A dead, white hymn-writer revisited

Whether you sing “praise and worship” songs, traditional hymns or both at your church, I encourage you to reconsider the hymn texts of a dead white guy, born 340 years ago, whom you may have overlooked. We learn more theology from what we sing in church than we do from the sermons we hear. Many churches are accused of singing songs “a mile wide and an inch deep,” biblically/theologically speaking. If that’s true, we’re doing ourselves no favours regarding growth in the Christian life. But if what we sing is comprehensively biblical, poetically rich and set to sturdy, well-structured music, it will profit us greatly.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was a poet-theologian. You may be surprised at how many of his hymn texts you know: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun,” “Joy to the World,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove,” “Am I a Soldier of the Cross,” to name a few.

Watts was a Puritan who had exceptional gifts as a poet, but also in intellectual ability, biblical understanding and spiritual discernment. But being a non-Conformist in 18th century Britain meant that, despite his ability, Watts wasn’t allowed to attend Oxford or Cambridge. Ironically, his treatise on logic became a textbook at the institutions that rejected him.

Watts never married, but for years worked as a tutor for children. He was that rare person whose powerful intellect didn’t stand in the way of communicating with children at their level. And he saw a need for Christian writings and songs for children’s use. So he produced for them a catechism, a book of prayers and a hymnal: Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children. For adults Watts published sermons, hymn collections, works on the spiritual life, a guide to prayer and several philosophical works. Watts had a passion for Scripture but also reveled in the beauties of creation. Both those qualities are embedded in his hymn texts.

Poetic revelation

One of Watts’ great gifts to the Christian church is his Psalm versifications. Being Reformed, Watts needed no convincing of the continuity of Old and New Testaments, nor of the fact that all of Scripture points to Christ. He interpreted the Psalms as fulfilled in Christ – then set them down in beautiful, easy to understand four-line rhymed verses which had to fit the format of all basic hymn tunes. The result was The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, And applied to the Christian State and Worship (1719). Watts’s Psalms are a revelation, and were far superior to the previous stilted English-language translations for singing with their oddly inverted word orders. (Did you know that “Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98?)

Douglas Bond, a literature and history teacher at Covenant High School in Tacoma, Washington, wrote an e-book about Watts last year. He is convinced that in our “age of simplistic and repetitive worship songs, the church must not forget Isaac Watts.” I have to agree.

I’m not suggesting that your church must sing Watts’ texts to the hymn tunes Watts’ contemporaries sang (though there’s no denying those tunes have stood the test of time). Sometimes setting an oh-so-familiar text (e.g., “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”) to a different tune can make the text powerfully re-impress itself on you. I would be cautious, though, about modernizing Watts’ language.  His 18th century language is surprisingly straightforward, and attempting to update it may do violence to both the poetry and biblical content.

I’ll leave you with four of the nine stanzas of perhaps Watts’ most famous hymn. Two verses are so familiar that the uniqueness of imagery used to state the truth they reveal is easy to overlook. The two other stanzas, always left out of hymnals, are equally arresting.

   The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
   With all their lives and cares,
   Are carried downwards by the flood,
   And lost in following years.

   Time, like an ever rolling stream,
   Bears all its sons away;
   They fly, forgotten, as a dream
   Dies at the opening day.

   Like flowery fields the nations stand
   Pleased with the morning light;
   The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
   Lie withering ere ‘tis night.

   O God, our help in ages past,
   Our hope for years to come,
   Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
   And our eternal home.


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