Remembering Isaac Watts

O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for year to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home

The words of this verse are well known to all of us but the fearless Puritan preacher, Isaac Watts who penned these words nearly three hundred years, is not nearly as well known as the hymns he wrote. Isaac Watts is considered to be the father of the English Hymn as well as one of the greatest hymn writers of all time composing more hymns in popular use than any other man except possibly Charles Wesley.

Isaac born in 1674, was the fearless son of an equally fearless Nonconformist father. In 1662 when the Act of Conformity was passed, Isaac’s father (also named Isaac) was imprisoned along with many of the two thousand ministers who were ejected from the Church of England for refusing to con- form to the laws of the land relating to the worship of God. Some years later, Watts’ would pen a well-known hymn expressing the attitude of those who faced such persecution:

"I’m not ashamed to own my Lord, Or to defend His cause;

Maintain the honor of His Word, The glory of His cross."

Isaac’s parents lived during the time when the famous Puritan ministers Owen, Goodwin, and Manton were publishing their works. John Bunyan was also writing most of his works during this time, publishing his Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678. Isaac Watts would later occupy the very pulpit of Dr. Owen at which time Owen’s mantle as a leader of the Nonconformists fell upon him. Daniel Defoe the well known British journalist and author of Robinson Crusoe was a fellow student with Watts during his years at college. John Milton, the great English poet died the year Isaac Watts was born.

Isaac was privileged to be part of a godly family. The impact of his father’s faith never left him and he gave it an expression which has enriched the Church ever since. "After the family meal, his father would read from the large family Bible. After the reading of a chapter from this Bible, he used to engage in prayer. He would never allow himself to be disturbed in his devotions, for if, while he was upon his knees, any one called to see him, the servant was sent out with the message, "My master is at prayer." ...It was during family prayers on one occasion that Isaac showed his poetic skill. While they were at prayer Isaac was heard to titter. His father demanded the cause of his merriment.

"Because," he replied, pointing to the bell-rope by the fireplace, "I saw a mouse run up that and the thought came into my mind:

There was a mouse, for want of stairs.

Ran up a rope to say his prayers."

Watt’s parents encouraged Isaac to develop his poetic talents and he went on to write some of the great hymns of all time including O God Our Help in Ages Past and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. His hymn-writing stemmed from his dissatisfaction with the practice at the time of singing versified translations of the Psalms. Watts wanted the psalms and hymns to convey a distinctly Christian message to the churchgoers of his time.

"To see the dull indifference. the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly. while the psalm is upon their lips. might tempt even a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion," he once declared.

In one of his hymn books, Watts summarized his method:

"Where the Psalmist uses sharp invectives against his personal enemies, I have endeavored to turn the edge of them against our spiritual adversaries, sin, Satan, and temptation. Where the flights of his faith and love are sublime, I have often sunk the expressions within

the reach of an ordinary Christian. Thus. Psalm 72, in Watts’ version, became "Jesus shall reign, where’re the sun." The words of Psalm 98 became "Joy to the world."

In the 250 years since his death, the songs of’ Isaac Watts remain a staple of the Christian repertoire. Simply, he is the best hymn writer that there has ever been." said J. R. Watson, an English professor at the University of Durham.

"What he does is to take all the elements of’ post- Reformation religious expression - metrical psalms, divine lyrics, the first attempts at hymn writing - and forges them into one magnificent art," Watson said.

Watts wrote more than 700 psalms and hymns. His contemporary, the lexicographer and critic Samuel Johnson, said Watts "was one of the first who taught the Dissenters to write and speak like other men, by showing them that elegance might consist with piety."

Watts died on Nov. 25, 1748 at the age of’seventy-four. Still today, in his native Southampton, he is recalled every four hours when the clock in the Civic Center chimes the tune of 0 God Our Help in Ages Past.


This letter was written in 1685 by Mr. Isaac Watts Sr. to his children from London where he had been forced to move because of persecution directed against the Nonconformists.

"My Dear Children,

Since in this my absence from you, it is the desire of one of you, that is, my eldest son, (Isaac Watts, junior), to have a line of counsel from his father,

1st. I charge you frequently to read the Holy Scriptures; and that not as a task or burden laid on you, but get your hearts to delight in them: there are the only pleasant histories which arc certainly true, and greatly profitable there are abundance of precious promises made to sinners, such as you are by nature; there are sweet invitations and counsels of God and Christ, to come in and lay hold of them; there arc the choice heavenly sayings and sermons of the Son of God, the blessed prophets and apostles. Above all books and writings account the Bible the best, read it most, and lay up the truths of it in your hearts: therein is revealed the whole will of God, for the rule of’man’s faith and obedience, which he must believe and do so to be holy here and happy hereafter. Let all the knowledge and learning you attain by other books, both at school and at home, be improved as servants to help you the better to understand God’s Word. The sum of all the counsel I can give you, necessary for the regulating of your behavior towards God and man, in every station, place and condition of your lives, is contained in that blessed Word of God.

2dly. Consider seriously and often of the sinful and miserable estate you are in by nature, and that you are liable to eternal wrath thereupon; also think of the way of fallen man’s recovery by grace, according to the foundation-principles of the true Christian religion, which you have learned in your catechism; and beg of God by prayer to give you understanding in them, and faith to believe in Jesus Christ, and a heart willing to yield obedience to His gospel commands in all things. Though you cannot tell how to pray as you should do, nor in any order, yet be not afraid nor ashamed to try. Go aside, my dear children, and think in your minds. what it is that you want to make you holy and happy. Tell God that you want pardon of sin, a soft, tender, and sanctified heart, a portion of the Spirit, etc.; and then beg God to help you to pray for those things, and to teach you to pray, and to pardon the iniquities of your prayers. My children, though it may want a form of words, yet if the heart be in it, this is prayer, and such prayer too as God will hear and accept; for He despises not the day of small things, nor little ones, but loves to see them come and tell Him what they would have. Tell Him you would pray better, but you cannot, till He pleases to help you. My children, if you do but use this way, you shall find that in time you will come to have praying gifts and praying graces, too; ’for to them that ask it shall be given’ (Matt. 7:7).

3rdly. Learn to know God according to the discoveries He hath made of Himself in and by His Word, in all His glorious attributes and infinite perfections; especially learn to know Him in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, and to be acquainted with this blessed Rcdeemer of God’s elect.

4th. Remember that God is your Creator, from whom you received life and being, and as such you are bound to worship Him; much more when you consider that He is your Benefactor, from the fountain of whose goodness all your mercies come. Now, upon both these accounts, the best of your time and abilities are required in His service; and the earlier you begin to devote yourselves to His service, the abler you will be to perform it acceptably, the greater will be your honor here, and your glory hereafter; though you must not expect to merit aught at His hands, by way of merit for what can do, yet certain it is, that Jesus Christ will reward everyone according to his works; and we are bidden to look to the recompense of reward, in that sense after Moses’ example; and it is no small commendation and honor to be an old disciple of Christ.

5th. Know this, that as you must worship God, so it must be in His own ways, with true worship and in a right manner; that is, according to the rules of the gospel, and not according to the inventions or traditions of men. Consider that idolatry and superstition are both abominable to God.

Lastly, I charge you to be dutiful and obedient to all your superiors: to your grandfather and both grandmothers, and all other relations and friends that are over you, but in an especial manner to your mother, to whose care and government God hath wholly committed you in my absence; who, as I am sure, dearly loves you, so she will command and direct you to her utmost ability in all ways, for your good of soul and body. Consider, she is left alone to bear all the burden of bringing you up; and is, as it were, a widow; her time is filled up with many cares, and, therefore, do not grieve her by any rebellious or disobedient ways, but be willing to learn of her and be ruled by her, that she may have some comfort in seeing your obedient carriage; and it will rejoice me to hear it. Avoid bad company of wicked children; abhor swearing, lying, and playing on the sabbath-day, and all other wicked courses; so shall you grow in favor with God and man. Love one another. You that are eldest, help to teach the younger; and you that are younger, do not scorn the tcachings of your elder. These things I charge and command you with the authority and love of a father. Now commending you to God, and what I have written to His blessing upon your hearts, through Jesus Christ, with rny dear love to your mother, my duty lo your grandfather and grandmothers, and love to all other friends, being indifferent in health, I rest your loving father.

Isaac Watts."