In this section we will deal briefly with the question, “Was Isaac Watts a Unitarian?” There is considerable evidence that Watts held Arian or Unitarian opinions. At the very least, as we have already noted, “Watts’ views on the Trinity were highly suspect.” This is confirmed by a number of independent sources. The root of many of these allegations against Watts’ orthodoxy with respect to the deity of Jesus Christ stem from his own writings. As one authority states it,

“His theological as well as philosophical fame was considerable. His ‘Speculations on the Human Nature of the Logos,’ as a contribution to the great controversy on the Holy Trinity, brought on him a charge of Arian opinions.”1

In other works as well Watts took essentially Arian positions.

“It is true that Mather’s enthusiasm for Watts2 was greatly diminished at a later date, when the latter published his Disquisitions. Mather’s conservative soul was alarmed by Watts’ theological liberalism, and on January 28th, 1726/7, he wrote to Thomas Prince, the then youthful minister of the Old South, denouncing Watts as ‘a very Disqualified person,’ and ‘too shallow’ to deal with theology, and warning Prince to beware of him. And, from his point of view, he was right, for in that work Watts took an Arian position and was headed straight down the road which led, a generation or two later, to early English Unitarianism.”3

“His attitude towards Christ may in large measure have reflected his own belief in the everlasting humanity of Christ. Nowadays in studying his hymns we may perhaps not realize that he entertained peculiar views on the Glorified Humanity of Christ. For the most part, his original ideas on Christ and the Trinity never reached a wide public, and because he became known as a writer of hymns and psalms, his dangerous tracts were conveniently forgotten.”

“In The Glory of Christ as God-Man, Dr. Watts hazarded the opinion that ‘Michael is Jesus Christ, because he is called…the first of the princes, that is, the prime archangel.’4 Watts ‘confirms this sentiment’ that Christ and Michael are the same beings from Revelation 12:7. He continues, ‘Perhaps this Michael, that is Christ the King of the Jews, is the only archangel, or prince and head of all angels.’5 A little later he ventures the opinion that ‘Jesus Christ was that angel who generally appeared in ancient times to the patriarchs and to the Jews.’6

“According to Watts, God constantly resided in this angel (Christ-Michael) and influenced this angel.7 God has now given this archangel, or prince and head of all angels, dominion and power over all things. ‘This government of Christ is frequently represented as a gift and a reward, and therefore must belong eminently to the inferior nature [of Christ], which alone is capable of rewards and gifts from God.’8 It is because God has exalted Christ to be intercessor that Christ can particularly assist man, and not because Christ can himself ‘bestow effectual succour and relief.’9 In keeping with the spirit of his century Watts proposes to give ‘A rational account how the man Jesus Christ may be vested with such extensive powers.’10 Christ, he declares, does not now know ‘every single thought, word, or action of every particular creature,’ but does know ‘all the greater, more general, and more considerable affairs and transactions of nations, churches, and particular persons.’11 Christ’s human soul is ‘the brightest image or copy of the divine nature that is found among mere creatures.’12 Watts supposes that ‘it belongs only to the omniscience of God himself to take in with one infinite, simultaneous and extensive view all the shapes, sizes, situations and motions’ of every atom of the Universe, and Christ who is ‘mere creature’ does not share this prerogative. Christ, in the analogy of the author, is like a general watching a battle from an elevated position; he knows the way the battle is going, but ‘cannot know every sword that is drawn, nor hear every groan.’13 Not even the ‘glorious created mind of Christ’ can share the infinite knowledge of God.”

“Watts, because he thought of Christ as a glorified angel now exalted to the highest dominion in heaven, was once asked why he did not alter some passages in his early hymns in order more exactly to suit them to his matured theological views; his reply is worth quoting:

“I freely answer I wish some things were corrected. But…I might tell you, that of all the books I have written, that particular copy is not mine. I sold it to Mr. Lawrence near thirty years ago, and his posterity make money of it to this day, and I can scarce claim a right to make any alteration in the book which would alter the sale of it.”

“John Wesley, whose opinion of Watts’s Divine Love poems has been given, threw out a penetrating view on Watts’s theology: ‘Some years since,’ comments Wesley, ‘I read about fifty pages of Dr. Watts’s ingenious treatise upon the “Glorified Humanity of Christ.” But it so confounded my intellects, and plunged me into such unprofitable reasons, yea, dangerous ones, that I would not have read it through for five hundred pounds.’ ‘It led him [Watts] into Arianism. Take care that similar tracts (all of which I abhor) have not the same effect upon you.’14

“At the last, Watts, in one of his more passionate out­bursts, found himself still absolutely baffled ‘and un­satisfied with respect to the God he was to worship.’ In a paroxysm of despair he cried out, ‘Surely I ought to know the God whom I worship, whether he be one pure simple being or whether thou art a three-fold deity…’15

“Bewildered and beset with the scourge of temptation ‘to give up thy word and thy gospel as an unintelligible book, and betake myself to the light of nature and reason,’ he then prayed: ‘I entreat, O most merciful Father, that thou wilt not suffer the remnant of my short life to be wasted in such endless wanderings, in quest of thee and thy Son Jesus, as a great part of my past days have been…’16 This was the end of the journey for Watts; at the end it was “De Profundis.1718

It is worth examining how Watts became a “Unitarian.” Watts was as much a product of the Enlightenment as he was of the Reformation. He was highly influenced by both reason and Scripture and most of his controversial writings were attempts to reconcile the two. For instance, although he professed to be a Calvinist, he used reason to so modify and explain away the alleged “harshness” of Calvinism that he certainly can not be regarded as orthodox in that respect. In his book Ruin and Recovery Watts redefines Calvinism as follows…

“But Ruin and Recovery is an interesting treatise in other respects. When Watts discusses the ‘recovery’ of mankind, he falls into some peculiar beliefs. In explaining some of the Calvinistic dogmas through the light of reason, he succeeds in explaining them away. Take, for example, his explication of the doctrine of election. It is logical, he feels, that God should guarantee through election that a certain number be saved to partake of His grace; but on the other hand, there is no reason ‘why the strictest Calvinist should be angry, that the all sufficient merit of Christ should overflow so far in its influence, as to provide a conditional salvation for all mankind, since the elect of God have that certain and absolute salvation which they contend for, secured to them by the same merit;…'”19

Watts thus redefined the Calvinist doctrine of election to include the Arminian doctrine of an unlimited atonement providing a conditional salvation for all. He then goes on to further redefine Calvinism to make it more acceptable to Arminians and rationalists.

“We see Watts in this work clinging to the forms of Calvin­istic dogmas but explaining away their harshness. There are elect, he says, but there is also a conditional salvation for all; the infants of the unregenerate cannot expect to be saved, but they will not suffer eternally, for God will mercifully anni­hilate them; the virtuous heathen will be treated gently…Watts could not conceive of God as being cruel, unfair, or unreasonable. When first considered, some of the tenets of Calvinism seemed to make Him so. But, Watts asserts, if one examines these tenets in the light of reason, one will find that the true meaning need not necessarily be the commonly accepted meaning of such dogmas. Watts was a product of the rationalistic spirit of the eighteenth century as well as of the believing spirit of the seventeenth. In Ruin and Recovery he tries to reconcile the two.”20

Watts was clearly attempting to resolve the controversy over Calvinist soteriology by redefining it so that its detractors would find it acceptable. And just as clearly his redefinition transmuted it into something that no orthodox Calvinist would be likely to accept. And this is a model for how Watts handled the Trinitarian-Unitarian controversy of his day. Just as he styled himself a Calvinist he styled himself a Trinitarian. Yet he was just as prepared to redefine the Trinity as he was Calvinism in the interest of resolving the conflict. That he would attempt to reconcile the two is in itself amazing enough. His initial problem, as one biographer put it, was that Watts was “broad even to the point of admitting Arianism and Socinianism to the family of accepted sects.”21

The eighteenth century was an age of reason when rationalistic Unitarianism made great inroads into the English churches. This resulted in increasing controversy and led to the Salter’s Hall controversy of 1719 where a group of alarmed orthodox nonconformist ministers sought to impose the Athanasian Creed on all dissenting clergy. This was Watts’ point of departure for entering the public debate and seeking to reconcile the two parties by proposing mediating positions. This was not only because, as noted above, he saw both sides as included within the pale of Biblical Christianity, but because he personally had had from an early age sympathies with Unitarianism. As Davis notes, as early as 1696 Watts “wrote to his friend, Pocyon, ‘sometimes I seem to have carried reason with me even to the camp of Socinus.'”22 Watts was confessing that reason was already leading him to consider the opinions of the Italian Unitarian, Socinus, who taught that Christ was mere man.

Davis then extensively traces the development of Watts thought, or at least his public expressions of it, for the next few decades.23 Repeatedly Watts would defend Trinitarianism by redefining the doctrine of the Trinity to make it more acceptable to Unitarians. As he came under fire from both sides he would make further adjustments to his arguments, these generally consisting of more concessions to the Unitarians, to seek to bridge the gap and bring them back into the Trinitarian fold. Basically, Watts seemed to have believed that all orthodoxy demanded was a belief in some “Trinity” no matter how it was defined. Watts specifically stated that “he could accept practically any explanation [of the Trinity] which did not insist on ‘three distinct conscious minds.’ This was contrary to reason and therefore could not be the explanation.”24

Watts’ first attempt to reconcile Unitarianism by redefining the orthodoxy doctrine of the Trinity occurred when he published The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity in 1722. In it…

“Watts merely suggests that the Bible need not be taken in a literal sense when it refers to the persons of the Trinity. In one sense of the word, the Spirit may be an attribute of the Godhead personified in order to convey its functioning to the Christian reader. It need not be an individual apart from the Godhead. Concerning the Son, Watts is even more cautious. He hints an interest in the ‘indwelling scheme,’ and warns us that the scheme is not one to be ‘rashly rejected.’ The whole essay seems to be a straw-in-the-wind venture as well as an attempt to reconcile by means of redefinition the views of orthodox Trinitarians and those of Arians, Socinians, and Sabellians.”25

Like most untenable compromises Watts was attacked from both the Unitarian and the Trinitarian side. Thomas Bradbury, a defender of orthodoxy,

“accused Watts of making ‘the divinity of Christ to evaporate into meer attribute’ and acidly reproached him… ‘it is a pity, after you have been more than thirty years a teacher of others, you are yet to learn the first principles of the oracles of God…Was Dr. Owen’s church to be taught another Jesus, that the Son and Holy Spirit are only two powers in the divine nature?’ Watts’ reply to this charge was that though the doctrine of the Trinity was a first principle, the particular mode of ex­plaining it was not.”26

The Unitarian attack came from Martin Tomkins, “a dissenting minister who had been dismissed by his congregation at Stoke Newington for his Arian or Unitarian principles.”27 His critique had a telling effect of Watts and pushed him in the direction making further compromises with Unitarianism. As Davis puts it, “Watts was generous enough to admit the superiority of his opponent’s treatise and to profit by the latter’s arguments.”28

Watts response came in 1724 when he published Three Dissertations relating to the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity. “The first of the three dissertations, The Arian Invited to the Orthodox Faith, was an attempt to show that the Arian belief concerning the ‘proper deity of Christ’ was not actually irrec­oncilable with that of the orthodox. The two were not so far apart as the average Christian supposed. In his proof of this contention, Watts made certain concessions to the Arian point of view which outraged some of his ultra-orthodox friends. In a letter to Thomas Prince, Cotton Mather expressed in no uncertain terms the attitude of this group:

“Sir,—Having first Expressed my Satisfaction on what you have written to Mr. Watts, I will freely, and in the most open‑hearted Manner, offer you a Little of my Opinion, about the Disquisitions, which that Man has Lately published.

“I take him, to be a very Disqualified person, for the Managing of the vast Subject he has undertaken;…He is not only too shallow for it: but also led away with a Spurious and Criminal Charity, for those Abominable Idolaters, the Arians,…whom to treat as a great part of the Dissenters are Wickedly come to do, is an High-Treason of a greater and blacker consequence than ever an Atterbury was charged withal.

“His complements to that execrable crew of Traitors (I mean, the Arians) are unchristian, and scandalous, and have a Tendency to destroy the Religion of God…Could his predecessor [Isaac Chauncy] once again take his pen into his hand, he would charge him with nothing Less than grievous Haeresies.”

In spite of the controversy he was generating and the attacks on his orthodoxy Watts persisted. And he continued to rework his doctrine of the Trinity to accommodate Unitarian criticism. In 1725 he published a second group of essays on the Trinity entitled, Four Dissertations relating to the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity.

“In the preface Watts admits that his sentiments have changed concerning certain beliefs which he once held and which some of his earlier works expressed…In these essays, Watts goes deeply into Biblical scholarship to prove the preexistence of the soul of Christ. He makes the Spirit a literal divinity but a figurative personality. In short, by 1725 Watts had practically arrived at the position concern­ing the Trinity which he was to hold the rest of his life, but he was unwilling to assert it too definitely. He was not quite convinced himself.” 29

In short, Watts was developing the prototype of his eventual definition of the Trinity. In it the Spirit had been reduced to a divine attribute and with respect to the Son it is a redefinition of his original indwelling scheme. Christ is reduced to a pre-existent glorified humanity, semi-deified by a mutual indwelling with the Father.

Watts continued to publish his opinions on the issue of the Trinity through 1746 when he published Useful and Important Questions concerning Jesus the Son of God Freely Proposed and The Glory of Christ as God Man. Davis summarizes the teaching of the latter as follows…

“As The Glory of Christ was Watts’s last Trinitarian treatise, it is time to summarize his belief. There is but one God, and the ‘Deity itself personally distinguished as the Father, was united to the man Christ Jesus, in consequence of which union, or indwelling of the Godhead, he became properly God.’ The human soul of Christ existed with the Father from before the foundation of the world; it was united of course with that of the Father before the Saviour’s appearance in the flesh. As for the Spirit, it is God in being the active energy or power of the Deity, but it has no actual personal existence.”30

To sum the matter up, Watts’ problem in this area was that he failed to see Unitarianism as a serious error, much less as a gross heresy. Watts simply viewed both Unitarians and Trinitarians as Christians unnecessarily divided over their differences. Watts’ speculations on the question of the Trinity need to be seen as attempts to reconcile their differences and unify Christians on the issue by seeking to synthesize the two positions. This would explain for instance the position he took in “Speculations on the Human Nature of the Logos,” where he refuted every proof-text for the deity of Christ without ever explicitly denying it. As his mediating position came under attack from both sides he was progressively influenced by the arguments of more consistent Unitarians, until eventually he virtually became one. His problem was that, in seeking his middle ground, he compromised the doctrine of the Trinity so severely that he ceased to be a Trinitarian in any meaningful way. He had ceased to be orthodox.

Finally was Watts an Arian or a Unitarian? Strictly speaking not. He always considered himself a Trinitarian and his views never fully coincided with the standard definitions of either of those errors. However, his redefinition of the Trinity, although unique, basically constituted a new variant of Arianism/Unitarianism. By denying that the Spirit and the Son were not fully and eternally God in the same sense as the Father he was essentially Unitarian. By proposing that the Son was some kind of deified created being, and more than mere man, he was essentially an Arian. And by reducing the Spirit to nothing more than a divine force he was agreeing with both. No matter how you slice it, with respect to the Trinity, Watts was a heretic.

From the Gnostics to the Arians and through Isaac Watts and more modern Unitarians we have seen a succession of hymnists that have frequently been tainted with serious heresies including the very denial of the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus taught, “I and the Father are one” and they denied it. Jesus taught, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” and they denied it. Paul taught, “God was manifest in the flesh,” and they denied it. John taught “For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” Yet we take the words of these deceivers, of these deniers of our Lord, of these very antichrists, and we offer them up to God in praise! As James taught, “My brethren, these things ought not to be so.”

  1. Dictionary of Hymnology, Editor, John Julian, Vol. 2, p. 1236, Kregel Publications, 1985 (Reprint of 1907 Edition). I have not been able to access this work personally. However, I spoke with Dr. William Young of the Presbyterian Reformed Church, who was familiar with this work. He states that although Watts did not explicitly deny the deity of Christ in this work, he systematically reviewed all the standard proof-texts for the deity of Christ and exposited them so as to apply them all to the human nature of Jesus Christ. As Dr. Young put it, “If you deny all those texts what have you got left on which to base any doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ?” 

  2. Before the above quote the author states that initially Cotton Mather approved of Watts’ hymns, but only for personal and private use, and absolutely not for use in the sanctuary in the public worship of God. 

  3. Henry Wilder Foote, Three Centuries of American Hymnody, Archon Books, 1968, p. 68. 

  4. I. Watts, Discourses, Essays, and Tracts, on Various Subjects London, 1753, VI, 749. 

  5. Ibid., p.749. 

  6. Ibid., p. 752. 

  7. Ibid., p. 763. 

  8. Ibid., p. 778. 

  9. Ibid., p. 782. 

  10. Ibid., p. 778. 

  11. Ibid., p. 785. 

  12. Ibid., p. 786. 

  13. Ibid., p. 787. 

  14. John Wesley, The Works (New York, 1856), VII, 82. 

  15. I. Watts, The Works, London, 1753, IV, 641. 

  16. Ibid.,, IV, 641. 

  17. De Profundis is Latin for “out of the depths,” that is out of the depths of sorrow and despair. 

  18. Robert Stevenson, Patterns of Protestant Church Music, Duke University Press, 1953, pp. 107-110. 

  19. Arthur Paul Davis, Isaac Watts, His Life and Works, The Dryden Press, 1943, pp. 108. 

  20. Ibid., p. 109. 

  21. Ibid., p. 109. 

  22. Ibid., p. 109. 

  23. See Arthur Paul Davis, Op. Cited, pp. 109-126. 

  24. Ibid., p. 112. 

  25. Ibid., p. 111-112. 

  26. Ibid., p. 112. 

  27. Ibid., p. 112. 

  28. Ibid., p. 113. 

  29. Ibid., p. 114. 

  30. Ibid., p. 120.