Isaac Watts

1674-1748. Hymnwriter. He was born at Southampton, son of a Dissenting schoolmaster, and was educated at Stoke Newington Academy. After a few years as a private tutor he became pastor of the London nonconformist church at Mark Lane in 1702, a post he retained, despite recurrent ill-health, for the rest of his life.

He is now best known for his hymns, which first appeared in Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1707 and ran through sixteen editions with numerous alterations in the author's lifetime. This work had been preceded by his collection of religious poems, Horae Lyricae (1706), and was followed, among others, by Divine Songs (1715) for children and The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719). These last include two of his most famous pieces, “O God, our help in ages past” and “Jesus shall reign,” based respectively on Psalms 90 and part of 72. To these should be added among his more celebrated pieces “When I survey the wondrous Cross” and “There is a land of pure delight.” In his own day, and later, he was renowned as an educationalist, not least for Logick (1725) and The Improvement of the Mind (1741).

Watts stands at that point in Dissenting history which marks the transition from Calvinism to Unitarianism, and there is evidence in his work of the influence of this movement. But he never subscribed to those versions of Calvinism which espoused the doctrine of total depravity. The “remains” of reason after the Fall might be “ruinous,” but Watts insisted on making the best use of them.

In his hymnwriting, despite his Christianizing the Psalms, there is an austere OT quality about his vision, especially of God as all-powerful Jehovah, and in his epic sweep of time and eternity. His simple measures and familiar images serve only to emphasize the majesty of this vision.

See A.P. Davis, Isaac Watts (1943), and J. Hoyles, The Waning of the Renaissance (1971).