the Hartopp home and paid close attention to his own development. He consistently read the scriptures in their original languages, pursuing the best commentaries available. The bulk of three of his works, “Improvement of the Mind,” “Miscellaneous Thoughts,” and “Logic,” were written during this time.
July 17th, 1698 was memorable for Watts. Not only was it the occasion of his 24th birthday, it was the day of his first public sermon at the church the Hartopps attended. From what accounts we have, his preaching was described as “solid rather than shining.” His sermons were prosaic and brilliant, satisfying for those who sought deeper waters but not delivered with strong oratorical power. The pastor, Doctor Chauncy, was in need of an assistant and that same year invited Watts to become part of his staff.
The church, located on Mark Lane, was solidly committed to nonconformity, having been led by eminent men in that camp including Joseph Caryl and the famed puritan writer John Owen. In January of 1702, Watts was asked to succeed Chauncy as pastor. He was extremely reluctant and offered many suggestions to the church’s leadership as to how they might proceed without him but they were adamant and he at last agreed. He took the post on March 8th of 1702 under the shadow of the death of King William and the anxiety of what lay ahead for the Non-Conformists.
Watts never married although he attempted to engage the hand of a Miss Elizabeth Singer, a woman who had read his first book of published poetry, “Horæ Lyricæ,” and had fallen in love with him to the point that she began a very romantic exchange of letters. She came to visit Watts and surely anticipated receiving his proposal. What she saw was not what she expected. Watts was simply not an attractive man. By all accounts he was unattractive. When he proposed to her, Miss Singer replied “Mr. Watts, I only wish I could say that I admire the casket as much as I admire the jewel.” That would be the end of the potential marriage and Watts did not try again.
Watt in his study at the Abney home.
His health was a thorn in the flesh that hampered him severely. One has to wonder what his achievements might have been given his output, had he not been so often waylaid by illness. Even months before his ordination to the church he was in need of time away both at his father’s home and, on the advice of his physicians, at Bath. Surely the church had held out hopes that his health would improve but it would prove to be his undoing. In 1703, in light of his health difficulties the church called the Rev. Samuel Price to serve alongside of Watts as his assistant. Together they saw growth in the church and the move of the congregation into their own facility. Over time the weight of work and study took their toll on his nervous system and it appears he broke down. In 1712 he was stricken with a highly debilitating fever that seemed poised to take his life. Prayer was offered up throughout London for his recovery and even though he survived, he would be considered an invalid for the remainder of his life. Rev. Price was formally ordained and made co-pastor with Watts. Watts remained a pastor to the church although in a symbolic way while the godly and generous Rev. Price would carry the lion’s share of the work for decades to come.
It was after the breakdown that Watts was invited to come and spend a week at the country estate of Sir Thomas and Lady Abney, the house of Theobalds, in Hertfordshire. What was intended as a week-long visit turned into a 36 year residency and the place where Watts would end his earthly life. A sweeter gift heaven could not have provided at the time. Lady Abney was the sister of Watts’ best friend in his childhood, Thomas Gunston. She was a woman of tremendous wealth and the utmost generosity. Watts’ friendship with the Abneys grew into a deep commitment of mutual respect, admiration and affection. So solid was the relationship that Watts was allowed to remain at the home even after the death of Sir Thomas in 1722. Sometime after the death of her husband, Lady Abney moved to the home in Stoke Newington that Thomas Gunston had built and left to her in his will. Lady Abney, a kind and generous benefactor, allowed Watts to divide his time as needed between the Gunston home and Theobalds, seeing to it that Watts’ days were lived in a serene environment that allowed him the greatest opportunity for meditation, study and writing. Watt’s had his detractors, including some in his own family, but Lady Abney kept them at bay and allowed Watts to never be troubled by them. She would live only two months past the time of Watt’s death.
The Abney House, Stoke Newington
The season at Theobalds was both filled with delight at his surroundings and yet immense physical suffering. While he lived in a suite of well-appointed rooms that formed his apartment, his own body continued to betray him. There was a great peace that accompanied him but his nights were restless battles with insomnia. Only strong medicine could sometimes allow him to sleep. His nervous and weak constitution continually worked against him but nevertheless his deep confidence in Providence sustained him in sanity against the tides of infirmity. Here he prayed, studied and wrote. While Watts’ name is known around the world, it is in large part due to the gracious Abney family. Watts’ own biographer writes:“What honors are due to this family from the church and world! Where the name of Dr. Watts is mentioned as a distinguished blessing let it ever be gratefully remembered that it might under Providence be owing to Sir Thomas Abney and his amiable Lady that he was continued so long a burning, and a mining light in this hemisphere of the church, and that there are such remains of his beneficial lusters in the excellent sermons and other works composed by him under their roof.”
(Memoirs of the Rev. Isaac Watts, D.D., 1780, by Thomas Gibbons pg. 115)
Watts’ output was highly substantial given his frailness of body and nervous condition. The years he spent in quiet were years of great productivity and influence. He took a great interest in the movements of Christendom both in England and in the States. He maintained correspondence with many New England leaders, Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather and Governor Belcher among them. He was deeply moved by the Great Awakening in New England and followed closely the work of the Wesleys and George Whitefield. He crafted many works that explored both philosophy and religion. His well-known “Logic” was published in 1724, followed by various catechisms for young and old, essays on a variety of subjects, and notably, strong works on the Trinity that were, in part, an answer to the Arian influence of his day. In 1728, both the Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh honored him with a doctoral degree.