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.