The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts

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Classic Toys. Pocket Scripture Cards. USA-Made Gifts. His course of study prepared him to become a minister, but he did not immediately feel ready to begin preaching after finishing his studies at age He moved back home to his family and continued to read, write, and reflect. His first hymn, "Behold the Glories of the Lamb," is said to have been written after he complained to his father about the dull psalm singing at the family's church in Southampton, and his father encouraged him to see what he could do to solve the problem. For several years Watts worked as a tutor to the Hartopp family of Stoke Newington.

Watts was quoted as saying, in a nineteenth-century biography reproduced on the Christian Biography Resources website, "I cannot but reckon it among the blessings of Heaven, when I review those five years of pleasure and improvement which I spent in his [Sir John Hartopp's] family in my younger part of life. And I found much instruction myself, where I was called to be an instructor.

The Hartopps were Dissenters as well, and Watts's convictions deepened.

On his 24th birthday he gave his first sermon, and in he became an assistant pastor at the Mark Lane Meeting in London, an Independent or Congregational church. Watts became the congregation's pastor in Just five feet tall, he was an unprepossessing figure in the pulpit. Health problems continued to plague him, and an assistant had to be appointed to fill in for him after a severe bout with illness in Despite these problems, Watts was a powerful preacher.

The Mark Lane congregation outgrew its quarters and twice had to move to larger facilities, and Watts's sermons began to be collected and printed. Part of his success was due to his emphasis on the role of music in worship. A minister, he felt, should not only write sermons but should seek to involve his congregation in worship through music.

Watts backed up his contention with action.

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In it was reissued in an enlarged edition, and it went on to become one of the most influential publications in the history of Protestantism. Watts did not write music. Psalms and hymns at the time were sung to tunes that would be known to most members of a congregation or choir the tune might have the name of a town where it was thought to have come from , and that fit the rhythm and meter of the words.

Even so, he created a musical revolution. A hymn in the most general sense is a song of praise to God, but it is distinguished from a psalm, a lyrical expression of devotion drawn from the Book of Psalms in the Bible.

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Psalm singing, or psalmody, was the main form of congregational musical involvement in services when Watts came on the scene. Watts's hymns were often based on psalms, but he put them into a moving new language of personal worship that anyone could understand.

In the preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs he wrote as quoted on the same website that "I have aimed at ease of numbers and smoothness of sound, and endeavored to make the sense plain and obvious; if the verse appears so gentle and flowing as to incur the Censure of Feebleness, I may honestly affirm that sometimes it has cost me labor to make it so. The most immediate impact of Watts's new hymnody was felt among the Dissenting sects, whose members felt new tensions every time the British monarchy changed hands.

Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts

A Watts hymn such as "O, God, our help in ages past" was heard by Dissenters in literal terms after the death of Queen Anne, who had championed harsher restrictions on them; Watts's image of "shelter from a stormy blast" was a direct way of expressing the emotions they felt at the time, and it continued to serve that purpose in times of crisis for many Britons. The resonances of Hymns and Spiritual Songs and of Watts's later hymns—he wrote about in all—were amplified in the United States , where the passionate emotions of his hymnody fit the temperament of a country founded on dissent.

Three hundred years after their compo-sition, Watts's hymns, with music by a host of later composers, still crowd the hymnals of many Christian denominations.


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Their strongest impact was felt perhaps in the religious life of African-American slaves, to whom the title of Watts's book is thought to have come down in the form of the noun "spiritual" to describe a religious song. The simple structure of some of Watts's hymns was suited to the call-and-response language of African-American hymnody, and some of them were performed in black churches and congregations in their original form or something close to it.

More often, the mostly anonymous creators of the spirituals worked Watts's imagery into their own original compositions. For both black and white Americans, the ideas of personal devotion to Jesus Christ and belief in personal salvation through Christ's suffering were given vivid expression in Watts's texts.

Doxology & Theology > Brand New Edition of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Watts continued to write prolifically for the rest of his life. He cut back on his preaching after suffering a serious illness in Invited to convalesce at the estate of Sir Thomas Abney, the former mayor of London, he ended up staying on with the Abney family for 36 years, until his death in He devoted himself mostly to writing. He died at the Abney estate in Stoke Newington on November 25, Dictionary of Literary Biography: Vol.

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