Isaac Watts: The Reformer You Know By Heart But Not By Name

In his excellent biography of Isaac Watts, David Fountain describes his early days like this:

It is the year 1674; the place is God’s House Tower, Southampton. A woman sits on a horse-block outside the prison, nursing her child. It is a hard seat, but not so hard as the hearts of her husband’s persecutors, for he is inside, imprisoned for refusing to conform to the laws of the land relating to the worship of God. He is prepared to pay the price, as he would rather serve God than man, for he believes that Scripture alone should be our guide in worship.

He and his wife had been married but a year, and although he could not see the child’s face, the sound of his crying would give him pleasure. How much more pleasure it gave him in later years when that child, who was born so small and sickly, was to influence the worship of the nation more than any other single man.

Watts was born the son of an English nonconformist, a reformer who faced the threat of persecution for much of his life in the name of faithfulness. Out of that furnace of suffering, the pressure of that trial, came Isaac, a brilliant pastor and poet who would profoundly change the culture of worship in England and far beyond.

Watts was raised with a rigorous classical and theological education. After spending some time studying in London, he returned to his father’s home in Southampton, staying for about two and a half years. He was 20, and it’s believed he spent this time there in prayer, study, and preparation for ministry.

They gathered for worship with an Independent congregation, and part of the practice (as was the common practice in English-speaking churches) was psalm-singing. The translations they used were metered and essentially literal—they sang the texts as they were written—but Watts grew concerned for the sake of the congregation. He appreciated the tranlations’ precise language. But they lacked beauty and emotive power. It was a pastoral concern: The Psalms should be moving, powerful, and emotive, but they weren’t. People didn’t understand what they were singing.

When he expressed his concern to his father, his dad essentially said, “See if you can do any better.” This began one of Watts’s most significant contributions to church history. He began rewriting the Psalms with an eye for poetry and theological clarity. He wanted people to sing the Psalms and hear the gospel. A while later, as he considered widening his project and publishing these Psalms, his brother wrote him a letter, urging the project on. “Yours is the old truth,” Enoch Watts said to Isaac, “stripped of its ragged ornaments, and appears, if we may say so, younger by ages, in a new and fashionable dress.” Of the English versions of the Psalms that were widely sung in their day, he said, “There is in them a mighty deficiency of that life and soul, which is necessary to raise our fancies and kindle and fire our passions.”

What Enoch Watts affirmed was Isaac’s pastoral vision and passion. Congregations needed to hear the Psalms with fresh ears, vivid poetry, and deep passion. Watts’s love for God’s Word made him feel an urgency in wanting to help people understand and connect emotionally to what they sang.

Meditating on the Gospel

One of the main thrusts of Watts’s work was to theologically interpret the Psalms. As Watts saw it, Christian worship should be a meditation on the gospel. By exclusively singing Psalms, it relegated the church to singing in language that was prophetic and predictive, excluding the accomplished work of Christ that illuminates all that the Psalms foreshadowed.

As Watts put it himself:

Where [the Psalmist] speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I have added the merits of a Savior. Where he talks of sacrificing goats or bullocks, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. . . .

Where he promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory, and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament. And I am fully satisfied that more honor is done to our blessed Savior by speaking his Name, his graces, and actions in his own language, according to the brighter discoveries he has now made, than by going back again to the Jewish forms of worship, and the language of types and figures.

One of my favorite examples of this is his hymn setting of Psalm 3. The text of the Psalm is:

1 LORD, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
2 Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”

3 But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
4 I call out to the LORD,
and he answers me from his holy mountain.

5 I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
6 I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.

7 Arise, LORD!
Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked.

8 From the LORD comes deliverance.
May your blessing be on your people.

And the Watts hymn is:


My God, how many are my fears!

How fast my foes increase!

Conspiring my eternal death,

They break my present peace.

The lying tempter would persuade

There’s no relief in heav’n;

And all my swelling sins appear

Too big to be forgiv’n.

But thou, my glory and my strength,

Shalt on the tempter tread,

Shalt silence all my threatening guilt,

And raise my drooping head.

What though the hosts of death and hell

All armed against me stood,

Terrors no more shall shake my soul;

My refuge is my God.

Arise, O Lord, fulfill thy grace,

While I thy glory sing;

My God has broke the serpent’s teeth,

And death has lost his sting.

This work was, for its time, scandalous. Driven by pastoral priorities, Watts took liberties with the Psalms that many interpreted as bold and dangerous. But Watts’s deepest concern was for the hearts and souls of his congregation. He recognized that for the sake of contextualization, Christians needed help with language, imagery, and metaphor. His goal was to pastorally exposit the Psalms, through song, for the sake of building up the church.

This marked only the beginning for the way that Watts would bring reform to worship. In the ensuing years, he would make the argument not only for his theological interpretations of the Psalms, but for new hymns—new songs written for the church—that brought no small amount of scandal itself. In this way, Watts is considered the father of the English hymn, and rightly deserves a place amongst the greatest names of the Reformation. Watts can be credited as paving the way for not only the rich history of Reformation-era hymns, but also as establishing the ground upon which our understanding of music’s role in the church is seen today.

Enduring Legacy

Here are a few things worship leaders can learn from Watts’s legacy:

  • Worship leading is pastoral. Watts was first and foremost a pastor. His work in bringing reform to worship practices flowed from concern for the people of God. In an age of celebrity worship leaders and pastors, we can be reminded that Watts, with his profound contribution to the church, was concerned primarily with shepherding and encouraging his flock. People don’t need a rock star who can wow them with talent. They need a pastor who can help them sing, discerningly choose songs, and craft a culture of worship that effectively shapes the spirituality of a congregation.
  • Contextualization is about comprehension. I don’t think anyone would ever accuse Watts of watering down the gospel. His version of Psalm 22, which reflects on Christ’s suffering and victory, contains the lyric “all the kindreds of the earth shall worship or shall die.” Worship or die is not a phrase often heard in compromised congregations. For Watts, contextualizing meant ensuring that the offense of the gospel is made clear to both insiders and outsiders. He is a hero of contextualization, willing to buck tradition and risk persecution for the sake of presenting the gospel in a way that was fresh, clear, and compelling.
  • Worship should be concerned with truth and beauty—but beauty is a servant of truth. This is one of the most interesting facts about Watts; he was the consummate pastoral artist. He found the English Psalms written by his contemporaries to be wanting for their lack of beauty. He wrote many times about the power of poetry to stir emotions, and it serves as a reminder that worship should not only be concerned with truth. It should also be beautiful. The Psalms themselves are magnificent poems. New Testament hymns like Colossians 1 and Philippians 2 are beautiful and poetic, and the work of the pastor should include wrestling with language that illumines the beauty of the gospel and the glory of Jesus. But we can also see that beauty is a servant of truth—it is put to use for the sake of illuminating and illustrating the truth, not for its own sake.
  • Worship should be both wide and deep. Even a brief summary of Watts’s hymns reveals a breadth of content that stands in contrast with the songs we sing. He wrote hymns of adoration, lament, thanksgiving, confession; even the imprecatory Psalms found a place (like the aforementioned Psalm 3). Here’s a challenge: Spend some time with Watts’s hymns, make some notes on their breadth and diversity, and contrast that with you own “hymnal” (your own collection of songs). See where you’re strong and where you’re weak.

via Isaac Watts: The Reformer You Know By Heart But Not By Name – The Gospel Coalition Blog.

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