Archives For Hymnody

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.



Isaac Watts: A Biographical Sketch, Part 2

"First built in 1431, destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666, rebuilt in 1681, and again destroyed by enemy action in 1940." - From London Rememebrs

Girler’s Hall – “First built in 1431, destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666, rebuilt in 1681, and again destroyed by enemy action in 1940.” – From London Rememebrs

The Student

To say that Watts possessed a superior intellect is no stretch. It is reported that when he was a child and was given any money he would exclaim “A book, a book, buy a book!” When he was just four years of age he began learning Latin and soon after, Greek. At six years of age (1680), he began attending a free grammar school in Southampton where he was tutored by Rev. John Pinhorne, a gentleman whose influence on Watts would extend for ten years.

By 1687, at the age of thirteen, his language skills would include French and Hebrew. The young student was taken notice of by learned men of the day. He was noted, said a Dr. Jennings”

“…for his sprightliness and vivacity: talents which too often prove fatal snares to young persons but, through the power of Divine grace, he was not only preserved from criminal follies, but had a deep sense of religion upon his heart…”
(Memoirs of the Rev. Isaac Watts, D.D., 1780, by Thomas Gibbons pg. 5)


Rev. Thomas Rowe's listing in the Dictionary of National Biography of England

Rev. Thomas Rowe’s listing in the Dictionary of National Biography of England

At sixteen (1690) he was ready to leave home for further education. A physician, Dr. John Speed, and others who could see his mental powers urged him to forsake the ranks of the dissenters so that he could attend a prestigious university. He refused, even though full tuition was offered to him. As Watts himself declared, he was determined to “take his lot among the dissenters.” He moved to Stoke Newington and took up his studies for the ministry at a school under the leadership of the Rev. Thomas Rowe, the pastor of the Independent Church that assembled at Girdlers’ Hall in the city, a church he would formally join in 1693. (Rowe was the son of the Rev. John Rowe who was ejected from Westminster Abbey due to the Act of Uniformity.) Watts was a diligent and hardworking student whose essays (in both Latin and English) and dissertations written while still a very young man reveal a spiritual and intellectual depth. He enjoyed a deep bond and friendship with Rev. Rowe during his time there.  Rowe was particularly impressed with Watts devotion and intellect and quickly came to relate to him as an academic peer.


In his piece “To the Much Honored Mr. Thomas Rowe, the Director of my Youthful Studies,” Watts writes:

“I hate these shackles of the mind
Forg’d by the haughty wise;
Souls were not born to be confin’d,
And led like Samson blind and bound,
But when his native strength he found
He well aveng’d his eyes.”

I love thy gentle influence, Rowe ;
Thy gentle influence, like the sun,
Only dissolves the frozen snow,
Then bids our thoughts like rivers flow,
And chose the channels where they run.”

In 1705, Rev. Rowe passed away. He lived just long enough to see Watts established in his pastoral ministry.

After concluding his studies, Watt’s returned home to Southampton and resumed attending his father’s church. According to his biographer, Thomas Gibbons, he spent the time in reading, “to possess himself of ampler knowledge,” meditation, “to take a full survey of useful and sacred subjects and make what he had acquired by reading his own,” and prayer, “to engage the divine influences to prepare him for that work to which he was determined to devote his life.” (Gibbons pg.92)

Isaac Watts: A Biographical Sketch, Part 1

Isaac Watts

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.”

Watts Birthplace

Watts Birthplace

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 Jail

The jail Watt’s father was confined to.

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:

Isaac Watt's Father

Watt’s Father


“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.

“For the history of holy hymns is really the history of the Church.”

Edwin Paxton Hood: “Isaac Watts; His Life and Writings, His Homes and Friends”