Finally, we want to move on from Watts doctrinal views to his practice. That is we want to examine the ethics with which he prosecuted his campaign against Psalmody. Watts’ work truly constituted a revolution, and as such it occasioned strong opposition.1 How did Watts deal with this problem? Did he deal with it openly, honestly, and forthrightly so that the issues could be debated and settled on their merits? Finding that hymns were for the most part not being accepted by the churches he issued a pseudo-Psalter entitled The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Bushell writes,

“Watts’ Psalter was in reality little more than a hymnal in disguise…and it is very difficult to avoid accusing him of conscious deception at this point.”2

As to the propriety of such tactics I quote R. M. Stevenson…

“His excuse was that he was forced to issue these hymns as Psalms. He wrote…’I must say that I imitated David’s Psalms, not as the fittest book that could be made for Christian worship, but as the best which the churches would yet hearken to.”3

“His Trojan horse technique had opened wide the closely guarded gates of the Christian system of praise; where previously the singing of the divinely appointed Psalms of David had formed the sole vehicle of congregational praise, his first poems masquerading as Psalms of David4 where wheeled within the Christian walls, and then there had emerged a full flood tide of ‘hymns of human composure’”5

However, if Watts was guilty of deception the churches were in many cases more than willing to be deceived. If Watts was culpable in disguising his hymns as psalms the churches were happy to be able to sing hymns and pretend to be maintaining psalmody. As one author put it, “…this procedure enabled the churches to have their cake and eat it too.”6 One is reminded of Jeremiah’s ancient complaint, “The prophets prophesy falsely…and my people love to have it so.”

Ultimately, one must concur in Bushell’s concerns about using Watts’ compositions, for only gross ignorance or supreme arrogance could induce a worshipper to enter into God’s courts and offer up his words as the sacrifice of praise.

  1. Even adulatory commentators note, “It is strange that the revolutionary stand of Watts did not arouse far stronger and more lasting opposition. It was asked by one opponent, ‘Does Dr. watts indeed presume to correct and instruct the Holy Ghost in writing Psalms?’” See J. B. reeves, The Hymn as Literature, The Century Co., 1924, p. 142. 

  2. Bushell, Op. cited, p. 155. 

  3. R. M. Stevenson, Patterns of Protestant Church Music, Duke University Press, 1953, p. 96. 

  4. A friendly critic notes of his hymn “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun”, purportedly an imitation of Psalm 72, “This is a remarkable performance. Fused in the crucible of Watts’ mind, the various Scripture verses have regrouped themselves, and the material with the Hebrew parallelisms removed has issued in a totally new creation. The Psalm has been ‘imitated in the spirit of Christianity,’ though scarcely a word of the original has survived. See A. E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950, p. 53. 

  5. R. M. Stevenson, op. cited, p. 99. 

  6. R. M. Stevenson, op. cited, p. 95