Today is the birthday of Isaac Watts, surely one of the most widely sung hymnwriters in the Christian world, from his own day right up to the present time. For many years, perhaps as late as the mid-nineteenth century, the hymnbooks of many churches were simply collections of Watts's texts.
Born in 1674 to a staunch Nonconformist minister and his wife, young Isaac later rejected offers from wealthy patrons to send him to a prestigious university such as Cambridge or Oxford, since that choice would have committed him to ministry in the Church of England. Instead he attended the Dissenting Academy in Stoke Newington (now part of London). Following graduation, he became a private tutor for five years before becoming the pastor of the Mark Lane Independent Chapel. By this time he had already begun his hymnwriting career, which is said to have sprung from a challenge by his father. Isaac had complained that congregational song was uninspiring, consisting almost exclusively of psalm paraphrases that he considered unimpressive, and he soon discovered that he could write better texts.
Poor health forced his premature retirement from church leadership in 1712, only ten years later. He was invited to stay with Sir Thomas Abney (Lord Mayor of London and a parishioner at Watts's church) at his Hertfordshire estate. Initially planning a visit of a week, Watts remained with the Abney family until his death (November 27, 1748). Though health issues such as his might have made others cynical and resentful, his best hymns (in my opinion) praise the boundless love and power of God.
My God, how endless is your love!
Your gifts are every evening new;
And morning mercies from above
Gently distill like early dew.
You spread the curtains of the night,
Great Guardian of my sleeping hours;
Your sovereign Word restores the light,
And quickens all my waking powers.
I yield my powers to your command,
To you I consecrate my days;
Perpetual blessings from your hand
Demand perpetual songs of praise.
Isaac Watts, 1707; alt.
Tune: ONEONTA (L.M.)
Walter H. Hall, 1918
Nearly 850 of his hymns are currently listed at the Cyber Hymnal site, and more every year are available to see there.
One Year Ago: Isaac Watts