[Isaac Watts] Hymnwriter, 1748

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, and then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

About the Commemoration

Isaac Watts is remembered as the father of English hymnody. He was born in Southampton, England, in 1674, the eldest child of a devout Nonconformist family. His academic capabilities and particularly his ability with the English language were recognized at an early age. He was offered the resources to enroll at Oxford or Cambridge and pursue ordination in the Church of England, but Watts remained faithful to his background and in 1690 enrolled in a Nonconformist academy at Stoke Newington. In 1702, Watts was ordained and served the Mark Lane independent congregation in London for a decade before his health made it impossible to continue.

As a hymn writer, Watts wrote more than six hundred hymns, about a quarter of which continue in popular use. Among his works was his Psalms of David, a metrical psalter that versified the psalms in English for hymnic use. Perhaps his most enduring contribution in this genre is O God, our help in ages past, based upon the opening verses of Psalm 90. Watts also wrote a wide variety of other hymns and spiritual songs that are well beloved. The attractiveness of his texts is often said to be reflective of Watts’ own personal faith: gentle, quiet, sturdy, and deeply devout. This can easily be seen in the final stanza of When I survey the wondrous cross:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were an offering far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all!


Among his more enduring hymns are Jesus shall reign, Joy to the world, and I sing the mighty power of God.

Due to ill health, Watts spent the last decades of his life in semiseclusion, rarely preaching, but devoted his time to writing, as he was able. During this period, his writings take a new turn and he completed books on logic, human nature, and the English language, in addition to sermons, devotional literature, works for children, and more poetry and hymns.

Watts died in 1748. He is honored with a memorial in Westminster Abbey.


i God of truth and grace, who didst give Isaac Watts singular gifts to present thy praise in verse, that he might write psalms, hymns and spiritual songs for thy Church: Give us grace joyfully to sing thy praises now and in the life to come; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

ii God of truth and grace, you gave Isaac Watts singular gifts to present your praise in verse, that he might write psalms, hymns and spiritual songs for your Church: Give us grace joyfully to sing your praises now and in the life to come; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm 108:1–6 1


Chronicles 16:1–6

Colossians 3:12–17

Luke 18:35–43



9 thoughts on “[Isaac Watts] Hymnwriter, 1748

  1. Hebrew reading: The reading could well be entitled: David’s band. I wonder if any ‘ordinary’ lector could get through the names of those playing the instruments! I can just imagine the jumbled attempts! 😦

    Bio. 2nd paragraph: The hymn ‘O God, our help in ages past’ is noted. Might a reference to The Hymnal 1982, #680, be possible? It would seem appropriate that we reference the hymnal for such a prolific hymn producer.
    3rd paragraph: Same comment. It is H82 # 474.
    4th paragraph: Same comment. They are H82 #s 544, 100, and 398.

  2. Michael’s comment about the difficulty of the string of names in the OT deserves note. The verses that FOLLOW those selected concern singing of hymns. The difficult list concerns who plays which instruments. Since Watts is associated with hymns (rather than the instruments used) it makes sense to skip the troublesome ones (or put them in parentheses as optional) and continue into the verses following those currently appointed.

  3. It should read “during this time, his writings TOOK a new turn,”. Please don’t switch back and forth between past and present tense. Indeed, avoid using the present tense the way journalists do when talking about the past.

  4. A couple of minor details that would be worth including in the bio if there is room: he began writing hymns when he complained to a friend about the low quality of the hymns that were currently being sung, and the friend said something like ‘let’s see you do better’. Having heard (and made) so many complaints about church music over the years, it’s good to know such complaints can be redeemed!

    The other thing worth mentioning, if correct (I can’t remember where I heard or read this), is that he was the first hymn-writer to give expression to the Reformation emphasis on a personal appropriation of the faith by using first person pronouns in hymnody. Worth mentioning because so many of today’s hymn writers need to be reminded that it’s possible to write something personal without it being ‘me-centered’…

  5. In the sub-title, I would add “…, Preacher, and Theologian”. Just because he was a Nonconformist doesn’t justify us in limiting his stated ability to hymn-writing.

    Since Pastor Watts died on Nov. 25, and is a new addition to the Calendar, why was he “bumped” to Nov. 26, instead of sharing that date with James Huntington?

    The bio is almost silent about Watts’ fame as a pastor, preacher, and theologian. This information should be incorporated, even in a bio that is necessarily most concerned with his work as a hymnist, by which he is known to Anglicans.

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