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The great hymns of the world have appeared in time of religious turmoil and struggle. The rule would seem to have an exception in the case of Isaac Watts, one of the two greatest of English hymnists, and the man who more than any other established the hymn as a type of English poetry; for the most of Watts’s mature life was spent in scholarly quiet at the country home of Sir Thomas Abney. But most of his hymns sprang out of the days of stress and struggle while he was yet a young man. Isaac Watts was a child of religious strife and sacrifice. He lived in strenuous times and came of stalwart stock. His grandfather, a commander in the British fleet, once killed a tiger in a fight, with his bare hands. Leaping into a river, he turned upon the tiger, which had sprung out of the jungle upon him, seized it by the head, and drowned it. That was the same kind of courage and clearness of head that the grandson in his day was called upon to exercise in battles of ideas and principles. Watts’s maternal grandfather, a French Protestant, had clung to his religious convictions under persecution, and had taken refuge with his family in England. As a baby Isaac Watts was 139 nursed and sung to sleep by his gentle yet stout-hearted mother sitting on a horse-block under a window of the Southampton jail, where her husband was imprisoned for loyalty to his faith. Something of the quality of the soul of the elder Watts is shown by a letter written under banishment a few years later to his children. Not a word is said about shelter, food, or safety, but, “My children pray God to give you a knowledge of his truth, for it is a very dangerous time you are like to live in.” Mr. Thomas Wright in his “Life of Isaac Watts” tells a story of Isaac’s childhood which gives a glimpse of an English fireside of the time, as well as of an unusual child. Little Isaac tittered out once during family prayer. The grave household later heard his confession that, seeing a mouse run up a bell-rope which hung by the fireplace, he made the rime:

A mouse for want of better stairs,

Ran up a rope to say his prayers.

Isaac’s youth was strenuous. The young Non-Conformist was learning Greek and Hebrew at eight years old. He was of frail physique and had to battle not only for his religious and intellectual life but for physical life as well.

His experience was no exception to the rule that hymns grow best in soil that is much and deeply stirred. At that time when Puritan strictness and rigor were increasing without the deep Puritan piety, Watts stood for gentleness, charity, and freedom. 140 In that age of conformity, he was vigorously independent, stanchly loyal to his own opinions. In the age of Congreve, Wycherley, Butler, Gay, and Swift, Watts was developing a warm and devout religious life. It is a curious fact and an added honor to him that out of the most unideal period of English history came one of the most beautiful child-songs of the world, his “Hush, My Child, Lie Still and Slumber.” He stands out as a loyal figure in times of very lax ideas, and a gentle and kindly man in an age of cold cynicism.

As a Puritan he is somewhat between the scholarly Milton and the untutored Bunyan. Watts was an eminent scholar and man of letters in his time and a philosopher and theologian of large following; his “Improvement of the Mind” and his “Speculation on the Human Nature of the Logos” were famous books. His “Logic” and his text-books on geography and astronomy were being used at the close of the seventeenth century in the universities of England and at Harvard and Yale. Julian in his “Dictionary of Hymnology” says that the “Logic” “was still a valued textbook at Oxford within living memory.” But his permanent literary appeal is of a very simple, if very fundamental, nature. As a poet, he might unloose the latchet of Milton’s shoe; for sustained literary power, he is a very long way behind Bunyan. But because of the simplicity and universality of his appeal and the sweet and clear soundness of it, he stands out as a very influential 141 figure. It is a great thing to have written a nation’s hymns.

Personally one of the gentlest and kindest of men, he was nevertheless a bold, sturdy figure and an incalculably useful liberal of eighteenth-century England. He was the object of great veneration as well as fierce attack. “A moderate man,” he once said, “must expect a box on both ears.”

Judging by the following stanzas for his poem, “On the Sight of Queen Mary in the Year 1694,” he was no inconsiderable courtier:

Her shape, her motion and her mien,

All heavenly such as angels seem,

When the bright vision grows intense,

And fancy aids our feebler sense.

Earth’s proudest idol dare not vie,

With such superior majesty;

A kindling vapor might as soon

Rise from the bogs and mate the moon.

I’ll call no Raphael from his rest;

Such charm can never be expressed;

Pencil and paint were never made

To draw pure light without a shade. . . .

Secure of empire, she might lay

Her crown, her robes of state away,

And midst ten thousand nymphs be seen;

Her beauty would proclaim the queen.


In 1707 Watts published his “Hymns and Spiritual Songs in Imitation of the Psalms.” Since that date, and only since then, have the English people been in conscious possession of a worthy native hymn-book. This book established the free congregational hymn for the English language.

By the word “imitation” in his title Watts did not mean copying the letter of the Psalms but rather a bold and original departure. The rule heretofore for the Psalms in the English was that the original should be literally, meticulously followed. George Wither had defended his own Psalms as being exact translations “having still the relish of holy words.” Contemners, he said therefore, “do not only contemn my pains but do lay imputations upon the wisdom of the Holy Ghost also. . . . And to say any fragment thereof were needless is, in effect, to diminish from God’s word, upon which follows a heavy curse.”

It is strange that the revolutionary stand of Watts did not arouse far stronger and more lasting opposition. It was asked by an opponent, “Does Dr. Watts indeed presume to correct and instruct the Holy Ghost in writing Psalms?” But Watts’s good sense and the lyric charm of his verse carried the day against the letter which killeth, for the spirit which keepeth alive.

In 1715 he published another book of hymns, “Divine Songs.” In 1719 he published his “Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.” This book may be said to have settled 143 finally though not immediately the long argument about psalmody. Watts had taken up the fight for a broader freedom in the matter of worship, and championed a new liberalism in thought and action. In the preface to the book of 1719 he makes the important distinction between translating the hymns of David and imitating them.

For why should I now address God my Saviour in a song, with Burnt Sacrifices of Fatlings, and with the Incense of Rams? Why should I pray to be sprinkled with Hysop, or recur to the Blood of Bullocks and Goats? Why should I bind my sacrifice with cords to the Horns of an Altar, or sing the praises of God to high sounding Cymbals, when the gospel has shewn me a nobler Atonement for Sin, and appointed a purer and more spiritual worship? Why must I join with David in his Legal or Prophetic language to curse my Enemies when my Saviour by his Sermons has taught me to bless them? . . .

David would have thought it very hard to have been confined to the words of Moses, and sung nothing else on all his rejoicing days but the drowning of Pharaoh in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis. . . .

Have not your Spirits taken wing and mounted up near to God and Glory with the song of David on your tongue? But on a sudden the clerk has proposed the next line to your lips with Sayings and Prophesies, with Burnt Offerings and Hysop, with New Moons and Trumpets and Timbrels in it, with Confessions of Sins which you never committed, with Complaints of Sorrows which you never felt, cursing such Enemies as you never had. . . . Where the Psalmist has described Religion by Fear of God, I have joined Faith and love to it.


These Psalms are more important as setting a new pattern and establishing a new liberal idea than for their own poetic quality. They are as a rule not very good poetry, though among them are several of the great hymns of the world. One feels in reading these verses that Watts could turn out the ordinary hymn meters with too great ease. Still, without the practice of writing hundreds of hymns he might not have attained to the twelve or fifteen matchless ones that he did write.

His rendering of the nineteenth Psalm, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork,” may be taken as fairly typical of Watts’s Psalms.

Behold the lofty Sky

Declares its Maker God;

And all his starry works on high

Proclaim his Power abroad.

The darkness and the light

Still keep their course the same,

While night to day, and day to night

Divinely teach his name.

In every different land

Their general voice is known;

They show the wonders of his hand,

The orders of his throne.

Ye British lands, rejoice,

He here reveals his word;


We are not left to Nature’s voice

To bid us know the Lord.

His statutes and commands

Are set before our eyes;

He puts the Gospel in our hands

Where our salvation lies.

His laws are just and pure,

His truth without deceit,

His promises are ever sure,

And his rewards are great.

Not honey to the taste

Affords so much delight,

Not gold that has the furnace passed

So much allures the sight.

While of thy works I sing,

Thy glory to proclaim,

Accept the praise, my God and King,

In my Redeemer’s name.

These stanzas move along on a level with such seeming ease that the reader feels Watts might write such verses indefinitely. Indeed, he did make three versions of this Psalm, as of many others, one in short, one long, and one in common meter. The long-meter version begins:

The heavens declare the glory, Lord,

In every star thy wisdom shines;

But when our eyes behold thy Word

We read thy name in fairer lines.


These stanzas may seem to represent Watts’s poetical level. It is plain as bread. Here is poesy clad in Quaker brown. But, after all, in these unpretentious lines there was found much to employ worthily the minds of those who sang them. And out of the labor and devotion exerted in the making of all these verses there come some lyrical poems that for their hold on the hearts of people have never been excelled by anything written in English.

In 1715 Watts issued what was to be one of the notable children’s books of the English language. From reading the child-books of Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and Robert Louis Stevenson, one might—if Watts’s had not been a household book before these writers were born—make various speculations as to what kind of book for children could come from a Puritan doctor of divinity, contemporary of Butler and Congreve and Swift.

“Dear friends,” writes Watts in the preface, “to all that are concerned in the Education of Children.” “It is an awful and important charge that is committed to you. The wisdom and welfare of succeeding generations are intrusted with you. . . . There is something so entertaining in rhyme and meter that it will incline children to make this part of their duty a diversion.”

Watts’s idea of educating by means of diversion and his book of verses probably appealed as little to the mind of the contemporary English schoolmaster as to that of John Gay. These verses are to our ears curiously old-fashioned and didactic 147 for children’s poetry. But still they have a note that appeals to universal childhood. Song IV begins:

When’er I take my walks abroad,

How many poor I see!

What shall I render to my God

For all his gifts to me?

Not more than others I deserve,

Yet God hath given me more,

For I have food while others starve

Or beg from door to door.

Song V has a patriotic note:

I would not change my native land

For rich Peru with all her gold;

A nobler prize lies in my hand

Than East or Western Indies hold.

The third line here is Doctor Watts’s expression and not that of a child. The first stanza of Song VI, “Praise from the Gospel,” suited the young Calvinist and the young Britisher:

Lord, I ascribe it to thy grace

And not to chance as others do

That I was born of Christian race

And not a heathen or a Jew.

A stanza from Song XII shows that Watts would not have the children pampered:


Happy the child whose youngest years

Receive instruction well;

Who hates the sinner’s path and fears

The road that leads to hell.

And one from Song XIII:

’Tis dangerous to provoke a God:

His power and vengeance none can tell;

One stroke of his almighty rod

Shall send young sinners quick to hell.

One cannot say how much practical effect Song XVI, “Against Quarrelling and Fighting,” has had, but generation after generation has learned the admonition. The idea of the last two lines is obvious and simple enough for very young children to grasp immediately; but what a world this would be indeed if mature minds could grasp and apply its spirit!

Let dogs delight to bark and bite,

For God hath made them so;

Let bears and lions growl and fight,

For ’tis their nature to.

But, children, you should never let

Such angry passions rise;

Your little hands were never made

To tear each others’ eyes.

These lines from Song XVII, “Love between Brothers and Sisters,” somehow have the ring of true child literature:


Birds in their little nests agree;

And ’tis a shameful sight

When children of one family

Fall out, and chide and fight.

From Song XX, “Against Idleness and Mischief”:

How doth the little busy bee

Improve each shining hour,

And gather honey all the day

From every opening flower!

The hymns of Watts are distinguished by a certain Calvinistic logic, by boldness of conception and expression and by an austere spirit of reverence. The best known hymn of Watts, “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” based on the ninetieth Psalm, was published in 1719. It is given here as it was then printed:

Our God, our Help in Ages past,

Our Hope for years to come,

Our Shelter from the stormy blast,

And our Eternal Home.

Under the Shadow of thy Throne,

Thy Saints have dwelt secure;

Sufficient is thy Arm alone,

And our Defence is sure.

Before the Hills in order stood,

Or Earth received her Frame,

From everlasting thou art God,

To endless Years the same.


Thy Word commands our flesh to Dust,

Return ye sons of Men;

All Nations rose from Earth at first,

And turned to Earth again.

A Thousand Ages in thy Sight,

Are like an evening gone;

Short as the Watch that ends the Night,

Before the rising Sun.

[The busy tribes of Flesh and Blood

With all their Lives and Cares,

Are carried downwards by thy flood

And lost in following years.

Time like an ever-rolling Stream

Bears all its Sons away;

They fly forgotten as a Dream

Dies at the opening Day.

Like flow’ry Fields the Nations Stand

Pleased with the Morning Light;

The Flowers beneath the mower’s Hand

Lie withering e’er ’tis Night.]

Our God, our Help in Ages past,

Our Hope for years to come,

Be thou our Guard while Troubles last,

And our Eternal Home.

Virtually every hymn-book of the recent day has taken the same liberty with his poem that Watts himself took with the Psalms, the liberty to make 151 changes or adaptations. “The English Hymnal”1111The Oxford Press, London, 1914. omits stanzas 4, 6, and 8. It supplies “O” for “our” in the first line of stanzas 1 and 9. “Hymns Ancient and Modern” makes the same changes. “The Methodist Hymnal” omits stanzas 4 and 8; It changes line 2, stanza 2, to

Still may we dwell secure

and line 2, stanza 6, to

With all their cares and fears.

This is a clear improvement, correcting a defective rime and improving the sense. “The Baptist Hymn Book” omits stanzas 5, 6, 7, and 8. It supplies the word “Beneath” for the line

Under the shadow of thy throne.

“The Plymouth Hymn Book” omits stanzas 4, 6, and 8. “The Unitarian Hymn and Tune Book” omits stanzas 2, 4, 6, and 8. The Presbyterian hymn-book omits stanzas 4 and 8, and changes “downwards” to “downward” in line 3, stanza 5. “The Union Hymnal”1212Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, 1914. omits stanzas 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. It supplies “Beneath” for “Under” in line 1, stanza 2, and in line 2 writes

Thy children dwell secure.

Every book examined except two supplies “O” for “Our.” Any small change such as these which 152 makes the hymn really better would doubtless have received Watts’s cordial approval. Watts made two other versions of this Psalm; the better one begins:

Thro’ every age, eternal God,

Thou art our rest, our safe abode;

High was thy throne ere heaven was made

Or earth thy humble footstool laid.

Other famous hymns by Watts are “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”; “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun”; “Joy to the World; the Lord is Come”; “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove”; “Give Me the Wings of Faith to Rise”; “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” and “There Is a Land of Pure Delight.”

Let us examine one other of Watts’s hymns, noticing its style as typically hymnal, and noticing prosaically what the hymn means. The following is a free adaptation of the seventy-second Psalm, which is said to have been written for the occasion of Solomon’s accession to the throne. The rendering of Watts is as follows:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun

Doth his successive journeys run;

His kingdom stretch from shore to shore

Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

[Behold the islands with their kings,

And Europe her best tribute brings,

From North to South the Princes meet

To pay their homage at his feet.


There Persia glorious to behold.

There India shines in Eastern gold,

And barbarous nations at his word

Submit, and bow, and own their Lord.]

For him shall endless prayer be made

And praises throng to crown his head;

His name like sweet perfume shall rise

With every morning sacrifice.

People and realms of every tongue

Dwell on his love with sweetest song;

And infant voices shall proclaim

Their early blessings on his name.

Blessings abound where’er he reigns,

The prisoner leaps to loose his chains,

The weary find eternal rest,

And all the sons of want are blessed.

[Where he displays his healing power,

Death and the curse are known no more;

In him the tribes of Adam boast

More blessings than their father lost.

Let every creature rise and bring

Peculiar honors to our king;

Angels descend with songs again

And earth repeat the loud Amen.]

In the preface of the book, Watts directs, “You may leave out those stanzas included in the crotchets [ ].” It will be noticed that in both hymns quoted in full here the author has inclosed certain stanzas in 154 “crotchets” as though his hymn sense told him, but not quite emphatically enough, that those stanzas would not do. The hymn-books of to-day have left the stanzas out, except for the last one. What is there that prevents the second and third stanzas from being good hymnody? Is it that the hymn does not allow reference to contemporary geographical names? I think not; Greenland, Ceylon, India, and Africa are mentioned with fine effect in “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.” Katherine Lee Bates’ splendid hymn repeats “America” in every stanza. Why was it that Watts half-way crossed these stanzas out?

Behold their islands with their kings

is a good enough line of poetry and hymnody;

And Europe her best tribute brings

is not. “Europe” seems to be a word belonging both by sound and connotation to prose rather than to poetry. As it is used here it breaks the poetic spell. It is too immediate, too “every-day.” The line brings a vague idea of continental trade and politics. It is somehow too plainly at hand. Certain names and common phrases have matter-of-fact prosaic connotation essentially. A hymn, for example, might say,

We bring our tithes to thee,

but not,

We bring thee ten per cent,


which means the same thing but is a mundane way of saying it. In the next stanza, the description of Persia is not quite convincing, and, again, it is not in the straight line of thought to describe Persia; that is not the point of the hymn. These lands are mentioned as different parts of the earth, to convey the idea of the “world-wide,” “general”; this they fail to do, because the lands are too close together for the names to give that idea. The Wesley hymn-book revised and combined the two stanzas into one good stanza:

From north to south the princes met

To pay their homage at his feet

While western empires own their Lord

And savage tribes attend his word.

Another change was to replace “For” in stanza 4 with “To.” This is not fanciful criticism, making much out of small matters. The hymn could not have survived without the changes; as it is, we see a communal taste, a social judgment, revising the original and making for itself a nearly perfect hymn. The idea developed in ringing lyrical terms is that the faith and the system of ethics taught by Christ will bring about a common civilization, a world-wide unity, and a prevalence of justice, good will, welfare, happiness; a universal realization of truth, fulfilment of obligation, and enjoyment of good. Is there any better service that a poet should perform toward the spirit of just understanding and good will—necessary if the world is to get along—than to 156 plant this idea alive with emotion in the minds of all ranks of people? If people get this idea into their songs they will get it also into their ballot-boxes and their general attitude and behavior. If the millions who sing this song imbibe even semi-consciously its faith in the truth and its spirit of charity, no one can calculate the worth of the old song-poet as a peacemaker and justice-worker in human society.

After Watts had made clear what manner of thing the hymn should be, there was a growing diffusion of hymnody, and a growing art in the creation of hymns. A view of the state of hymnody in the early part of the eighteenth century is given by Simon Browne, an independent minister of London, in the preface to his “Hymns and Spiritual Songs.”1313London, 1720. He argues for good music and free hymnody in church worship, saying there is no more reason for confining the church in singing hymns, to the biblical text than for confining the prayer and the rest of the liturgy to it. Praising the hymns of “good Mr. Mason,” author of “Now from the Altar of My Heart,” he goes on:

And besides some collections from private hands, with an attempt to turn Mr. Herbert’s poem into common meter, these I have mentioned were all the hymns I know to have been in common use either in private families or in Christian assemblies till within a few years past.


He praises the hymns of Stennett, and continues:

But the ingenious Mr. Watts has outdone all that went before him in the variety of his subjects, the smoothness of his verse, the richness of his fancy. The World, I hope, will not do me the injury to think that I aim at being his rival.

The hymns of Browne’s volume are smooth verses of simple piety. They are strikingly cheerful, but they have not the poetic quality to make them last more than a hundred years; they have almost disappeared from the hymn-book of to-day. The following lines from his Hymn LXXX show his general style:

Lord, thou art good; all nature shews

Thee full, and free, and kind:

Thy bounty through creation flows,

Nor can it be confined.

The whole and every part proclaim

Unlimited good will:

It shines in stars, and flows in streams,

And broods on every hill.

It spreads through all the spreading main,

And heavens which spread more wide;

It drops in every shower of rain

And rolls on every tide.

This makes the heavenly people sing,

And fills their hearts with mirth;

Supplies and comforts everything,

That lives and moves on earth.


Joseph Stennett (1663-1715) published in 1679 “Hymns, Composed for the Celebration of the Holy Supper.” This is important as the first notable Baptist hymn-book. Members of this branch of the church were early leaders in the development of the modern hymn. A prefatory hymn “written by another hand” in the edition of Stennett of the year 1713 contains this stanza:

Tho long mistaken, I withheld

Harmonious song, divine thy Due:

Yet, better knowledge now instill’d,

Thy tuneful praise my Voice shall shew.

Stennett issued another volume in 1712, composed for the celebration of the rite of baptism. It would seem that his idea was to use hymns only in connection with baptism and the eucharist.

The influence of Watts spread rapidly. The spirit of freedom and progress which was in the air found some expression in these new, free, and popular songs. Among increasing numbers of people the newly awakening social consciousness found a happy communal expression in the sturdy rimes and sturdy music of Watts’s hymns. Numbers of new hymn-books sprang up to meet the growing demand. There was much singing now in England. These books one after another repeated in their prefaces the arguments of Watts as to the right of Christians to make new songs and sing them in their worship. It was the rule till toward the close of the eighteenth century to retain the name of Watts in titles of hymn-books, 159 as, for example, the Baptist hymnal edited by John Rippon, “A Selection of Hymns from the best Authors, intended to be an appendix to Dr. Watts’s Psalms and Hymns.”1414London, 1787. To each new edition of this book were added more new hymns. A remark by Rippon in the preface indicates how far sentiment was swinging from old prejudice against singing in public worship, and from the old distrust of new hymns. Rippon thought that there should be in the book a hymn appropriate to sing after any sermon, to drive the idea home. “A too great variety is a thing scarcely to be conceived of.” An undated edition of his hymnal at the beginning of the nineteenth century includes in his preface part of a letter written from Philadelphia saying that the book is used in America not only by Baptists but by Presbyterians and Methodists, and that the sale has reached over a hundred thousand copies. An edition of 1844 published after Rippon’s death contained nearly twelve hundred hymns. Many other books bearing the name of Watts appeared in America; the one by President Dwight of Yale met with great favor, especially in New England.

Of the hymns in Wesley’s first “Collection,” published in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1737, the first real hymn-book of the Church of England, one third were written by Watts. The first book from the press of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia was, as has been said, an edition of the poems of Watts. This free-spirited writer of songs must have had a 160 good deal of influence upon the minds of Americans during the formative days of the republic.

In England and America the work of Watts, who was early recognized as the leader, above all others up to his time, in the art of English hymnody, still remains with us. An idea of his present standing may be gathered from a list giving the number of his hymns now included by representative hymn-books:

“Hymns Ancient and Modern” 9
“The American Hymnal” (The Century Co.) 20
“The Baptist Hymnal” 145
“The English Hymnal” 10
“The Hymn and Tune Book” (Unitarian) 12
“The Hymnal” (Presbyterian, 1920) 49
“The Hymnal” (Protestant Episcopal, 1920) 12
“The Methodist Hymnal” 53
“The Oxford [University] Hymnal” 21
“The Union Hymnal for Jewish Worship” 3
Palgrave’s “Treasury of Sacred Songs” 9
The Earl of Selbourne’s “Book of Praise” 41
“The Westminster Abbey Hymn Book” 14
“Hymns of the Living Church” (New York, 1923) 14

Uncounted people sing his great hymns; and they have chosen them as expressive of basic essential truth, of ideas of right conduct, of poise of soul in a troubled world, and of just and generous emotion, of charity for all men and of living faith in God.

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