Archives For Hymn

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.



Trash Talk with Isaac Watts

September 12, 2013

Isaac Watts - OutlawLGIsaac Watts was a very short man, hovering right around the 5′ mark. In Hood’s book, “Isaac Watts; His Life and Writings, His Homes and Friends,” the following anecdote is related. Once, when Watts was in a coffeehouse, he was in the way of a very tall man who was trying to get by him. He said to Watts:

“Let me pass, O giant!”

Watts replied, “Pass on, O pigmy!”

“I only referred to your mind,” said the giant;

“I also to yours,” replied Watts.


Horatius Bonar - I Hear the Words of Love

Horatius Bonar (1808-1889), a Scottish Presbyterian minister and influential leader in the Free Church of Scotland, was an outstanding writer of both devotional works and poetic hymns. The hymn “I Hear the Words of Love” is a powerful example of his grace soaked works. You can hear a traditional version of it on the Together for the Gospel II project here:

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I hear the words of love,
I gaze upon the blood,
I see the mighty sacrifice,
And I have peace with God.

‘Tis everlasting peace!
Sure as Jehovah’s Name;
‘Tis stable as His steadfast throne,
Forevermore the same.

The clouds may come and go
And storms may sweep my sky;
This blood-sealed friendship changes not;
The cross is ever nigh.

My love is oft-times low,
My joy still ebbs and flows;
But peace with Him remains the same;
No change Jehovah knows.

I change, He changes not,
The Christ can never die;
His love, not mine, the resting place,
His truth, not mine, the tie.

Words by Horatius Bonar (1861), music by Henry Gauntlett (1858)
Public Domain



martin-rinkartIn 1617, at the age of 31, Martin Rinkart must have thought his professional dreams were coming true. He was appointed Archdeacon and pastor in the town of Eilenburg, Germany. No sooner did the appointment come then tragedy struck in the advent of the Thirty Years War. The ordinary people of his town were ignorant of the reasons for the conflict. All they knew that was army after army laid waste to their lands and homes.Famine and disease were rampant, destroying farms, livestock and crops with relentless fury. People weakened by hunger were no match for disease. Before it was over, the war would have ended the lives of almost half the male population of the country. Nearly a third of the total population of the German states succumbed to death, primarily due to hunger and disease.

In 1636 there was only one pastor left in Eilenburg, Martin Rinkart. When Martin began his ministry he was one of four pastors. As the war went on, one would flee and Martin would bury the other two. Because the city was walled, it became a refuge and the strain nearly decimated it.. 8000 people would die in Eilenburg and death showed no mercy to any age, position or gender. During the war, Martin would bury 4000 people including his own wife. At one point he was conducting 50 funerals a day but the death so overwhlmed the city that corpses had to be buried in trenches with no service.

How in the world would a man in Martin’s position find it possible to give thanks?

Martin found inspiration in the book of  Ecclesiastics 50:22-24:

And now bless the God of all, who everywhere works great wonders,
who fosters our growth from birth, and deals with us according to his mercy.
May he give us gladness of heart, and may there be peace in our days in Israel,
as in the days of old.

May he entrust to us his mercy,and may he deliver us in our days!

The inspiration would lead Martin to pen the hymn Nun danket alle Gott.  We know the hymn as Now Thank We All Our God. It is stunning to think that this man, having endured the horrors he did, could be able to say that God has blessed us, ‘With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today’, No mention of their immense suffering appears in the hymn, only a request that God will, ‘keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed; And free us from all ills, in this world and the next’.

In 1637, the Swedish army controlling the town demanded a payment of 30,000 florins from the people – an astronomical amount to the sick and impoverished people. Martin led a group of citizens who went to plead for mercy from the Swedish general. He refused. Martin turned to his companions and said,  “Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God.”  They fell on their knees and prayed with such heartfelt earnestness that the general relented and lowered the tribute amount to 2,000 florins.

Peace finally came to Martin’s town in 1648 but he would not enjoy it for long. He died in the town on December 8, 1649 at the age of 63. His entire ministry had been spent in a cradle of suffering faithfully loving and serving his flock. His gift of Now Thank We All Our God is a lovely call to all of us who enjoy lives of such relative ease to turn from our murmuring ways and cultivate grateful and generous hearts.


Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

– Martin Rinkart


When the scriptures speak of the God of all Comfort meeting us in our pain and encouraging us to comfort others with the comfort we are given, I think of William Cowper. He suffered tragedy in his life and was often assaulted by depression that drove him to suicidal despair. Yet, Cowper has given the church some of her most beloved texts. This one, “God Moves in A Mysterious Way”, was originally titled “Conflict: Light shining out of Darkness.” It was published in 1779 and has been a source of great encouragement for those who struggle with doubt and despair yet cling to a Sovereign God.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

Lyrics: William Cowper

William Cowper

David Ward over at Reformed Praise has set the hymn to a new arrangement titled “You Are Mysterious.” He retains Cowpers lyrics and adds the chorus:

You are mysterious, my Lord,
Yet You reveal to me Your Word.
So come and take my anxious fears –
It’s all for good, so dry these tears;
You are mysterious, my Lord.

Listen to it here.

Chord Chart  / Piano Score / Lead Sheet


From Tim Chester’s blog. This is very well done.

Here’s a new hymn based on Titus 3:3-8. The metre is 8787D. We currently sing it to the tune of ‘Here is Love’.

We Were Foolish (God Our Saviour)

We were foolish, disobedient,
filled with malice, envy, spite.
But our Father showed us mercy,
and he saved us from our plight.
For God’s love appeared among us,
and it bore a human face.
God our Saviour, how we love you
for your kindness and your grace.

2. We were blinded, slaves to passions,
could not see the love he’d shown.
But the Spirit’s life washed through us,
made us new and led us home.
He was poured out on us freely
to renew our human race.
God our Saviour, how we love you
for your kindness and your grace.

3. We were facing condemnation,
but our Saviour took our place.
Jesus Christ has died to save us:
we are justified by grace.
We are heirs of life eternal,
we will see him face to face.
God our Saviour, how we love you
for your kindness and your grace.

(c) Tim Chester, 2012

This may be freely used for non-profit personal and congregational use.