Isaac Watts: The Hymn Writer

October 29, 2013

Isaac Watts: A Biographical Sketch, Part 4

Pinners’ Hall, London Here Isaac Watts preached from June, 1704, to October, 1708

Pinners’ Hall, London
Here Isaac Watts preached from June, 1704, to October, 1708

Come, we that love the Lord,
And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
And thus surround the throne.

The sorrows of the mind
Be banished from the place:
Religion never was designed
To make our pleasures less.


– Watts, Hymn 20:1,2,10

Very early on his talent for rhyme and verse was apparent and intrigued his mother. Thinking that the rhymes he brought her might be “borrowed” from some other source, she challenged him one day as to his integrity, whereupon he sat down in her presence and composed the following acrostic:.

Title page of Watts first hymnal.

The title page of Watt’s first hymnal published in 1707


I  am a vile polluted lump of earth,
S o I’ve continued ever since my birth,
A lthough Jehovah grace does daily give me,
A s sure this monster Satan will deceive me,
C ome therefore, Lord, from Satan’s claws relieve me.

W ash me in thy blood, O Christ,
A nd grace divine impart,
T hen search and try the corners of my heart,
T hat I in all things may be fit to do
S ervice to thee, and sing thy praises too.

When Watts returned home for two years after his studies at Stoke Newington concluded, he was attending his father’s church and began to complain of the psalm singing. The metrical notes and chant-like singing carried no depth of beauty or heights of exaltation.  Watts loved the Psalms but he saw them as not always illuminating the glories of the gospel. When the congregation would sing, one line would lift hearts in praise but the next would bring the mind to thoughts of despair. He was quite sure the church could do better. One Sunday as he was complaining, Isaac Sr. challenged him to provide something better for the church to sing. The young man was already known as a poet, what about lyrics? The following Sunday he returned and the first hymn by Isaac Watts, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb” was sung at the Above Bar Congregational Church.

“Behold the glories of the Lamb, amidst His Father’s throne:
Prepare new honours for His name, and songs before unknown.  [Tweet this!]


Portrait of Watts taken from life by G. White, 1727.

Portrait of Watts taken from life by G. White, 1727.

The congregation was so enthused by the hymn that they requested a new one week after week. This was no small matter. While Germany had long been singing the hymns of Martin Luther, the church in England had steadfastly remained committed to singing only from the Psalter. The Psalms were the inspired Word of God! What could be more profitable? Yet Watts knew that the company of those under the New Covenant needed something more. He acknowledged that preaching needed improvement and better methods of prayer should be explored but when it came to the singing of praise, here the church failed most miserably!  In his own introduction to his book of hymns, he writes: “To see the dull Indifference, the negligent and the thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the Psalm is on their lips, might tempt even a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of inward Religion; and ‘tis much to be feared that the minds of most of the worshippers are absent or unconcerned.” (From the preface to Watt’s preface to “Hymns and Spiritual Songs”)

For Watts, the glories of the gospel must stand front and center. He took issue with singing the songs of a lesser David when the greater David was the one we worshipped. Speaking of some of the Psalms he writes: “Some of them are almost opposite to the spirit of the Gospel… When we are just entering into an evangelic frame by some of the glories of the Gospel presented in the brightest figures of Judaism, yet the very next line perhaps which the clerk parcels out unto us, hath something in it so extremely Jewish and cloudy, that darkens our sight of God the Savior: Thus by keeping too close to David in the house of God, the veil of Moses is thrown over our hearts.” (From the preface to Watt’s preface to “Hymns and Spiritual Songs”)

The Rose - an illustration from the “Divine and Moral Songs “ -  Eighteenth Century Chap-books.

The Rose – an illustration from the “Divine and Moral Songs “ – Eighteenth Century Chap-books.

Much of the hymnody of Watts used today was written in the early period of his life when writing for his father’s church. His “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” was published in 1707 and included “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed,” and “Jesus, Thou everlasting King.” In 1719, Watts published his “The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian State and Worship.” He wanted to make David and the Psalms speak in language that the church could relate to. “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “Jesus Shall Reign” and “Joy to the World” were among these hymns. Despite his immense suffering, he produced a great work of tenderness in 1720 entitled “Divine and Moral Songs, for the use of Children.”  In all, Watts wrote over 500 hymns, many of which are still published and in use today.

“Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” – Watts
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