Isaac Watts, "Father of the English hymn"
From the book "Lead, Kindly Light" (Reproduced with kind permission of ‘This England’ magazine)
For almost 200 years after the Reformation, Protestant England sang only the Psalms and other excerpts from the Scriptures at their services, to a mere three or four different chanted tunes. The joy and fervor of “born again” spirit quality which had swept the country following the Reformation was slowly slipping away. Not so in Germany, where Martin Luther’s love of music had given birth to a thriving tradition of hymn-singing to fit a variety of occasions. But in Puritan England any proposed deviation from strict adherence to Biblical texts was looked upon with scorn. When John Bunyan (1628-1688), whose Pilgrim’s Progress had won wide acclaim, advocated more varied singing in religious services, he acknowledged that his suggestion would not be easily accepted and, in consequence, hinted that those who objected to such singing could leave and wait in the church porch until it was over!
It was in this atmosphere of narrow and rigid adherence to tradition that the young Hampshire lad Isaac Watts grew up.
Perhaps the first attempt at a hymnbook in the English language was one produced by the Rev. William Barton, a dissenting minister of Leicester. It was while Watts was visiting his family that he heard a song from this book. He considered it so poorly written that he made complaint of it to his pastor and was challenged to do something better himself. So he wrote his first hymn in 1694, entitled “Behold the Glories of the Lamb”. In 1707, Watts published Hymns and Spiritual Songs, containing 210 of his own verses, to be sung in churches. Two years later, the book being so popular with the masses, it had to be reprinted and the new edition contained a further 145 of his hymns.
Two young men in England immediately recognized the value of the straightforward verses that Watts was writing. They were Gloucester-born George Whitefield and John Wesley. Many ordinary folk turned to the new form of “open” religious devotion as demonstrated by Whitefield and Wesley. This entailed singing their love for God in rousing hymns, clapping their hands and calling out “Hallelujah”. Many hymns they sang were written by Watts. In all he wrote almost 700 including “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, which Matthew Arnold later was to describe as the best hymn in the English language.
Although an academic and doctor of divinity, Watts was essentially an advocate of simplicity in his approach to teaching religion. He therefore set about putting children on the path of truth and duty in what was then a novel way. He aimed to capture their interest rather than bore them with deep theology which little minds could not possibly take in. So in 1715 he published a book that was to become easily the world’s most popular religious classic for children – “Divine Songs” – which eventually formed the basis for Sunday School lessons the world over.