Jul 172016


Today is the birthday (1674) of Isaac Watts, an English Christian minister, hymn writer, theologian and logician. Although not a household name these days he has been called the “Father of English Hymnody,” credited with around 750 hymns many of which remain in use today and have been translated into numerous languages.

Watts was born in Southampton and brought up in the home of a committed religious Nonconformist. His father, also Isaac Watts, had been incarcerated twice for his views. He attended King Edward VI School in Southampton where he had a classical education.

From an early age, Watts displayed a propensity for rhyme. Once, he responded when asked why he had his eyes open during prayers:

A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.

He was caned for this attempt at humor.

Because he was a Nonconformist, Watts could not attend Oxford or Cambridge, which were restricted by law to Anglicans, as were government positions at the time. He went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690. Much of the remainder of his life centered on that village, which is now part of Inner London.

Following his education, Watts was called as pastor of a large independent chapel in London, where he helped train preachers, despite his poor health. Isaac Watts held religious opinions that were more non-denominational or ecumenical than was common for a Nonconformist at that time. He had a greater interest in promoting education and scholarship than preaching particular creeds.

Watts lived with the Nonconformist Hartopp family at Fleetwood House, on Church Street in Stoke Newington and worked with them as a private tutor. Through them he became acquainted with their immediate neighbours, Sir Thomas Abney and Lady Mary. Watts eventually lived for a total of 36 years in the Abney household, most of the time at Abney House, their second residence. (Lady Mary had inherited the Manor of Stoke Newington in 1701 from her late brother, Thomas Gunston.)


On the death of Sir Thomas Abney in 1722, the widow Lady Mary and her last unmarried daughter, Elizabeth, moved all her household to Abney Hall from Hertfordshire. She invited Watts to continue with their household. Consequently he lived at Abney Hall until his death in 1748. Watts particularly enjoyed the grounds at Abney Park, which Lady Mary planted with two elm walks leading down to an island heronry in the Hackney Brook. Watts often sought inspiration there for the many books and hymns he wrote. Watts died in Stoke Newington in 1748, and was buried in Bunhill Fields.

It may not be too exaggerated a claim to say that we owe Christian hymn singing to Watts. Before Watts, Christian singing, such as it was, was based on the poetry of the Bible, mostly the Psalms. This tradition grew out of John Calvin’s practice of encouraging setting vernacular translations of Biblical verses to music for congregational singing. Before Calvin’s time church singing was virtually unknown.  Watts introduced extra-Biblical poetry to church singing as part of his evangelical efforts and, thus, opened up a new era of Protestant hymnody which other poets quickly picked up upon.

Watts also introduced a new way of rendering the Psalms in verse for church services. 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.”

Watts made the Christian experience personal in his hymns. He frequently used the first person pronoun as in, for example, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” One of my personal favorites – which I used often in services – is “We’re Marching to Zion.”  Here it is, not sung quite as lustily as I encouraged, but not bad:

Watts is perhaps better known in the Shape Note tradition of the Southern U.S. than in contemporary worship. There are dozens of Watts’s hymns in shape-note hymnals old and new. For example:

Besides writing hymns, Isaac Watts was also a theologian and logician. Watts wrote a text book on logic which was particularly popular down to the 19th century: 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 it was printed in twenty editions. Watts wrote this work for beginners of logic, and arranged the book 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. In Watts’ Logic, there are notable departures from other works of the time, and some notable innovations. The influence of British empiricism may be seen, especially that of contemporary philosopher and empiricist John Locke. Logic includes several references to Locke and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Watts distinguished between judgments and propositions, unlike some other logic authors. According to Watts, judgment 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.” He continues, “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.

By stressing a practical and non-formal part of logic, Watts gave 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 common to text books on logic from that time. Watts’ conception of logic as being divided into its practical part and its speculative part marks a departure from the conception of logic of most other authors. Logic became the standard text on logic at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, being used at Oxford for well over 100 years (ironic given that he was barred from that institution).


Whatever you cook today, you should belt out a Watts hymn in the process (it is Sunday, after all). Here’s a recipe for roast turkey roughly contemporary with Watts, taken from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies:

Take a large turkey. After a day kild, slit it down ye back, & bone it & then wash it. Clean stuf it as much in ye shape it was as you can with forc’d meat made of 2 pullits yt has been skin’d, 2 handfulls of crumbs of bread, 3 handfulls of sheeps sewit, some thyme, & parsley, 3 anchoves, some pepper & allspice, a whole lemon sliced thin, ye seeds pick’d out & minced small, a raw egg. Mix all well together stuf yr turkey & sow it up nicely at ye back so as not to be seen. Then spit it & rost it with paper on the breast to preserve ye coler of it nicely. Then have a sauce made of strong greavy, white wine, anchoves, oysters, mushrooms slic’d, salary first boyl’d a littile, some harticholk bottoms, some blades of mace, a lump of butter roll’d in flower. Toss up all together & put ym in yr dish. Don’t pour any over ye turkey least you spoyl ye coler. Put ye gisard & liver in ye wings. Put sliced lemon & forc’d balls for garnish.

By contemporary standards this recipe is rather rich. The stuffing is made of chicken [pullits] and breadcrumbs (plus suet), and the gravy is laden with all manner of things – anchovies, oysters, mushrooms, celery, and artichokes. 18th century English cooking was dominated by meat and protein. Fruits and vegetables came in a distant second, and were never eaten raw as this practice was considered bad for one’s health.

Dec 182013


Today is the birthday (1707) of Charles Wesley, English leader of the Methodist movement, son of Anglican clergyman and poet Samuel Wesley, the younger brother of Anglican clergyman John Wesley and Anglican clergyman Samuel Wesley. He was father of musician Samuel Wesley and grandfather of musician Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Despite their closeness, Charles and his brother John did not always agree on questions relating to their beliefs. In particular, Charles was strongly opposed to the idea of a breach with the Church of England into which they had both been ordained. John Wesley was the principle founder of the principles of the Methodist church, Charles is now more known for the hymns he wrote.

Charles Wesley was the son of Susanna Wesley and Samuel Wesley. He was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, where his father was rector. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. At Oxford Charles formed a prayer group among his fellow students in 1727 which his elder brother, John, joined in 1729 soon becoming its leader and shaping it to his own notions. They focused on Bible study, methodical study of scripture and living a holy life. Other students mocked them, saying they were the “Holy Club,” “Sacramentarians,” and “the Methodists,” being methodical and exceptionally detailed in their Bible study, opinions and disciplined lifestyle. George Whitefield, renowned field preacher, also joined this group. After taking a degree in classical languages and literature, Charles followed his father and brother into the church in 1735.


Charles Wesley experienced some form of spiritual revelation on 21 May 1738 – John Wesley had a similar experience in Aldersgate Street just three days later. A City of London blue plaque at 13, Little Britain, near the church of St Botolph’s-without-Alders, off St. Martin’s Le Grand, marks the site of the former house of John Bray, reputed to be the scene of Wesley’s spiritual awakening. It reads, “Adjoining this site stood the house of John Bray. Scene of Charles Wesley’s evangelical conversion May 21st 1738.”

Wesley felt renewed strength to spread the Gospel to the public at large, and it was around then that he began to write the poetic hymns for which he would become known. It wasn’t until 1739 that the brothers took to field preaching, under the influence of George Whitefield, whose open-air preaching was already reaching great numbers of Bristol coal miners.

After ceasing field preaching and frequent travel due to illness, Wesley settled and worked in the area around St Marylebone Parish Church. On his deathbed he sent for the church’s rector John Harley and told him “Sir, whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England. I pray you to bury me in your churchyard.” On his death, his body was carried to the church by six clergymen of the Church of England, and a memorial stone to him stands in the gardens in Marylebone High Street, close to his burial spot. One of his sons, Samuel, became organist of the church.


Apart from his (unwilling) co-founding of the Methodist Church, Wesley is remembered for the over 6,000 hymns he wrote, which embody his theology. That is to say, he wrote the words, others wrote the tunes. Many of his hymns are still very popular favorites. The one that seems fitting to play at this time of year is “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

My wife (who was raised Methodist in Kentucky) and I used the term “Methodist food” for anything that was bland and made “creative” use lime jello or tiny marshmallows.  I think this was probably more a comment on southern church potluck suppers in the 60’s than on anything Methodists, in particular, cooked. There is no dish that could be termed “Methodist.” So, instead, I am turning to an 18th century cookbook I just discovered with a marvelously Methodist ring to the title: The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or, an infallible Guide to the Fair Sex containing Rules, Directions, and Observations, for their Conduct and Behavior through all Ages and Circumstances of Life, as Virgins, Wives, or Widows (1737).  It’s a great read.  The full text is here:



I found in there a suitably seasonal recipe “Plumb-Pottage for Christmas,” a dish I have known about for decades but never seen a recipe for.  It is a Christmas dish that goes back to the Middle Ages and was on its last legs by the 18th century, when it was replaced by Christmas pudding.  If you look at the ingredients for this plum porridge you will see they are virtually identical with Christmas pudding (assuming, that is, you know how to make Christmas pudding). So . . . the great debate nowadays is whether plum porridge evolved into Christmas pudding by taking plum porridge and boiling it in a bag, or was plum porridge replaced by Christmas pudding, which some claim was a French innovation. I suppose your answer will depend on what side of the English Channel your sympathies lies.

Plumb-Pottage for Christmas

To ten Gallons of Water, take a Leg and Shin of Beef, boil it very tender, and when the Broth is strong enough, strain it out, wipe your Pot, and put the Broth in again; slice six French Rolls, the Crumb only, and mittony it, that is, soak it in some of the Fat of the Broth over a Stove a Quarter of an Hour, then put in five Pounds of Currants well washed, five Pounds of Raisins, and two Pounds of Prunes; let them boil ‘till they swell; then put in three Quarters of an Ounce of Mace, half an Ounce of Cloves, two Nutmegs, all of them beat fine, and mix it with a little Liquor cold, and put them in a very little while. Take off the Pot, and put in three Pounds of Sugar, a little Salt, a Quart of Sack, and a Quart of Claret, the Juice of two or three Lemons. You may put in a little Sagoe if you like it.  Pour this into earthen Pans to keep it for Use.

Some comment is in order. First, the quantity is huge. You might think that this is a recipe for a large household, but even in that circumstance the amount is excessive if you are thinking about one meal.  Instead you must think of this as akin to a recipe for mincemeat, that is, a recipe for something you can keep and store for months and use as needed.  The “liquor” the author mentions is not alcohol, but beef broth – there is plenty of alcohol later.  With suitable adjustments in quantities I might give this a whirl this Christmas.