Friday, July 20, 2012

Isaac Watts - Master of Hymnody

The only statue of Isaac Watts in Abney Park
Stoke Newington
     Of all the great hymn writers in history, Isaac Watts stands as an example of a man devoted to bringing glory to God through music.  He was born in Southampton, England on July 17, 1674.  He was the oldest of nine children and was schooled by John Pinhorne, the rector of All Saints, Southampton.  He received a wide classical education and later attended the academy of Stoke Newington under the leadership of Thomas Rowe, a pastor of the independent meeting at Girdlers' Hall.  Isaac studied the classics, logic,  Hebrew and divinity.  His education was thorough and in 1693, he was admitted to the communion of Pastor Rowe's church.
     After completing his studies at the Academy, Watts spent two and a half years at home during which time he began writing his hymns.  Then, in 1698, he preached his first sermon and became the assistant pastor to Isaac Chauncy in the chapel at Mark Lane.  By 1702, he became the senior pastor of this congregation.  Both Joseph Caryl and John Owen preceded Watts in the pastorate of this church making it a distinguished place of worship.
     Watts was not only a pastor, but he also authored numerous works including a catechism and scripture history, philosophical works and his book of poetry "Horae Lyricae" written in 1706.  However, his most shining work came in the form of hymns which contemplated God's glory in nature and His revelation in Christ.  His hymns were described as a new version of the Psalms.
     Isaac Watts felt that few believers ever truly learned to love the cross of Jesus Christ.  While the cross offers great deliverance, it also demands great sacrifice.  With this in mind, he wrote the powerful hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross".  He wanted Christians to be inspired by the words and music so they could genuinely worship the Lord and live holy lives.  All in all, he wrote over six hundred hymns in his life time designed to draw the congregation to deeper knowledge and worship of the Lord.
     In this particular hymn which was written in 1707 for a Communion service, Watts borrowed music from a Gregorian chant.  This was done to emphasize the solemnity of Christ's sacrifice for our sins.  The words are timeless and are still sung in church services today.

                       WHEN I SURVEY THE WONDROUS CROSS
                              When I survey the wondrous cross
                              On which the Prince of glory died,
                              My richest gain I count but loss,
                              And pour contempt on all my pride.

                              Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
                              Save in the death of Christ, my God;
                              All the vain things that charm me most -
                              I sacrifice them to His blood.

                              See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
                              Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
                              Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
                              Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

                              Were the whole realm of nature mine,
                               That were a present far too small;
                               Love so amazing, so divine,
                              Demands my soul, my life, my all.
     Isaac Watts lived a long life and passed into glory in November of 1748.  His legacy of rich hymnody can be seen in most hymnbooks even today.
     Recently, my husband and I had the opportunity to speak with a pastor of our denomination who is working with other pastors and musicians to preserve organ music in the church which seems to be fast passing away for the contemporary music found in many churches today.  It is my hope and prayer that we never lose the rich heritage of music found in the old hymns of the faith.  Selah!

Do you love the old hymns of the faith?  If so, what is your favorite hymn?


Christina said...

I love this post, Barbara! And this is one of my all time favorite hymns! Thank you for sharing this brief bio of this precious saint who pointed to Christ and Him crucified in all that He did!

Hope you all had a beautiful Lord's Day! :)

Barbara Thayer said...

I did indeed have a blessed Lord's day as I pray
You did as well. Isn't it a rich blessing that we have
So many wonderful saints who have gone before
Us to inspire us on the way? Thank you for your
Visit and your comments my friend.