Isaac Watts, born in 1664, died 1748, was not technically a Puritan. He was born too late to be part of the Puritan movement, but he is certainly allied with the Puritans in his desire to rethink the whole of Christian worship and practice in terms of the Bible. He, like the Puritans, was unwilling to continue a particular practice merely because it had always been done that way.
Watts was named for his father, a non-conformist minister. To understand what it means to be a Anonconformist@ , you must understand a small bit of history. In 1660, Charles II was Arestored@ to the throne of England. Charles, a Roman Catholic at heart was welcomed by much of the population who both hated the Puritans and could not have cared less about the their religion, except in a superstitious sort of way; they were willing to have any religion, as long it made no greater claims upon them than to be baptized as infants and require an occasional trip to church.
With the restoration of the King, the country became extremely debauched and depraved. The public life of the country turned upon the Puritans with force. Poems and plays attacked the Puritans. The political and religious elite also set out after them. In 1660, John Bunyan was cast into prison. In 1662, the law ejected 2000 Puritans from their pulpits. In 1664, another law made it illegal to hold religious services which did not Aconform@ to the requirements of the Anglican Church. Many found the Anglican service to be filled with man-made inventions and elements which were idolatrous.
Some men could not Aconform@ to the requirements of the government without defiling their conscience. Such men were called non-conformists. One of them, Isaac Watts, was thrown into prison. The wife of Isaac would bring their infant, also named Isaac to the prison to visit and sit on the stone outside the jail door.
As a young man, Watts was very diligent and intelligent. And, like many young people you now know, Watts ruined his health by spending too much time studying. This was not a terribly uncommon thing with young men who were or became Puritans. Oddly enough from our perspective, the Puritan movement was a youth movement centered in the university. There were parents who were afraid to send their sons to college for fear they should come back Puritans.
Like Watts, the Puritans were also quite literary. There are wonderful examples of Puritan poetry, from men and women, such as John Milton, Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Watts, in writing poems, fell within that legacy.
The young Watts threw himself into education. However, his naturally weak constitution was made even more fragile by his excessive study. He finished college at the age of 20. He preached on occasion beginning in 1698. In 1701, he accepted the call to become the minister of a non-conformist church. He accepted his call with great reluctance and asked the congregation to consider other men, whom Watts considered better qualified than himself. When the church insisted on Isaac, he consented.
Very shortly thereafter, Watts fell terribly ill. Fortunately, a wealthy family in the church took Watts in. He spent the remainder of his life living on their estate, protected from the need to work when he was too ill. Watts never married.
The space given to Watts permitted him to continue to minister and preach, when his health permitted. He also wrote various books, including a logic book which was a standard textbook for a couple of hundred years.
Incidentally, he also reworked the entire practice of Christian congregational singing.
History of English Church Song
To understand the Watts-Revolution, you need to understand just a bit about the history of English Church Song. At the time of the Reformation, both Luther and later Calvin worked to put singing back in the hands of the congregation. By the late Middle Ages, singing was given completely to the choir.
Although Luther and Calvin both gave the song back to the congregation, they did so in different ways. Calvin was of the opinion that only the Psalms should be sung. Luther permitted the composition of hymns on appropriate topics. In fact, many hymns we still sing, such as a Mighty Fortress is our God were written by Luther.
The English Reformers had strong ties to Geneva, the home of Calvin. The English Protestants took over Calvin=s habit of singing only the Psalms.
To that end, there were various editions of metrical Psalms published; that would be a Psalm reworked to have meter and rhyme so as to be easier to sing.
Editions of these works appeared in the 1500’s and became the standard B indeed the only text for the songs which were sung in the Christian Churches in England. This brings us to work of Isaac Watts.
The Watts – Revolution
In the early 18th century, a variety of ministers began to voice concerns about the sole use of metrical Psalms for congregational singing. Some argued for reinvigorating the old style of Psalm singing. Some argued for adding New Testament songs to the existing Psalms. Isaac Watts suggested that the ministers re-think and re-work the practice of congregational songs.
Watts conceived of congregational songs as Christians singing to God. Since singing was done by Christians directing their attention and worship towards God, it was appropriate that the words of their songs properly reflect their own experience and understanding of God. From that simple proposition, Watts set out a two-fold scheme for rethinking and reworking song: First, they needed to reconsider the Psalms. Second, they needed to add songs which would reflect the fullness of the Christian life.
Watts never suggested that the church leave-off singing metrical versions of the Psalms. He merely noted that the Church should be particular about the selection and use of the Psalms.
While all the Psalms were profitable to believers, not all of the Psalms were appropriate for the believer as one personally singing to God.
In addition, the Psalms alone cannot express the full scope of understanding of a believer who lives after the time of the cross of Christ. The incarnation, the birth, death, burial and resurrection of Christ are not fully and plainly expressed when one is limited to the Psalms alone; for that there was needed ANew Testament Songs@.
New Testament Songs
Watts argued for the use of songs specifically written to address the truth and experience of the believer who has the New Testament. Watts explained that songs were a form of teaching, and, since the preacher explained the New Testament, indeed the whole of the Bible, it would be equally appropriate for the pastor to teach the congregation by means of songs which expounded a biblical truth.
Watts= Psalms and Hymns
In December 1705, Watts published his Psalms and Hymns. The book contained three sections: The paraphrased Psalms, hymns for communion and Afree composures@. Although the book initially received some rather stiff objections, it soon became a great favorite of church. Watts= book had wide ranging affects. In 1731, a fellow-pastor writing to Watts said that Watts= book was the Adaily entertainment@ of many poor members of his congregation. As late as 1864, a new edition of Watts= book sold 60,000 copies.
Watts= book opened the door for other ministers to write their own songs for their congregations. For example, John Newton wrote Amazing Grace to underscore the sermon on a particular day. In 1784 a compilation of songs written by various pastors B much like the hymnal in the pew before you B was published.
In addition to his Psalms and Hymns, Watts also invented the Children=s Song.
The Nature of the Book
If you were to pick up a copy of Watts= book, you would not find music, as you would in a modern hymnal. Instead you would find only words. There were various melodies which the congregation would know. A small number of melodies would be sufficient to sing any of the songs in the book.
Since the songs were considered to be a lesson, the emphasis was on the words, not the melody. Songs perform a teaching a function, you remember them, think about them, repeat them. As with anything, you should be wise in what you are willing to learn; consider the songs who leave in your heart.
How a Song was Written
The songs themselves were teaching based upon a biblical text. Watts would turn his meditation upon that text into a short poem. The poem is a compact exposition of gospel truth. For example, AGod forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ@ (Gal. 6:14) and Paul=s note that Athey . . . crucified the Lord of Glory@ (1 Cor. 2:8) becomes,
1 When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
2 Forbid it Lord that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
In those short words, Watts teaches the incarnation, the crucifixion, the atonement, grace, the righteousness of God, and Christian humility. The gospels= description of the crucifixion becomes
3 See, from His head, His hands,
His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e=er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Complete dedication of the believer, such as Paul=s command to Apresent your bodies as a living sacrifice@, becomes
4 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.
The poem moves the believer to a more complete dedication to Christ by showing forth Christ, who Ahath loved us and hath given himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God@ (Eph. 5:2). This poem becomes a picture of the truth, AThat we loved him because he first loved us@ (1 John 4:19). This short poem transverses a great swath of Christian doctrine in a manner which engages both the heart and the mind. Here is great matter packed in a manner that even a child can carry it about.
We could make similar examinations of any number of songs written by Watts, such as Joy to the World, or Alas and did My Savior Bleed@ or any number of other songs. Indeed, I would encourage you do so. I would encourage you to memorize these songs.
And, if you have children, teach them to memorize these and other hymns B but don=t pay them to do so. The grandmother of Charles Spurgeon offered young Charles money for each hymn of Watts which he memorized B which a great plan until she discovered that he had a photographic memory and could inhale a hymn by Watts at a glance.