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.
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.
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.
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.”