Even though many of his hymns are still loved and sung, Isaac Watts himself, the ‘Father of English Hymnody’ is not well known. Who was he? Why did he write his hymns? What influenced him? Is his work still important today?
Douglas Bond, who attributes a deeply emotional conversion experience to Watts’ hymn ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,’ answers these questions and more in The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts.
Martin Luther said that, “We need poets in a reformation,” and Bond uses that to suggest that all Christians need the poetry of Isaac Watts.
- We need his poetry in our lives to revitalize our understanding and our imagination.
- Our culture needs his hymns in our churches to help us reform our singing.
- We all need his example of patience during suffering as we live our lives.
Watts was born soon after the Great Plague, his father was imprisoned for being a non-conformist, and he was surrounded by Huguenots who had escaped from French persecution. At a young age he learned that life was not easy. Yet his father, a learned and godly man, encouraged his children to praise God and to avoid bitterness. Isaac’s native love of rhyme and rhythm combined with these influences and he began to write hymns and devotional poetry at a very young age.
Though the messages at the dissenting church that Watts attended as a youth were always good, the singing was apparently not. Once, when Isaac complained about the ‘ugly hymns’ they had just sung, his father sternly pointed out, “If you do not like the hymns, young man, then give us something better.” That afternoon he produced a fine hymn, soon the congregation sang it, and so began his life as a hymn-writer.
He kept on writing hymns, while a student, while a tutor, and later while a minister. Drawing his inspiration from the Bible, he versified Psalms and other portions of the Bible, always showing how the passage, whether from the Old Testament or the New, referred to Christ. When he was a preacher, he wrote hymns to accompany his preaching, hymns full of Biblical truth as well as emotion.
Bond goes through many of the hymns Watts wrote including those for children, those based on theological issues, and those based on the Psalms, discussing their meaning, origin, and style. Watts wrote much of his children’s poetry to fulfill a friend’s request for an effective way of teaching children Bible knowledge, again always referring to Christ. He presented some of the most difficult ideas of the Bible in hymns that moved even those who disagreed with him. In my opinion, his work on the Psalms produced some of his most beautiful hymns, and I love the way Bond goes through them verse by verse:
Watts was more than a great hymn writer. He was also a devoted tutor, a lover of God’s creation, a dedicated preacher, a gentle pastor, and a man who patiently suffered both pain and illness during much of his life. He prayed. He praised. And in all he did, he sought to serve his Lord.
Bond’s deeply emotional attachment to Isaac Watts who was, in a sense, his spiritual father, makes this an unusual book. He defends Watts against all accusations, whether contemporary or modern, and at the end of each chapter he draws out lessons for the reader from Watts’ life and experiences. This could all be overwhelming, but because his love for Watts is so sincere, it only adds to the book.
I recommend The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Douglas Bond to any teen or adult who loves the hymns Watts wrote. It will also appeal to those interested in church music, poetry, British church history, and Christian biographies. I, myself, really appreciated learning how Watts saw Christ in all parts of the Bible and God in all parts of nature, and how he worked with words, rhymes, and rhythms to help others both see and feel the same.
This is yet another book in the in the 2015 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and is also linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Finishing Strong,Trivium Tuesdays. For more encouragement, visit Coffee for Your Heart, Raising Homemakers, Titus 2 Tuesday, Works for Me Wednesday, Mom to Mom Monday, Monday’s Musings, Missional Weekend, R&R Wednesdays, From House to Home, Homemaking Mondays, Good Morning Mondays, Make Your Home Sing Mondays, Faith Filled Fridays.
Disclosure: I receive a free review copy of this book from Reformation Trust Publishing.