Friday, July 17, 2015

Isaac Watts

Influential hymnwriter Isaac Watts was born today in 1674. His father was a Nonconformist, or Dissenter, who was twice jailed for not joining the state Church of England, and the son followed in the father's beliefs. Dissatisfied with the psalm paraphrases which were sung in English churches of his day, young Isaac resolved to write better things to sing, and thus became one of the earliest and most prolific writers in English who wrote hymns that were not scriptural paraphrases. His earliest hymns were published in 1707 and 1709. 

In 1719 he published The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, his own psalm paraphrases which brought Jesus into many of the texts. These were not the stricter, complete paraphrases of earlier days; Watts left some of the psalms out, as well as ignoring some long sections of those he did include. To explain these so-called discrepancies, he wrote that 

Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament.

His hymns and psalm paraphrases were derided by critics as "flights of fancy," or even "Watts's whims," and some churches split over the singing of hymns rather than psalms, but obviously hymns eventually gained greater favor with the general public. The noted essayist Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Watts, wrote that "He was the first who taught the Dissenters to write and speak like other men, by showing them that elegance might consist with piety." 

In all he wrote nearly eight hundred texts (listed here). Today's hymn of praise is not derived from the Psalms, but some sources suggest that it comes partly from the book of Job, proclaiming the infinite greatness of God.

How wondrous great, how glorious bright
Must our Creator be,
Who dwells amidst the dazzling light
Of vast eternity.

Our soaring spirits upwards rise
to reach the glorious throne.
There would we see the blessed Three
In the Almighty One.

Our reason stretches all its wings,
And climbs above the skies;
But still how far below God's feet
Our mortal knowledge lies!

While all the heavenly powers conspire
Eternal praise to bring,
Let faith in humbler notes adore,
The wondrous Mystery sing.

Isaac Watts, 1707; alt.
Maurice Greene, 18th cent.

Earlier printings of this hymn do not include this final stanza, so I am not sure if it is from another hymn entirely, and perhaps is not even by Watts, but this is the form which more recent hymnals have used.

Isaac Watts never married (his one proposal was rejected) and his health was poor for many years.  He pastored a church in London though many of his duties had to be left to an assistant.  In old age, he once wrote "The business of a Christian is to bear the will of God, as well as to do it. If I were in health, I ought to be doing it; and now it is my duty to bear it." He died on November 25, 1748 and was was buried in Bunhill Fields.

Seven Years Ago: Isaac Watts

Six Years Ago: Isaac Watts

Five Years Ago: Isaac Watts

No comments: