Saturday, July 17, 2010

Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts, was born today in 1674 in Southhampton, England, where this statue (dedicated in 1861) stands in a park today. His father was a schoolmaster, so the boy began to learn Latin at age four, and by seven he was starting to write verse. His first hymn, reportedly written before he was twenty, was Behold the glories of the Lamb.

Watts was the first prolific writer of hymns which were not paraphrases of the Psalms, until that time the only accepted texts to be sung in worship in England. As a Nonconformist minister, he began to use his hymn texts in his own congregation and published his first collection in 1707, inspiring writers of the time such as Philip Doddridge and Anne Steele. His ministry was focused more on education than strict denominational dogma, and he was surprisingly ecumenical for his time. This may be part of the reason that his hymns have been so widely sung across so many different churches in the last three hundred years.

His total output was more than 750 hymns, and each year more and more of them are available at the Cyber Hymnal. According to John Julian in his Dictionary of Hymnology, about 450 of those were still in use at the beginning of the twentieth century. Today's hymn is perhaps not as widely known as it once was (#20 in 1899's The Best Church Hymns), but it's not gone completely. Here Watts joins our voices on earth with the angelic choir in Revelation 5:11-13.

Come, let us join our cheerful songs
With angels round the throne.
Ten thousand thousand are their tongues,
But all their joys are one.

“Worthy the Lamb that died,” they cry,
“To be exalted thus!”
“Worthy the Lamb,” our hearts reply,
“The Lamb was slain for us!”

Jesus is worthy to receive
Honor and power divine;
And blessings more than we can give,
Be ever, ever thine.

Let all that dwell above the sky,
And air and earth and seas,
Conjoin to lift thy glories high,
And speak thine endless praise!

The whole creation joins in one,
To bless the sacred Name
Of God who sits upon the throne,
And to adore the Lamb.

Isaac Watts, 1707; alt.
Elizabeth Howard Cuthbert, 1814

This tune by Elizabeth Cuthbert is one of two that she is known to have written (though I have not yet located the second). It appeared in several nineteenth century hymnals but is not much known today (much like its composer, unfortunately).

Two Years Ago: Isaac Watts

One Year Ago: Isaac Watts

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