Thursday, July 17, 2008

Isaac Watts

Today is the birthday of Isaac Watts, often called the Father of English Hymnody. Anyone out there reading this blog undoubtedly knows a number of hymns by Watts, maybe without realizing it, because many of them are still sung today and I think it's a rare hymnal that contains no Watts hymns. lists nearly 700, and most accounts say that there were about fifty more that he wrote.

Watts showed a talent for poetry at an early age and was challenged by his father to write hymn texts. I'm still travelling this week without a lot of time to blog, but I encourage you to read the biographical material at the links above, since Watts is still so very important to our modern understanding and love of hymns. Too important to skip his birthday!

It's hard to say which one is the most familiar, but I'm choosing this one for today, which has to be right up there at the top.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Under the shadow of thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all of us away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Isaac Watts, 1719
Tune: ST. ANNE (C.M.)
William Croft, 1708

This paraphrase of Psalm 90 has had a number of small alterations over the years across the hundreds of hymnals that have published it. Some use Watts' original Our God, our help in ages past, but many have altered it as above. For me, God is bigger than just "ours."

A birthday this important deserves two hymns. The most significant thing about Watts, and why he received the "Father of English Hymnody" title, is that he published and popularized hymns that were not simply transcriptions of the Psalms and other passages from Scripture. Others took up this method of hymnwriting and it eventually overtook the previous one; there are many many more of these kind of hymns than the Scripture paraphrases. Here's one that is not as well known, but I always like hymns that use garden imagery and the people of God as plants tended by a loving gardener.

We are a garden walled around,
Chosen and made peculiar ground;
A little spot enclosed by grace
Out of the world's wide wilderness.

Like trees of myrrh and spice we stand,
Planted by God's almighty hand;
And all the springs in Zion flow,
To make the young plantation grow.

Awake, O, heav'nly wind! and come,

Blow on this garden of perfume;
Spirit divine! descend and breathe
A gracious gale on plants beneath.

Make our best spices flow abroad,

To entertain our Savior God
And faith, and love, and joy appear,
And every grace be active here.

Isaac Watts, c. 1708; alt.
Melchior Vulpius, 1609; harm. J.S. Bach, 1724

So how many of the 700 listed at the above link do you know?


Dorothy said...

I did know quite a few of the Isaac Watts hymns listed at But there were many, many more that I have never heard of including "Blest is the man whose bowels move!" That one must be really interesting but the words were not posted there.

Oh, and I love the garden hymn of Isaac Watt's that you posted today!

C.W.S. said...

Ah yes, the bowels verses. They do sound a bit like eighteenth-century advertising jingles - Wesley refers to bowels also. In those days the bowels were supposed to be the seat of deep feelings. I guess it was the Victorians that embarassedly changed or removed those lines.

But you can read Watts's original here: