Isaac Watts Watts, Isaac - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Isaac Watts 1674-1748

English poet, religious prose writer, hymnist, and essayist.

Watts is often considered the “Father of English Hymnody.” In the almost 700 hymns he composed during his long writing career Watts combined paraphrases of scripture and lyric poetry to establish the standard for the modern English hymn. In addition, his Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (1715) was the first collection of hymns intended for children. A prominent member of the Independent Dissent religious group, Watts wrote many works on religion and pedagogy, among other subjects. However, his greatest legacy is the model of religious song and hymn he created, which is still in use in much of the Western world.

Biographical Information

Watts was born on July 17, 1674, the first of eight children of Isaac Watts and Elizabeth Taunton. When Watts was an infant, his father was imprisoned as a Dissenter. Tutored in Latin by his father from the age of four, Watts continued his education at the Free-School in Southampton, where he learned Greek, French, and Hebrew. In 1690 he refused a university scholarship because of the required allegiance to the Church of England, instead choosing to attend the Newington Green Academy of Thomas Rowe, a leading academic among the Dissenters. Watts wrote his first serious poetry and essays during this period. Once he completed his studies, Watts returned to Southampton, where he spent two years reading, writing, and contemplating. He then became a tutor, and in 1698 he began preaching at the prominent Mark Lane Meeting in London. In 1702 Watts accepted the position of pastor of the Mark Lane Meeting. This congregation provided the social and political context of Watts's future writing. Often suffering from fevers and nervous illness, Watts lived in the homes of families in his congregation. In 1728 Watts received his Doctor of Divinity diploma from Edinburgh and Aberdeen. He continued to write and preach to his congregation until his death on November 25, 1748.

Major Works

Watts's reputation rests largely on his hymns, which were published in four volumes before his death. Horae Lyricae (1706), Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children, and The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719) have each been reprinted countless times, demonstrating the author's important contribution to devotional poetry. Education was the other primary focus of Watts's career. His textbooks and writings on educational theory, including The Art of Reading and Writing English (1721) and Logic: or the Right Use of Reason (1724) were republished in both Britain and America for more than a century.

Critical Reception

The impact of Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs is difficult to overestimate. As the progenitor of the English congregational hymn it established a new genre of poetry combining metrical psalmody and the devotional lyric. The new genre flourished and thousands of hymns were written in the following centuries. Some of Watts's Psalms of David are among the best-known poems in the English-speaking world. Critics often view Watts as a voice in strong contrast to the Augustan mainstream of his time. V. de Sola Pinto has maintained that Watts should be remembered “as a poet who kept alive the spirit of freedom and adventure in imaginative literature at a time when it was nearly stifled.” Arthur Paul Davis has claimed that “the poetry of Isaac Watts deserves a place in the history of English literature not only because of its intrinsic worth, but also because it is the best expression of eighteenth century evangelicalism.”

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Horae Lyricae. Poems chiefly of the Lyric Kind, in Three Books (poetry) 1706

Hymns and Spiritual Songs (songs) 1707

A Sermon Preached at Salters-Hall to the Societies for Reformation of Manners, in the Cities of London and Westminster, October 6th 1707 (sermon) 1707

Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (songs) 1715

A Guide to Prayer: or, a Free and Rational Account of the Gift, Grace and Spirit of Prayer; with Plain Directions how every Christian may attain them (prose) 1715

The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, And apply'd to the Christian State and Worship (prose) 1719

The Art of Reading and Writing English: or, the chief Principles and Rules of Pronouncing our Mother-Tongue, both in Prose and Verse; with a Variety of Instructions for True Spelling (prose) 1721

Sermons on Various Subjects (sermons) 1721

An Elegy on the much lamented Death of Mrs. Elizabeth Bury (prose) 1722?

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 (prose) 1724

An Essay towards the Encouragement of Charity-Schools, particularly those...

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Frederick J. Gillman (essay date 1927)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gillman, Frederick J. “Crescendo.” In The Evolution of the English Hymn: An Historical Survey of the Origins and Development of the Hymns of the Christian Church, pp. 197-213. New York: MacMillan Company, 1927.

[In the following essay, Gillman discusses Watts's goals in hymn writing and provides an analysis of his works.]

In the Library of York Minster there is a volume entitled Musick's Monument, dated 1676, which gives a vivid and humorous account of the singing in parish churches in general and in York Minster in particular, at the very time when George Fox was lamenting its unreality. The author, Thomas Mace, was thoroughly satisfied with the few Psalm tunes then in use (in spite of the fact that there were scarcely more than a dozen to choose from), and declared “they are so excellently good that I will be bold to say art cannot mend them or make better.” But the singing distressed him. It was entirely satisfactory in the Minster, “the most remarkable and excellent that has been known or remembered anywhere in these latter days”; but as for the ordinary parish churches, “'Tis sad,” he says, “to hear what whining, toting, yelling or screeching there is in many country congregations.” Mace's remedy was to introduce organs to aid the human voice. He contended that the young people of a village could learn to play that instrument in a fortnight, “and thus, little by little, the parish will swarm with organists.”1 Needless to say, the proposal to call in the aid of organs, or indeed of any musical instrument, met with strong opposition. Lightwood tells a story of a countryman of that period, who, when he heard the organ in church, “fell a'dancing and jigging all up the aisle, having never heard anything like it before except the bagpipes in an alehouse.”2 Puritan sentiment objected to organs because of their Romish and Laudian associations, and lengthy and bitter controversies ensued in many places when it was proposed—as someone caustically described it—“to praise God by machinery.” The difficulty was increased by the almost entire absence of books in the pews, the natural consequence of the illiteracy of the people. Hence arose the practice of “lining out,” that is to say, the clerk read out the psalm line by line and the people then sang it from memory. This custom had been officially sanctioned in 1645 by an order of the Westminster Assembly, which read, “Where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.” The clerk not only had to read the words, but also in some cases to start the tune, and it was not always easy to find a man who had “either ear or understanding to set one of these tunes musically as it ought to be.”3 Added to these difficulties was the irreverence which manifested itself in many congregations. The nobility set a bad example. They ogled, and whispered, and took snuff and slumbered during the services. The people were unpunctual and ill-behaved, and if the sermon was not to their liking they showed their displeasure with clamorous talk such as “was not to be silenced but by the bells.”4 Burney, commenting on this state of affairs, declared that the singing excited contempt and ridicule among the more serious part of the congregation, “who disdained to join, though they were forced to hear the indecorous jargon.” One of Addison's essays gives an amusing account of Sir Roger de Coverley's behaviour in church5:—

As Sir Roger is landlord of the whole congregation, he keeps them in very good order and will suffer nobody to sleep in it besides himself; for if by chance he has been surprised in a short nap at sermon, upon recovering out of it he stands up and looks about him, and if he sees anybody else nodding, either wakes them himself, or sends his servants to them. Several others of the old Knight's particularities break out upon these occasions. Sometimes he will lengthen out a verse in the singing psalms, half a minute after the rest have done with it … and sometimes stands up when everybody else is upon their knees, to count the congregation, or see if any of his tenants are missing.

It is evident that virtue had gone out of public worship, and its thorough revision and revitalizing was called for.

The man who, above all others, contributed to this great end was Isaac Watts (b. 1674). In the opening sentences of the “Introduction” to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs he drew a picture of the state of the psalmody of the time as he noted it:—

While we sing the Praises of our God in His Church, we are employ'd in that part of worship which of all others is the nearest akin to Heaven, and 'tis pity that this of all others should be perform'd the worst upon Earth. … That very action which should elevate us to the most delightful and divine Sensations doth not only flat our Devotion, but too often awakens our Regret, and touches all the Springs of Uneasiness within us.

Watts, in making this protest, declared that one great cause of the evil arose from “the matter and words to which we all confine our songs.” There he went right to the heart of the trouble. He clearly saw that the worship-song of the Christian Church must centre in Christ if it was to possess life and power. Having arrived at that standpoint—the reasonableness of which seems so obvious to us—he bent all his powers to its achievement.

In the three Essays with which he prefaced his Horæ Lyricæ, his Hymns and his Paraphrases, he explains his policy with lucidity, force and good humour. He laments that poesy has so often been enslaved to vice and profaneness; that while it took its inspiration from heaven, it had so far forgotten itself as to be engaged in the interests of hell. Dryden and Otway, Congreve and Dennis—all four his literary contemporaries—spent their time, he says, on trifling and childish figments, whilst neglecting divine themes. Yet there is no grander poetry known to man than that of the Bible: David has a nobler theme than Virgil. But David's songs are not suited to a Christian dispensation.

Some Sentences of the Psalmist that are expressive of the Temper of our own Hearts, and the Circumstances of our Lives, may compose our Spirits to Seriousness, and allure us to a sweet Retirement within ourselves; but we meet with a following Line which so peculiarly belongs but to one Action or Hour of the Life of David or of Asaph, that breaks off our Song in the midst; our Consciences are affrighted, lest we should speak a Falsehood unto God: Thus the Powers of our Souls are shock'd on a sudden, and our Spirits ruffled before we have time to reflect, that this may be sung only as a History of ancient Saints: And perhaps, in some Instances that Salvo is hardly sufficient neither. Besides, it almost always spoils the Devotion by breaking the Uniform Thread of it. For while our Lips and our Hearts run on sweetly together, applying the Words to our own Case, there is something of Divine Delight in it: But at once we are forced to turn off the Application abruptly, and our Lips speak nothing but the Heart of David: Thus our own Hearts are as it were forbid the Pursuit of the Song, and then the Harmony and the Worship grow dull of meer necessity.6

Watts here urges, with a fervour equal to Fox, that we cannot take all David's words upon our lips without being insincere. We must express our own case, not David's:—

Moses, Deborah and the Princes of Israel; David, Asaph and Habakkuk … sing their own joys and victories, their own hopes and fears and deliverances; and why must we, under the Gospel, sing nothing else but the joys and hopes and fears of Asaph and David? As well have compelled David to sing the words of Moses, and nothing else all through his rejoicing days.

Watts's way out was “to make David speak like an English Christian of the eighteenth century,” and this he proceeded to do. “It is necessary,” he says, “to divest David and Asaph, etc., of every other character but that of a Psalmist and a Saint, and to make them always speak the common sense of a Christian.” In attempting this task he anticipated the objection that he was departing from the letter of the Scriptures; and he modestly claimed that he had sometimes voiced the true intent of the Spirit of God in his own verses “farther and clearer than David could ever discover.” So he asked Christian people to put away their prejudices and to try whether his songs did not kindle in their hearts a fire of zeal and exalt them to a temper of love and peace.

But the mere achievement of making David speak like a Christian, that is to say, of re-writing the songs of Judaism so as to adapt them in some sort of fashion to Christian worship, could in the very nature of the case only provide a makeshift. Calvin, in imposing the paraphrases on the Reformed Churches, had trammelled and confined their praises within limits that were at last recognized to be intolerable. The canvas was not large enough. It had many deficiencies—as Watts said—of light and glory. The Gospels, the story of the life and work of Christ, furnished a theme for “nobler, sweeter songs” than any ever sung by the poets of Israel. The need was for a new type of congregational song, witnessing to, and expressive of, Christian experience, and voicing the feelings of men and women in the presence of God as revealed to them in Jesus Christ.

This, then, was the double task which Watts essayed, and in both he succeeded far beyond any of his predecessors. For, as we have seen, he was not the first in the field. The congregational hymn was slowly evolving, and its true form had been indicated by Ken. The re-writing of the metrical Psalms so as to accommodate them to Christian use had been attempted by Phineas Fletcher7 and a few other writers before Watts took it in hand. That there was a growing desire for some such developments is obvious from Watts's own testimony:—

Many Ministers and many private Christians have long groan'd under this inconvenience (i.e. the insufficiency of the Psalms for Christian worship) and have wish'd rather than attempted a Reformation; At their importunate and repeated Requests I have for some Years past devoted many Hours of leisure to this Service.8

Watts pays a tribute to one of his predecessors in the field, John Patrick, a Preacher to the Charter House, London, whose paraphrases he highly esteemed, and from which he freely helped himself to good lines.

Among others who directly influenced Watts were William Barton and Joseph Stennett. Barton's paraphrases and hymns are said by Benson to have been in use in the church at Southampton which Watts, as a young man, attended. He it is of whom Watts's brother said, “Honest Barton chimes us asleep.” Stennett's hymns, as well as his sermons, were admired by Watts, and he, like Patrick, enjoys the honour of having supplied Watts with many happy phrases. His hymns are extraordinarily faithful to Scripture; it is claimed that almost every line can be matched with a text. We can forgive the sanguinary language of the following verses for the sake of their ethical value:—

What mighty Conqueror do we see,
          Whose garments are distain'd with blood,
Whose rich...

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Benjamin Brawley (essay date 1932)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Brawley, Benjamin. “Isaac Watts and His School.” In History of the English Hymn, pp. 67-88. New York: Abingdon Press, 1932.

[In the following essay, Brawley examines Watts's writings in light of the author's position as the innovator of original, individualized hymns.]

The early years of the eighteenth century were in England a period of materialism and compromise. A spirit of self-interest pervaded both church and state, and principle was subordinated to expediency. The day of Puritanism was over; complacency succeeded a great war of ideals; faith retreated before the sway of Deism. Alexander Pope became the chief poet of the age.


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V. de Sola Pinto (essay date 1935)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pinto, V. de Sola. “Isaac Watts and the Adventurous Muse.” In Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, Vol. XX, collected by George Cookson, pp. 86-107. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1935.

[In the following essay, Pinto examines the characteristics of Watts's poems and argues that his poetry should be more highly regarded.]

It is often a great misfortune for a poet, as far as his literary reputation is concerned, to be renowned for the sanctity of his life. It is nearly as bad as being notorious for wickedness. If a poet is supposed to have been a rake, the public will read his works, not for their own merits but in order to discover...

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Arthur Paul Davis (essay date 1943)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Davis, Arthur Paul. “Sermon and Essay” and “The Adventurous Muse.” In Isaac Watts: His Life and Works, pp. 127-187. New York: The Dryden Press, 1943.

[In the following essays, Davis provides an analysis of Watts's prose and its orientation, and argues that Watts's poetry deserves a place in English literary history not only because of its intrinsic worth, but also “because it is the best lyrical expression of eighteenth century evangelicalism.”]


Watts's period of literary activity covered forty-two years (1705-1747) of one of England's most important literary eras. During this interval the modern...

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Norman Victor Hope (essay date 1947)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hope, Norman Victor. Isaac Watts and His Contribution to English Hymnody. New York: Hymn Society of America, 1947, 10 p.

[In the following essay, Hope examines the achievements of Watts in relation to English hymnody and praises his contributions to this field.]

In any account of the development of the English hymn, the name of Isaac Watts must occupy a place of high honor. To be sure, it would doubtless be correct to say that the very greatest of all English hymn-writers was not Watts, but Charles Wesley. But even so, it may well be thought that Watts's over all contribution to English hymnody was at least as great as that of any other, Wesley included....

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Harry Escott (essay date 1962)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Escott, Harry. “Revolutionary Manifesto.” In Isaac Watts, Hymnographer: A Study of the Beginnings, Development, and Philosophy of the English Hymn, pp. 121-31. London: Independent Press Ltd., 1962.

[In the following essay, Escott discusses the content of Watts's work A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody and its relationship to the preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs.]

Chronologically Isaac Watts was a hymn-writer before he turned his attention to the reform of metrical psalmody. This was an accident. His early sporadic hymnody at Southampton supplied the immediate need of a local congregation, with more advanced ideas of the nature...

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Selma L. Bishop (essay date 1962)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bishop, Selma L. “Watts's Composition of Hymns” and “Watts's Interest in Matters of Philology.” In Isaac Watts: Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707-1748; A Study in Early Eighteenth Century Language Changes, pp. xix-xxiv; xxv-xxxii. London: Faith Press, 1962.

[In the following essays, Bishop analyzes Watts's impact on hymns sung in church and examines his views on writing methods and linguistic techniques.]


No doubt Watts's interest in hymnody began vaguely with his mother's encouragement of her son to write verse in his childhood. It had its true beginning in his love of the Latin Psalms of George...

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John Hoyles (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hoyles, John. “Introduction: Classicism and the Enlightenment” and “Free Philosophy.” In The Waning of the Renaissance, 1640-1740: Studies in the Thought and Poetry of Henry More, John Norris and Isaac Watts, pp. 143-48; 164-74. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971.

[In the following essays, Hoyles argues that Watts's works can be categorized as “the embodiment of both classical aesthetics and the English Enlightenment.” He then examines Watts's philosophical beliefs and argues that he “expresses the spirit of Enlightenment philosophy, and provides an interesting link between the seventeenth-century puritans and the nineteenth-century utilitarians.”]


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Madeleine Forell Marshall and Janet Todd (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Marshall, Madeleine Forell and Janet Todd. “Isaac Watts's Divine Delight.” In English Congregational Hymns in the Eighteenth Century, pp. 28-59. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982.

[In the following essay, Marshall and Todd analyze Watts's creation of the English hymn and its characteristics.]


The acceptance of hymns for congregational use, necessary for the establishment of the hymn tradition, depended on a departure from the principle, formulated by Calvin and upheld by the Reformed churches, that Christian song must confine itself to biblical texts, the proper piety of which was guaranteed by...

(The entire section is 11863 words.)

J. F. Maclear (essay date January-March 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: 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.

[In the following essay, Maclear examines Watts's ideas about religion and its importance and impact on society and civil matters.]

Over the past two decades scholarly interest in “civil religion,” “public religion,” or “national religion” has created a large and growing literature in such diverse fields as sociology, history, and religion.1 While these studies have succeeded in disclosing religious assumptions in the consciousness of contemporary American and some foreign societies, investigations have...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Benson, Louis F. “Dr. Watts' ‘Renovation of Psalmody.’” In The English Hymn: Its Development and Use In Worship, pp. 108-218, 1915. Reprint. Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1962.

Analyzes Watts's impact and contributions to psalmody.

England, Martha Winburn, and John Sparrow. “Emily Dickinson and Isaac Watts.” In Hymns Unbidden: Donne, Herbert, Blake, Emily Dickinson and the Hymnographers, pp. 113-47. New York: New York Public Library, 1966.

Considers Watts's influence on the writings of Dickinson.

Marshall, Madeleine Forell. “Teaching the Uncanonized: The Examples of...

(The entire section is 211 words.)