Isaac Watts (17 July 1674 – 25 November 1748) was an English hymnwriter, theologian and logician. A prolific and popular hymn writer, he was recognized as the "Father of English Hymnody", credited with some 750 hymns. Many of his hymns remain in use today, and have been translated into many languages.
Born in Southampton, England, in 1674, Watts was brought up in the home of a committed religious Nonconformist — his father, also Isaac Watts, had been incarcerated twice for his controversial views. At King Edward VI School (where one of the houses is now named "Watts" in his honor), Watts learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
From an early age, Watts displayed a propensity for rhyme. Once, he had to explain how he came to have his eyes open during prayers:
A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.
Receiving corporal punishment for this, he cried:
O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.
Watts, unable to go to either Oxford or Cambridge on account of his non-conformity, went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690, and much of his life centered around that village, which is now part of Inner London.
His education led him to the pastorate of a large independent chapel in London, where he found himself in the position of helping trainee preachers, despite his poor health. Taking work as a private tutor, Watts lived with the Nonconformist Hartopp family at Fleetwood House, on Church Street in Stoke Newington, and later in the household of their immediate neighbors Sir Thomas Abney and Lady Mary. Isaac Watts held religious opinions that were more non-denominational or ecumenical than was at that time common for a Nonconformist; he had a greater interest in promoting education and scholarship than preaching for any particular ministry.
On the death of Sir Thomas Abney, Watts moved permanently with his widow and her remaining unmarried daughter, Elizabeth, to Abney House in Stoke Newington, a property that Mary had inherited from her brother. He lived there from 1721 to his death. The grounds at Abney Park led down to an island heronry in the Hackney Brook, where he sought inspiration for the many books and hymns he wrote.
Watts died in Stoke Newington in 1748, and was buried in Bunhill Fields, having left an extensive legacy of hymns, treatises, educational works and essays. His work was influential amongst Nonconformist independents and early religious revivalists, such as Philip Doddridge, who dedicated his best known work to Watts. On his death, Isaac Watts' papers were given to Yale University in then-colonial Connecticut.
Watts and hymnody
Sacred music scholar Stephen Marini (2003) describes the ways in which Watts contributed to English hymnody. Notably, Watts led the way in the inclusion in worship of "original songs of Christian experience"; that is, new poetry. The older tradition limited itself to the poetry of the Bible, notably the Psalms. This stemmed from the teachings of the 16th century Reformation leader John Calvin, who initiated the practice of creating verse translations of the Psalms in the vernacular for congregational singing. Watts' introduction of extra-Biblical poetry opened up a new era of Protestant hymnody as other poets followed in his path.
Watts also introduced a new way of rendering the Psalms in verse for church services. The Psalms were originally written in Biblical Hebrew within the religion of Judaism. Later, they were adopted into Christianity as part of the Old Testament. Watts proposed that the metrical translations of the Psalms as sung by Protestant Christians should give them a specifically Christian perspective. While he granted that David [to whom authorship of many of the Psalms is traditionally ascribed] was unquestionably a chosen instrument of God, Watts claimed that his religious understanding could not have fully apprehended the truths later revealed through Jesus Christ. The Psalms should therefore be "renovated" as if David had been a Christian, or as Watts put it in the title of his 1719 metrical Psalter, they should be "imitated in the language of the New Testament."
Marini discerns two particular trends in Watts' verses, which he calls "emotional subjectivity" and "doctrinal objectivity". By the former he means that "Watts' voice broke down the distance between poet and singer and invested the text with personal spirituality." As an example of this he cites "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross". By "doctrinal objectivity" Marini means that Watts verse achieved an "axiomatic quality" that "presented Christian doctrinal content with the explicit confidence that befits affirmations of faith." As examples Marini cites the hymns "Joy to the World" as well as "From All That Dwell Below the Skies":
From all that dwell below the skies
Let the Creator's praise arise;
Let the Redeemer's name be sung
Through every land, by every tongue.
Significant cultural or contemporary impacts
- One of his best known poems was an exhortation "Against Idleness and Mischief" in Divine Songs for Children, a poem which was famously parodied by Lewis Carroll in his book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in the poem "How Doth the Little Crocodile", which is now better known than the original. In the 1850 novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, school master Dr. Strong quotes from Watts' "Against Idleness and Mischief": "Satan finds some mischief still, for idle hands to do."
- In the 1884 comic opera called Princess Ida, there is a punning reference to Watts in Act I. At Princess Ida's women's university no males of any kind are allowed, and the Princess's father, King Gama, relates that "She'll scarcely suffer Dr. Watts' 'hymns'".
- Isaac Watts is commemorated in the Church of England, the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on 25 November and in the Episcopal Church (USA) on 26 November.
Watts was the author of a text book on logic which was particularly popular; its full title was, Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. This was first published in 1724, and its popularity ensured that it went through twenty editions.
Watts' logic text book was written for beginners of logic, and the book is arranged methodically. He divided the content of his elementary treatment of logic into four parts: perception, judgement, reasoning, and method, which he treated in this order. Each of these parts is divided into chapters, and some of these chapters are divided into sections. The content of the chapters and sections is then subdivided by using some combination of the following devices: divisions, distributions, notes, observations, directions, rules, illustrations, and remarks. Thus, every contentum of the book comes under one or more of these headings, and this methodical arrangement serves to make the exposition clear.
In Watts' Logic there are some notable departures from what one would expect to find in a text book of logic from Watts' time, and there are also some notable innovations. Detectable throughout the work is the influence of British empiricism, and in particular, the influence of philosopher and empiricist John Locke. For Locke was a contemporary of Watts, and in the Logic there are several references to Locke and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which Locke espoused his empiricist views. Another departure from most other authors of logic is that Watts was careful to distinguish between judgements and propositions. According to Watts, judgement is "to compare... ideas together, and to join them by affirmation, or disjoin then by negation, according as we find them to agree or disagree". However, he continues by saying, "when mere ideas are joined in the mind without words, it is rather called a judgement; but when clothed with words it is called a proposition". Watts' Logic follows the scholastic tradition and divides propositions into universal affirmative, universal negative, particular affirmative, and particular negative. In the third part, Watts discusses reasoning and argumentation, with particular emphasis on the theory of syllogism, which was a centrally important part of the classical logic which Watts' was treating in his work. According to Watts, and in keeping with the common practice of logicians of his day, Watts defined logic as an art (see liberal arts), as opposed to a science. Throughout the Logic Watts revealed his high conception of logic by stressing the practical side of logic, rather than just the speculative side. According to Watts, as a practical art, logic can be really useful in any of our inquiries, whether they are inquiries in the arts, or inquiries in the sciences, or inquiries of an ethical kind. It is Watts' emphasis on logic as a practical art which distinguishes his book from others. For, by stressing that there is a practical and non-formal part of logic, Watts was able to give rules and directions for any kind of inquiry, including the inquiries of science and the inquiries of philosophy. These rules of inquiry were given in addition to the formal content of classical logic that one would expect to find in a text book on logic from that time. Thus, Watts' conception of logic as being divided into its practical part and its speculative part, and therefore containing more than just formal logic, marks a departure from the conception of logic of most other authors. Instead, Watts' conception of logic is much more akin to that of the later, nineteenth century logician, C.S. Peirce.
Isaac Watts' Logic became the standard text on logic at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale; being used at Oxford University for well over 100 years. C.S. Peirce, the great nineteenth century logician, wrote favorably of Watts' Logic. When preparing his own text book on Logic entitled A Critick of Arguments: How to Reason (also known as the Grand Logic), Peirce wrote, 'I shall suppose the reader to be acquainted with what is contained in Dr Watts' Logick, a book... far superior to the treatises now used in colleges, being the production of a man distinguished for good sense.'  The Logic was followed in 1741 by a supplement, The Improvement of the Mind, which itself went through numerous editions and later inspired Michael Faraday.
The earliest surviving built memorial to Isaac Watts is at Westminster Abbey; this was completed shortly after his death. His much-visited chest tomb, in its photogenic setting at Bunhill Fields, dates from 1808, replacing the original that had been paid for and erected by Lady Mary Abney and the Hartopp family. In addition a stone bust of Watts can be seen in the non-conformist library Dr Williams' Library in central London. The earliest public statue stands at Abney Park, where he lived and died before it became a cemetery and arboretum; a later, rather similar statue was funded by public subscription for a new Victorian public park in the city of his birth, Southampton. In the mid nineteenth century a Congregational Hall, the Dr Watts Memorial Hall was also built in Southampton, though after World War II it was lost to redevelopment. Now standing on this site is the Isaac Watts Memorial United Reformed Church.
One of the earliest built memorials may also now be lost: a bust to Watts that was commissioned on his death for the London chapel with which he was associated. The chapel was demolished in the late eighteenth century; remaining parts of the memorial were rescued at the last minute by a wealthy landowner for installation in his chapel near Liverpool. It is unclear whether it still survives.
The stone statue in front of the Abney Park Chapel at Dr Watts' Walk, Abney Park Cemetery, was erected in 1845 by public subscription. It was designed by the leading British sculptor, Edward Hodges Baily RA FRS. A scheme for a commemorative statue on this spot had first been promoted in the late 1830s by George Collison, who in 1840 published an engraving as the frontispiece of his book about cemetery design in Europe and America; and at Abney Park Cemetery in particular. This first cenotaph proposal was never commissioned, and Baily's later design was adopted in 1845.
- The Improvement of the Mind - first three chapters as text from Wikisource - 1815 Edition s:The Improvement of the Mind
- The Improvement of the Mind Vol 1 Vol 2 at The Internet Archive
- The Knowledge of the Heavens and the Earth Made Easy ..., first edition, 1726; 1760 edition at Google Books
- Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences
- A Short View of the Whole Scripture History: With a Continuation of the Jewish Affairs From the Old Testament Till the Time of Christ; and an Account of the Chief Prophesies that Relate to Him
- Apparently, Watts is thought to have been the author of the tract: An Essay on the Freedom of Will in God and Creatures (copy on The Internet Archive).
- Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (1715).
Some of Watts' hymns include:
- Joy to the world (based on Psalm 98, arranged by Lowell Mason to an older melody originating from Handel)
- Come ye that love the Lord (often sung with the chorus [and titled] "We’re marching to Zion")
- Come Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove
- Jesus shall reign where’er the sun (based on Psalm 72)
- O God, Our Help in Ages Past (based on Psalm 90)
- When I survey the wondrous cross
- Alas! and did my Saviour bleed
- This is the day the Lord has made
- 'Tis by Thy strength the mountains stand
- I sing the mighty power of God (originally entitled "Praise for Creation and Providence" from Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children)
- My shepherd will supply my need (based on Psalm 23)
- Bless, O my soul! the living God (based on Psalm 103)
Many of his hymns are included in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymnal, the Baptist Hymnal, the Presbyterian Trinity Hymnal, and the Methodist Hymns and Psalms. Many of his texts are also used in the American hymnal The Sacred Harp, using what is known as the shape note singing technique. Several of his hymns are used in the hymnals of the Church of Christ, Scientist and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
- Mable, Norman, Popular Hymns and their Writers, p. 179.
- Marini 2003, p. 76.
- Marini 2003, p. 71.
- Marini 2002, p. 76 lists the following as hymn writers who can be considered as followers of the tradition established by Watts: Charles Wesley, Edward Perronet, Ann Steele, Samuel Stennet, Augustus Toplady, John Newton, William Cowper, Reginald Heber and (in America) Samuel Davies, Timothy Dwight, John Leland, and Peter Cartwright.
- Watts 1825, p. 14.
- Watts 1825, p. 115.
- Watts 1825, p. 117.
- Peirce, C.S. (1933) The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol.II, Paul Weiss and Charles Hartshorne, eds. Cambridge MASS, Harvard University Press
- Marini, Stephen A (2003), Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Thorncroft, Michael (1958), "The Fertile Soil; The Church is Built; The Early Years (1714–1758); The Age of Richard Price; New Causes for Old; The Ideal of Service; The Lights Go Out; The Present Day", Trust in Freedom: The Story of Newington Green Unitarian Church 1708–1958, Privately printed for church trustees.
- Watts, Isaac (1825), Logic or the Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth; with a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the sciences (reprint ed.), US: Kessinger.
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- Works by Isaac Watts at Project Gutenberg
- A Solemn Address to the Great and Ever Blessed God (1802), originally published as A Faithful Inquiry after the Ancient and Original Doctrine of the Trinity (1745)
- The Isaac Watts Fan Club background info and midi files
- Hymns by Isaac Watts
- O God our help in ages past (this is the official school hymn of King Edward VI School, Southampton, Watts' alma mater)
- Monergism.com Isaac Watts Links to works of Isaac Watts
- Logic by Isaac Watts Link to a freely available digital copy, digitized by google, with a pdf download available.
- Improvement of the Mind by Isaac Watts Link to a freely available digital copy, digitized by google, with a pdf download available.
- The Harmony of all the Religions which God ever Prescribed to Men and all his Dispensations towards them by Isaac Watts Link to a freely available digital copy, digitized by google, with a pdf download available.
- The Ruin and Recovery of Mankind by Isaac Watts Link to a freely available digital copy, digitized by google, with a pdf download available.