Isaac Watts is generally considered the “Father of English Hymnody.” Before his day Psalmody reigned virtually unopposed in the public and private praises of English Christians. In spite of some dissatisfaction with the current state of Psalmody sporadic efforts to introduce hymns had met with such limited acceptance that hymnody seemed doomed to perpetual failure. Religious poetry was popular and some of it was being turned into hymns despite the authors intention to the contrary. Yet most of this incipient hymnody was for private and personal use. To date hymnody had no place in the public worship of God. Watts is the person who changed all that. “For him it was reserved to overthrow the tyranny of Psalmody.”1 It is therefore important to study not only the man, but also his times. The nature of his era is well articulated by Brawley.
“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…by the close of the seventeenth century the Psalters were losing ground.”2
It was in this cultural setting that Watts made his successful onslaught on Psalmody. Most people are familiar with how Watts (1674-1748) got his start in hymnody as a teenager.
“When Watts complained one day about the untuneful Psalm–versions that were sung in his father’s church, one of the church officers retorted, “give us something better, young man.” Watts was just in the mood to take up the challenge, and although he was quite young, he wrote a new hymn, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb.” Sung the following Sunday, it was so highly praised that the youthful poet decided to write others. In the next two years he composed nearly all the 210 hymns in his volume “Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” Published in 1707. This was the first real hymn-book in the English language.”3
It hardly inspires us with confidence that English hymnody got its biggest boost when a church flippantly turned the matter of its praise over to a discontented teenager. However, young as he may have been, Watts was no fool. He had a well thought out philosophy with respect to both the Scriptures in general and the matter of God’s praises in particular. It is to these views that we can attribute his lifelong campaign to replace the Psalms in the worship of God.
In the preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs Watts definitively and clearly sets forth his views with respect to the Psalms. The title itself is instructive in that regard. He has obviously not only rejected the historic view that the Biblical phrase “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” refers to the contents of the Psalter, but he eliminated the Psalms while he was at it.
I have been long convinc’d, that one great Occasion of this Evil arises from the Matter and Words to which we confine all our Songs. Some of ’em are almost opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel: Many of them foreign to the State of the New‑Testament, and widely different from the present Circumstances of Christians. Hence it comes to pass that when spiritual Affections are excited within us, and our souls are raised a little above this earth in the beginning of a Psalm, we are check’d on a sudden in our Ascent toward Heaven by some Expressions that are more suited to the Days of Carnal Ordinances, and fit only to be sung in the Worldly Sanctuary. When we are just entring into an Evangelic Frame by some of the Glories of the Gospel presented in the brightest Figures of Judaism, yet the very next Line perhaps which the Clerk parcels out unto us, hath something in it so extremely Jewish and cloudy, that darkens our Sight of God the Saviour: Thus by keeping too close to David in the House of God, the Vail of Moses is thrown over our Hearts. While we are kindling into divine Love by the Meditations of the loving kindness of God, and the Multitude of his tender Mercies, within a few Verses some dreadful Curse against Men is propos’d to our lips; That God would add Iniquity unto their Iniquity, not let ’em come into his Righteousness, but blot ’em out of the Book o f the Living, Psal. 69, 16, 2’7, 28. which is so contrary to the New Commandment, of Loving our Enemies. 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 our selves; but we meet with a following Line which so peculiarly belongs to one Action or Hour of the Life of David or Asaph, that breaks off our Song in the midst; our Consciences are affrighted lest we should speak a Falshood 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 antient Saints and perhaps in some Instances that Salvo is hardly Sufficient neither.4
Watts was not merely a well-known and successful hymnist. He was the man who introduced hymnody into the evagelical churches of the English speaking world. And his motovation was his hatred of the Psalms. His motivation was his dispensational rejection of the Old Testament in general and the Book of Psalms in particular. His purpose was to destroy the reigning psalmody and replace the inspired songs of the Spirit with the compositions of men, particularly his own. It is in this context that his lifes work must be seen and judged.
Phillips, Op. cited, p. 166. His sentiment is typical of defenders of hymnody and demonstrates their antipathy to the divine Songs of Zion. Elsewhere he states of Watts’ opposition to the Psalms, “Thus the tyranny of the Genevan principle of ‘The Bible and the Bible only’ was swept away.” (See p. 167). ↩
Brawley, Op. cited, p. 67. ↩
Cecelia Margaret Rudin, Stories of Hymns We Love, John Rudin & Co., 1944, p. 9. ↩
Brawley, Op. cited, pp. 69-70. ↩