Isaac Watts: A Biographical Sketch, Part 1
I am writing a biography of Isaac Watts for a seminary class. I’m going to blog it here before compiling it. Comments, questions, even corrections are welcome! I greatly admire the man and I hope you find him as inspiring as I do. – Jeff
Isaac Watts, the father of English hymnody, whose hymns are loved and sung by Christians around the world was born in a time when the church desperately needed a “new song” to sing unto the Lord.
In the days before Isaac Watts, the church in England was lagging behind in the development of sacred hymns. If you were Anglican, you sang, or rather chanted, the Psalms. Initially it was viewed as a novel means of praise but after some time the monotony of call and response wrapped up in unimaginative melody became a tedious and uninspiring exercise. Watts, it would seem, was born for just “such a time as this.”
Isaac Watts was a child of persecution. The oldest of nine children, he was born in his parent’s home at 21, French Street on July 17, 1674 in Southampton, England. His mother, Sarah Taunton, was of French descent. Her family belonged to the French Huguenots and had fled France for England in the wake of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Beyond that we know little of her. His Father, Isaac Watts Sr. was part of the “Dissenting” or “Non-Conformist” church.
The Non-Conformists arose in opposition to the Act of Uniformity passed by parliament under the leadership of Charles II. During the civil wars that preceded Charles’ reign, the Puritans had jettisoned many of the practices of the Anglican Church which they viewed as having not separated itself enough from Roman Catholicism. The Act of Uniformity was passed to restore much of what had been rejected and to unify the church of England under one prayer book, ordaining body and polity. The effect of the act was anything but unifying. The day it was passed a time known as the Great Ejection commenced resulting in close to 2,000 clergy leaving the Church of England to form their own churches.
The persecution that followed included the prohibition of Non-Conformists from holding public office or military rank and being denied degrees from Cambridge or Oxford. Those ministers who conducted worship outside the Church of England were sometimes thrown into prison in an effort to squash their efforts and frighten their congregations. It was in these days that Watts Sr. was a deacon in the Above Bar Congregationalist Church. At least twice he was imprisoned for his refusal to leave the church and most biographical sketches make mention of his wife Sara nursing a little Isaac while visiting him in the “gaol.”
The senior Watts is recorded as being at one time a shoemaker and a clothier. He was a man of modest means. When it became apparent that staying in his home in Southampton would only result in further imprisonment, he went into exile in 1683 for a period of at least two years. This created a domestic hardship for the family but calmer winds began to prevail and he returned to Southampton where he founded a boarding school that became quite well known, receiving children from America and the West Indies. He died at the age of 85 when Isaac, the son, would have been 63. He was a man of deep spiritual conviction whose influence on his Son was profound. Shortly before his father’s death, Isaac wrote him a letter that revealed the great depth of both of their hope in Christ. It concluded with the following:
“Blessed be God for our immortal hopes, through the blood of Jesus, who has taken away the sting of death ! What could such dying creatures do without the comforts of the Gospel ? I hope you feel those satisfactions of soul on the borders of life which nothing can give but this Gospel, which you taught us all in our younger years… May you maintain a constant serenity at heart, and sacred calmness of mind, as one who has long passed midnight, and is in view of the dawning day ! ‘ The night is far spent, the day is at hand ! ‘ Let the garments of light be found upon us, and let us lift up our heads, for our redemption draws nigh. Amen.
I am, dear Sir, Your most affectionate obedient Son, Isaac Watts.