Isaac Watts: Hymns for All Time
During the Great Awakening, Isaac Watts’ hymns played a central role. George Whitefield used Watts’ hymns in his outdoor preaching throughout Georgia and New England. Likewise, Watts’ hymns had a significant impact on African slaves in the American Colonies. Presbyterian preacher Samuel Davies, an itinerant evangelist and pastor in Anglican Virginia, asked wealthy supporters to donate books to enable his efforts to teach slaves to read. They contributed many volumes of Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs, which Davies gave to slaves who were members of his congregations. Davies described how his kitchen would be full late into the night with slaves who had gathered there to sing Watts. The simplicity and sensual passion of Watts’ poetry transcended racial and ethnic barriers, and the recurring theme of the suffering of the Savior for lost sinners was a message that resonated with the oppression of African slaves. Also, Watts’ determination to avoid flowery, multisyllabic language made his hymns accessible to people who were not yet literate, and the simple metrical structure lent itself to the call-and-response singing of African worship. It is not difficult to imagine these lines from Watts being sung in this manner:
When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies,
I bid farewell to every fear,
And wipe my weeping eyes.
One theory says that the spirituals created by anonymous African slaves over the next 150 years got their name from Watts’ title, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.
Watts’ hymns are, in fact, for every Christian in every age—perhaps especially for those in times engaged in a perpetual war with permanence, like ours. If it may be said, “All later hymn writers, even those who excel [Watts], are his debtors,” it may equally be deduced that those who ignore Watts will never excel him. And such neglect will be to the enduring detriment of both theological substance and genuine heartfelt passion in the worship of God.
With Watts, it is not only the poet who is caught up in the wonder of Christ’s pity, grace, and love so far beyond human knowing but also we, through his poetic appeal to our senses, have our imaginations awakened to the deepest and the highest things of God. Watts gives the worshiper words to sing that are worthy of the grand object of sung praise. In our slavishly narcissistic age, a recovery of Watts will help turn us from ourselves to the God who alone redeems sinners and is alone supremely worthy of our praises. Watts is able to do this not only because of the brilliance of his poetry, but because of the way he employs the poetry to adorn the beauty of Christian theology.