Eminent Christians: Isaac Watts

C oming in at #11 on Dr. Haykin’s Eminent Christians list is “the Father of English Hymnody,” Isaac Watts.

Dr. Haykin notes:

Pick almost any recent hymnal, look in the index that lists the authors of the hymns, and the name “Isaac Watts” will usually have a long list of hymns beside it. During his life, Watts penned over 600 hymns, and through them has powerfully shaped the way English-speaking Evangelicals worship God.

What Dr. Haykin doesn’t talk about is that Isaac Watts also started a new chapter in the “worship wars”. In the majority of English-speaking churches of that time only Psalms were sung. Watts was, on the other hand, a life-long champion of the “humanly composed” hymn. He wrote many of them himself, including many paraphrases of the Psalms.
It all began when his father challenged the teenaged Isaac to do better than the wooden, awkward psalms that didn’t rhyme. Isaac responded with his first hymn, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb,” taken from Revelation 5:6-10.

The extent of the controversy over musical styles is evident in one of Watt’s more popular hymns, “Come, We That Love the Lord” (or sometimes more commonly titled, “Marching to Zion”). Watts wrote:

Let those refuse to sing,
Who never knew our God;
But favorites of the heavenly King,
But favorites of the heavenly King
May speak their joys abroad,
May speak their joys abroad.

Evidently this was aimed at those who refused to sing his “humanly composed” hymns. One of the compromises reached in some churches was that the hymns would be sung only at the close of the service. Those who objected to them could leave the service and not be made to sing.

(BTW, I’m looking for good historical sources to verify this. A citation from Jack’s Giant Harmonica Hymnbook doesn’t carry much weight. A citation from _Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions_ by Ken Osbeck is considerably better, but still I’d like some corroboration.)

This is borne out in some of the other pointed verses that we don’t usually sing but found on Cyberhymnal:

The sorrows of the mind
Be banished from the place;
Religion never was designed
Religion never was designed,
To make our pleasures less,
To make our pleasures less.

Yea, and before we rise,
To that immortal state,
The thoughts of such amazing bliss,
The thoughts of such amazing bliss,
Should constant joys create,
Should constant joys create.

I wonder what Isaac Watts would have to say in some of our churches today.

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