Hymns and Spiritual Songs Themes

Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

British Congregationalist minister Isaac Watts composed hymn lyrics on biblical themes of enduring popularity. Among his best-known compositions are “Joy to the World” and “O God, our help in ages past.” He created original versions of the Psalms of David through a type of translation featuring clear and direct use of the English language, tetrameter lines of verse, and a simplified approach to theology that emphasized people’s sinfulness, the beauty of creation, the power of God, and the hope of redemption from sin made possible by the life of Jesus. The hymns and Psalms texts enjoyed a wide audience, especially in the United States during Watts’s lifetime, with an edition published by Benjamin Franklin in 1729.

As a boy, Watts was concerned with the unpoetic and often-complicated rendering of the Psalms from which he was supposed to draw inspiration. He was encouraged by his father to begin translating the Psalms, an activity to which he returned when he had his own church in London at the turn of the eighteenth century.

He incorporated a variety of poetic techniques for his renderings of the Psalms to accomplish what he called “accommodating” the Old Testament poetry and doctrines to the people of his parish. His poetry was, therefore, inspired by the Psalms, and he also wrote original verse that brought a New Testament perspective to the images of God in the Old Testament. The primary subjects of his poetry are the power, majesty, and mercy of God; the life of Christ and of the Christians who take him as a role model; the nature of the Church; the steps to achieve eternal life; and the mystery of the Eucharist. In preparing his Psalms texts and his poetry, Watts bore in mind the importance of creating core and repeated images that paralleled aspects of daily life, such as his emphasis on the body of Jesus as food for the soul illustrated in the hymn notated as “Memorial for our absent Lord,” drawn from two Gospels: “The Lord of Life this table spread/ With his own flesh and dying blood/ We on the rich provision feed/ and taste the wine and bless our God.”

The Psalms and hymns are mainly written in rhymed quatrains, and all are designed for congregational singing. Many rhyme abab, though some feature rhyming couplets, and there are occasional off-rhymes for sense more than sound. The core of rhymed words summarize the major tenets of the Christian’s relationship with God. The repeated characterization of God as kind and people as sinners solidified the images...

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Hymns and Spiritual Songs Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Watts’s themes are traditional. In “accommodating” the language of the Bible to the needs of his congregation, Watts developed the idea of meditation on the life of Christ, on the need to constantly ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy, and on the need for Christians to always have words of praise for God’s goodness on their lips. He showed God and Jesus as intimately engaged in the individual’s life, not as some remote presence.

As an Englishman, Watts mixed patriotism with his Protestantism, a feature not wholly excised by his American admirers, though Watts’s adaptors, including Joel Barlow and Timothy Dwight in the eighteenth century, removed specific references to Britain. Watts’s emphasis on obedience to God, as Father, translated to other cultures, as did the call for virtuous living. Characteristically, Watts described life as a race to be run and won as shown in this hymn in which he admonishes the Christian to “be strong to run the race/ and climb the upper sky.” Ultimately, Watts wanted to draw all peoples to the Christian faith through his rewriting of the Psalms and composition of original devotional poetry in attractive and accessible language.

Hymns and Spiritual Songs Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Davie, Donald. “Psalmody as Translation.” Modern Language Review 85, no. 4 (October, 1999): 817-828. Compares Watts to another eighteenth century Psalm adapter, Christopher Smart, and applies George Steiner’s theories (1975) of translation to both.

Maclear, J. F. “Isaac Watts and the Idea of Public Religion.” Journal of the History of Ideas 53, no. 1 (January-March, 1992): 25-45. Looks at Watts’s tenure as a Congregational minister in connection with the larger debate he fostered on whether Anglicanism should be the state religion.

Marshall, Madeline Forell, and Janet Todd. English Congregational Hymns in the Eighteenth Century. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1982. Studies the styles and themes of Watts’s texts, concentrating on his original poetry and lyricism.

Mouw, Richard J., and Mark A. Noll, eds. Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004. Collection of eleven essays on the hymn in the United States, including three on Watts.

Stackhouse, Rochelle A. The Language of the Psalms in Worship: American Revisions to Watts’ Psalter. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997. Focuses on the revisions to Watts’s 1709 psalter by three American “liturgical revisers,” John Mychall, Joel Barlow, and Timothy Dwight.

Stevenson, Robert. “The Eighteenth-Century Hymn Tune.” In Dissentient Voice, edited by Donald Davie. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982. Detailed explanation of the variety of tunes used for hymns that places Watts among a dozen predecessors in transforming the Psalms into accessible and singable verse.