Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is often identified as the Father of English Hymnody. He was the first prolific and popular English hymn writer and is credited with some 750 hymns. Many of his hymns remain in use today and have been translated into many languages.
Watts was born in Southampton. He was brought up in the home of a committed Nonconformist — his father had been incarcerated twice for his controversial views. At King Edward VI School (where one of the houses is now named “Watts” in his honor), he learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew and displayed a propensity for rhyme at home. He drove his parents to the point of exhaustion on many occasions with his verse.
Once, he had to explain how he came to have his eyes open during prayers. Watts replied, ““A little mouse for want of stairs ran up a rope to say its prayers.” When receiving punishment for reciting verse, he is reported to have said, ““O father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.”
Watts, unable to go to either Oxford or Cambridge due to his nonconformity, went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690. Watts’ education led him to the pastorate of a large independent chapel in London, but he also found himself in the position of helping young preachers, despite his poor health.
While taking work as a private tutor, he lived with the Nonconformist Hartopp Family at Fleetwood House, Abney Park in Stoke Newington, and later in the household of Sir Thomas and Lady Mary Abney at Theobalds, Cheshunt, in Hertfordshire, and at their second residence, Abney House, Stoke Newington.
Isaac Watts held religious opinions that were more nondenominational or ecumenical than was at that time common for a Nonconformist; having a greater interest in promoting education and scholarship, than preaching for any particular ministry.
In 1707 he published his first hymnbook. He wrote Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children. He authored over six hundred hymns, some of which are the finest in the English language. Two of his most famous and beloved hymns are O God Our Help in Ages Past, and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.Not only did Watts write hymns but he also wrote on logic, astronomy, geography, English grammar, pedagogics and theology. His writings were influential and his learning and piety attracted many.
On the death of Sir Thomas Abney, Watts moved permanently in with Widow Lady Mary Abney, and her remaining daughter, to their second home, Abney House, at Abney Park in Stoke Newington. It was a property that Mary had inherited from her brother along with title to the manor itself. The beautiful grounds at Abney Park, which became Watts’ permanent home from 1736 to 1748, led down to an island in the Hackney Brook where Watts sought inspiration for the many books and hymns written during these two decades.
Prior to his death, Watts wrote a solemn Address to the Deity, …“in which he poured out his soul to God over the whole subject of the Trinity in a manner which shows most clearly, his reverence for the Holy Scriptures, his humility, his teachable spirit, his earnest desire to understand and receive all that God had taught.”
He died at Stoke Newington and was buried in Bunhill Fields, having left behind him a massive legacy, not only of hymns, but also of treatises, educational works, and essays. His work was influential amongst independents and early religious revivalists in his circle, amongst whom was Philip Doddridge who dedicated his best known work to Watts. On his death, Isaac Watts’ papers were given to Yale University; an institution with which he was connected due to its being founded predominantly by fellow Independents (Congregationalists).
Soli deo Gloria!