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Learning More About Isaac Watts

I recently had the opportunity to interact with Daniel Johnson, a researcher examining the life and work of Isaac Watts. In the Church of Christ, we still rely heavily on hymns, including many of those written by Isaac Watts, such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “I’m Not Ashamed to Own My Lord,” and “We’re Marching to Zion (Come, We That Love the Lord).” Daniel graciously agreed to a brief interview about his work studying Watts, and I thought the results would be of interest to some of my readers. If you want to read more from Daniel, check out his new blog:

So, who are you? What qualifies you to talk about Watts?

Good question! I’m Daniel, from Nottingham, England. I’m married to Rosanna, and we have 2 sons, Levi and Amos. I’m a musician, playing guitar and sing in a few bands. I’m part of Cornerstone Church here in Nottingham, and for the last year I’ve been writing a 35,000 word Masters thesis on Isaac Watts. I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve been immersing myself in his work on the Psalms for a while now and am starting to understand him a little bit. God-willing, in January I will begin a PhD here at the University Of Nottingham studying the theology of Watts’ hymns.

Who is Watts and why should we care?

Isaac Watts was a pastor, theologian and hymn writer who lived in England from 1674 to 1748. Before Isaac Watts, apart from a few small instances, nobody was really writing hymns. People like Richard Baxter and Benjamin Keach wrote a few, but they didn’t have a very broad influence. John Calvin set the course for Puritan worship, which was that they only sang the Psalms. Various editions were published, with varying degrees of success, but Isaac Watts was the first person to write a large body of hymns that were sung by churches throughout Britain and America. There’s a famous story where he was walking home from church with his dad complaining about how boring the metrical psalms were, and instead of rebuking him, his dad told him to fix the problem himself and write better songs. His first hymn was, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb.”

Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst His Father’s throne.
Prepare new honours for His Name,
And songs before unknown.

Why should we care about him? Well, firstly, despite him having a huge influence on hymn writing, he hasn’t been studied with the attention he deserves. Think about it; just about every church in the world engages with Isaac Watts one way or another every week. They either adopt the pattern he set, of singing songs that aren’t directly based on Scripture, or they reject these songs as being suitable for worship and continue to only sing Psalms. In the same way that you can trace popular music back through The Beatles and Elvis to Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, and back even further to people like Robert Johnson, so we have 300 years of hymns, worship songs and praise choruses, which can be traced back to Watts. He had been known as the “Father of hymnody.” If you’re pedantic, it’s not technically true as many people wrote hymns before him, including big guns like Martin Luther. But in terms of Nonconformist, Puritan church history, Isaac Watts changed the game. He had a direct and personal influence on Phillip Doddridge and Charles Wesley, as well as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards (though they never met) and later, his legacy influenced John Newton, William Cowper, Spurgeon and his influence is still felt today.

What is Watts’ theological background? How does that come out in his songs?

Watts’ theological background is Nonconformity. So he was an Independent Dissenter, who can trace their lineage back to the Puritans and Calvin. He pastored the church were John Owen had ministered some years before. He was influenced by the important theologians at the end of the seventeenth century, such as Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, Richard Baxter and Matthew Henry. For those that know their Puritan history, you’ll know that John Owen and Richard Baxter disagreed enormously over various points of theology, and Watts sits somewhere between the two. He’s a Calvinist, though not as hard-line as John Owen.

My current work on the Psalms is to do with one big out-working of Watts’ theology. He believed that Scripture interprets Scripture, and that Christ is seen throughout the Old Testament, and so therefore, when we sing the Psalms we should bring Christ into the picture. The full, snappy title of his Psalter is The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to Christian Worship. That tells you his intentions right there. Watts wanted Christians to not only sing the Psalms, which was his own heritage and commanded in Scripture, but he wanted them to sing the gospel too. So he marries them both.

So for instance, in Watts’ version of Psalm 32, his opening verse reads;

Blest is the man, for ever blest,
Whose guilt is pardon’d by his God,
Whose sins with sorrow are confess’d
And cover’d with his Saviour’s blood.

Before Watts’s version, this Psalm would have been sung literally, without reference to Christ. Watts cross-references the Psalm to Paul’s usage of it in Romans 4:7-8, where it is used a proof text for the Old Testament roots of Justification by Faith. Justification had been one of the issues that Baxter had disputed with Owen and Goodwin, and in a sermon, Watts makes his own allegiance clear:

The first act of our faith is acceptance of Christ to be our way to salvation, to reconcile us to God by his righteousness, and make us fit for his enjoyment by his sanctifying grace. Faith trusts Christ for holiness and glory, and immediately upon this act we are justified, though as Dr. Goodwin says, “Faith justifies peculiarly as it depends on Christ for his perfect righteousness to bring us into the favour of God.” But before this act we could not perform any good work, for we receive strength to do good works by this trusting.1

Is there any kind of “Watts-trademark” — a feature that we could notice coming through in most of his songs?

Watts has a few trademarks, and you can actually see most of them in his most famous hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

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.

As well as writing hymns, Watts wrote theology and philosophy. His big contention was the relationship between Passion and Reason. That is, our thoughts should influence our affections. And you can see that here in this verse. The opening two lines are descriptive and logical. The word “survey” is just perfect. When you survey something, you take everything in. You get a survey done before you buy a house to make sure that every single part of the house is ok. So here, he’s surveying the cross. He’s taking everything in. He’s not just gazing, but he’s learning and understanding and trying to fathom it all. His skill as a poet comes through as he juxtaposes the words “wondrous” and “cross”. It’s a bit like saying “beautiful cancer.” We’re so familiar with them, but they clash.

After the two opening lines, he switches to his response. He’s starting with Reason, and moving to Passion. His gains are losses beneath the cross. His cool, reflective survey results in a deep humbling. It’s like Isaiah’s cry of “Woe is me, I am ruined” when he sees the glory of the LORD, or when Peter tells Christ to depart from him because he’s a sinner after the miraculous catch of fish.

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?

4. His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Watts likes repeating his words, but flipping them around to create contrast. He manages to create quite a gruesome picture without lingering on the gory details. Again, this is his skill as a poet shining through.

5. 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.

Isaac Watts sees the cross of Christ at the centre of a cosmic drama. For Watts, the created world is a constant theme in his hymns. He often sings about nature, or space, but he doesn’t disconnect it from the gospel. “Watts finds the Cross the centre of his thought: all things look forward or backward to the Incarnation and the Passion. But Watts sees the Cross … planted on a globe hung in space, surrounded by the vast distances of the universe.”2

These are a few of his key features I would say.

Does Watts’ work have a future in churches? How is Watts’ faring in a world of contemporary worship music trends?

Isaac Watts wrote over 500 hymns. Some of them, thankfully, we still sing today. And perhaps a few more could be dusted off. Sojourn Music has recorded a couple of albums of Watts’ hymns in the last few years. But many will stay confined to history; their language is clunky, or the imagery is poor, or they’re 17 verses long. And that’s ok. Because Watts’ main contribution is his theological legacy. Watts taught us how to encapsulate great biblical truths into short, rhyming couplets. Without Watts, Newton would never have summed up the paradox of Christian perseverance and assurance in the verse,

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home

We would have no “Rock of Ages,” no “And Can it Be,” no “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” no “In Christ Alone,” no “10,000 Reasons.” Hymns are vital for churches to continue singing because not only have they stood the test of time, but they connect us to the church throughout the ages. Just as we can use Creeds and Confessions to affirm our historical orthodoxy, so too hymns allow us to lift our voices with saints who have gone before us. Their story is our story, their gospel is our gospel. But also, hymns should encourage new songs to flourish. The good hymns that have continued to this day set the bar high for new songs, but if we learn anything from Isaac Watts, it’s that we need to keep writing new songs. Each generation needs to find its own expression of the victories and love of Christ, while at the same time joining with those whose race is run.

If you’d like to know more about Watts, read Isaac Watts: His Life and Thought by Graham Beynon. It’s a great, modern biography and is the perfect starting point for Watts.