Isaac Watts: Father of English Hymnody

Isaac Watts: Father of English Hymnody

by Barry Pendley

“Ye monsters of the bubbling deep, Your Master’s praises spout; Up from the sands ye docclings peep, And wag your tails about.” We can thank Isaac Watts that we do not sing hymns like this anymore! One Sunday after church, Isaac told his father that something had to be done with the deplorable hymns of his day. His father challenged him, “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?” By the next Sunday, Watts had produced his first hymn. By the time he died, he had over six hundred hymns to his credit! He truly deserves the title The Father of English Hymnody.

Not only was Isaac Watts known as a hymn writer, he was also accomplished in many other areas. In addition to his six hundred hymns, Watts wrote books on grammar, pedagogy, ethics, three volumes of sermons, and twenty-nine treatises on theology.

Watts did not enjoy a life of ease. As a young man, he turned down the opportunity to be schooled at the highly revered Oxford University for theological reasons. He learned to stand against the crowd and pastored a non-conformist church in London by the age of 27. Shortly after becoming the pastor, he became very ill. This illness was so severe that it caused him to become semi-invalid for the rest of his life.

Watts’ hymn writing created a controversy among the churches of his day. It was the practice of contemporary hymn writers to put the Psalms to music. Though Watts also followed in that tradition, he also believed that one could compose hymns that reflected one’s own thoughts. It was considered blasphemous to sing anything other than the Psalms. If Watts had accepted the views of his day, we would not have hymns such as Joy to the World!, O God, Our Help in Ages Past, or Jesus Shall Reign.

Watts never married, but he did have a relationship through correspondence. When he met the young woman, she found his appearance so deplorable that she broke off the relationship. Instead of sulking in self-pity, Watts identified with the sufferings of Christ and composed the hymn Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed (originally entitled Godly Sorrow Arising from the Sufferings of Christ). Not only did Watts give us many hymns, he gave us a brilliant testimony of one who ministered to others in spite of great personal setbacks!

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