Poetry played a more central role in academic learning in Isaac Watts' day, and the Watts family had excelled in it for generations. Isaac Watts' grandfather, captain of a British warship who was eventually killed during a sea battle with the Dutch, often wrote poetry, and he passed the love of it on to his son. His widow, Watts' grandmother, played an important role in Watts' early nurture in the things of God. Watts' father, a man of settled Nonconformist convictions, tutored his son in both poetry and biblical worship of God, unadulterated by superstitious traditions held over from pre-Reformation England. Watts Sr. vented his frustration at the established church in a couplet:
Why do our churchmen with such zeal contend
For what the Scriptures nowhere recommend?
An early instance of young Watts' poetic inclination came one evening during family worship at the dinner table. While his father read Scripture and guided family prayers, Watts spotted a mouse climbing up the bell pull and began to giggle. Rebuked by his father, who asked him why he was laughing during prayer, Watts replied:
There was mouse for want of stairs
Ran up a rope to say his prayers.
His parents, amazed at the boy's ability to rhyme in his head without writing the lines down on paper, encouraged his rhyming—for a while. As children will do when encouraged, Watts began rhyming all the time. Annoyed by the incessant rhyming, his father forbade him to do it—and he meant it. Isaac soon forgot and fell back into rhyming. Taking him over his knees, Watts Sr. prepared to lay into his son's backside with the switch. Then young Watts rather unconvincingly cried:
O father, do some mercy take,
And I will no more verses make.
His father did some mercy take that day, but the church can be grateful that Watts, contrary to his childish resolve, continued to make verses throughout the remainder of his life. The very gift that so annoyed his parents when he was a child would be sanctified and become the means of enriching the worship of tens of thousands of Christians in his lifetime, and millions in the centuries since his death. Watts' mother, Sarah, found some handwritten poems one day and asked whether they were Isaac's. He claimed they were his, but she doubted that a child could write poetry with the degree of depth she observed. An idea occurred to her, and she promptly had her son sit down at the kitchen table and write her a poem. He did. Note the depth of his gospel understanding in these ten lines written on demand when he was seven years old:
I am a vile polluted lump of earth;
So I've continued since my birth;
Although Jehovah grace does daily give me,
As sure this monster Satan will deceive me.
Come, therefore, Lord, from Satan's claws relieve me.
Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ,
And grace divine impart.
Then search and try the corners of my heart,
That I in all things may be fit to do
Service to Thee, and sing Thy praises too.
Young Watts needed ten lines because he chose to write a poem that not only would rhyme but would also be an acrostic on his name, "Isaac Watts," which has ten letters. This was, no doubt, one of those moments that a mother cherishes and hides up in her heart. Imagine Sarah Watts' wonder at her son's gifting, but still more, the gratitude to God any Christian mother would have for so obvious a working of grace in her son's heart.