1674 - 1748
The "father of the English hymn" was unusual in many
respects. A short man (five feet tall), his sickly body was capped with a
disproportionately large head. Virtually all portraits depict him in a large gown with
large folds -- an obvious attempt at having him appear less grotesque.
A working pastor, he wrote a textbook on logic that was used for
decades at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale.
He wrote a tome on metaphysics (the branch of philosophy that
deals with "being") even as his book of children's poetry (the first such book
to be published) went through 95 editions within 100 years of publication.
No other thinker has published a major work on astronomy as well
as age-graded catechisms for youngsters (the first for five-year olds!).
His hymns have been translated into dozens of languages from
Armenian to Zulu.
His voice was thin, and his recurring psychiatric illness (at
times incapacitating him) was common knowledge; yet whenever he was well enough to preach
crowds hung on words they knew to pour from a heart wrapped in the heart of God.
The eldest of eight children, Watts was born in troubled times.
Dissenters (those who refused to conform to the established church) were not only denied
access to the universities and suitable employment; they were also liable to prosecution
and punishment for no greater "crime" than persistently worshipping God
according to their conscience. Watts's father, a Dissenter, was imprisoned one year after
he was married. His wife gave birth while her husband was in jail. She regularly nursed
the infant Isaac on the jail steps in the course of visiting her husband.
The youngster was plainly precocious. He had learned Latin by age
four, Greek at nine, French at eleven, and Hebrew at thirteen. French was not usually
studied in English elementary schools during the 1600s, but Watts was raised in
Southampton, and Southampton was a city of refuge to hundreds of refugees who were fleeing
persecution in France. The boy thought he should know French so that he could converse
with his neighbours.
A physician recognized the teenager's intellectual gifts and
offered to finance his education at either Oxford or Cambridge. But regardless of his
brilliance Watts would be admitted to either university only if he were willing to
renounce the convictions that had exacted terrible suffering from his parents. He wouldn't
surrender conviction to expediency. As a result he went to a Dissenting Academy, the
post-secondary institution for those barred from the universities. While completing his
formal education he wrote much poetry, most of it in Latin.
In this era hymns weren't sung in English churches. German
Lutherans had been singing hymns for over 100 years. Calvinists in France and Switzerland,
however, had not. Calvin had wanted his people to sing only the psalms of scripture.
English Protestants of Calvinist parentage had adopted the practice of singing only
metrical psalms in worship. These metrical arrangements were awkward ("But we
remember will the name/Of our Lord God alone"), the mood was ponderous, the tone of
the entire service dreary. One day Watts discovered he couldn't endure any of it a minute
longer. Returning from the service one Sunday morning he complained vehemently to his
father about the stodgy psalm-singing that put people off worship. "Why don't you
write a hymn suitable congregational singing?", his father challenged him. Throughout
the afternoon Watts did just that, and at evening worship that day the congregation sang
hymn #1, "Behold the glories of the Lamb". Six hundred and ninety-six followed.
Not everyone thanked him. Some of his contemporaries complained
that his hymns were "too worldly" for the church. One critic fumed,
"Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts's
flights of fancy!". His hymns outraged many people, split congregations (most notably
the congregation whose pastor, years earlier, had been John Bunyan, the author of an
English classic), and got pastors fired. Still, the multi-talented thinker knew what his
preeminent gift was and why he had to employ it.
Watts, like other hymn-writers of his era, wrote of God's seizure
of the human heart and God's transmutation of our understanding. Yet Watts was unique in
his emphasis on the backdrop of God's intercourse with the human heart: the cosmos in its
unspeakable vastness. Watts sees the drama of the incarnation and the cross, the
dereliction and the resurrection, as seemingly small events that are in fact
possessed of cosmic significance. Watts's universe is simply more immense than anything
other hymn-writers imagined. (Perhaps this is to be expected from an astronomer!)
Convinced of the immensity of God and immersed in the passion of
God, Watts himself was possessed of the profoundest experience or God.
Turn, turn us mighty God,
And mould our souls afresh;
Break, sovereign grace, these hearts of stone,
And give us hearts of flesh.
By age 50 he was a national figure, esteemed now by Anglicans and
Dissenters alike. John Wesley (an Anglican) had long acknowledged the genius, discipline
and piety of Watts, and when Wesley came to publish his first hymn book, one-third of the
its hymns were Isaac's. An able theologian as well, he found 44 pages of his Ruin and
Recovery in Wesley's The Doctrine of Original Sin.
As unusual as he was in appearance, gifts, productivity and
psychiatric history, Watts was not unusual at all in one important respect. Like all
Christians this logician knew that God is to be loved with the mind, and therefore reason
must never be discounted in the exercising of faith or the discipline of the Christian
life. Yet he knew too that the mystery of God himself, while never irrational, is finally
oceans deeper than anything reason can fathom.
Where reason fails,
With all her pow'rs,
There faith prevails
And love adores.