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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN his essay on psalmody, Isaac Watts makes this apology for possible shortcomings in the hymns of his composition:—
          “It was hard to restrain my verse always within the bounds of my design; it was hard to sink every line to the level of a whole congregation, and yet to keep it above contempt. However, among so great a number of songs, I hope there will be some found that speak the very language and desires and sense of the meanest souls.”
  1
  The desire here expressed has been fulfilled in larger measure than the author, perhaps, ever dreamed. His hymns have been so absorbed into the popular consciousness that they are in the widest sense national; they have ceased to be his, in becoming the common property of generation after generation of English-speaking Christians. They are written, moreover, in the tongue of the soul, so they belong to no sect or division of the churches.  2
  Isaac Watts was born in 1674, in Southampton, England, where his father, a Dissenter, kept a boarding-school. Both his parents were of a primitive and fervid piety. The boy was reared in an atmosphere of mental and moral sincerity. It is recorded that he began the study of the classics at the age of five years; being ever more devoted to books than to childish pleasures. On account of his nonconformity he could not enter either of the universities; but in his sixteenth year he went to London to pursue his studies in an academy there kept by the Rev. Thomas Rowe, minister of the Independent Meeting at Haberdashers’ Hall. He became tutor afterwards in the family of Sir John Hartopp, at Stoke Newington, in the meantime carrying on his studies in preparation for the ministry. In his twenty-fourth year he was chosen assistant to Dr. Chauncy, pastor of an Independent church in Mark Lane, London. Two years later he became sole pastor; but the state of his health soon made the appointment of an assistant necessary. Dr. Watts had undermined his strength in early boyhood by too great devotion to study; he was never to regain it. In 1712 he took up his residence with Sir Thomas Abney of Abney Park; preaching but seldom, and devoting himself to the writing of theological treatises. He died in 1748.  3
  In 1706 appeared the ‘Horæ Lyricæ,’ or the lyric poems sacred to devotion and piety. The next year a collection of hymns was published. In 1719 appeared the Psalms of David rendered into verse, and in 1720 the widely known and loved ‘Divine and Moral Songs for Children.’ These various collections of devotional and moral verse embrace the finest work of Watts. His prose writings, including the treatises on theology and the books designed for educational purposes, fill eight volumes; but in no case do they rise above the level of mediocrity.  4
  The genius of Isaac Watts was a genius for worship; especially of that elemental Christian worship which, as in the days of the early church, centered itself about the personality of Jesus Christ, feeling the power of that personality rather than defining it. The temper of Watts himself was less in accord with the stern puritanic theology of his day than with the earlier and benigner aspects of Christianity,—its primitive urbanity and joyousness, its tender love of souls. The spirit of worship in him found its natural expression in song, in hymns in which the emphasis is always laid on what is comforting and simple and hopeful. The greatest of his hymns would not have been out of place on the lips of the subterranean church of Nero’s day, as the church of to-day can sing them with fitness. Their abstract spirituality is one of their surest claims to endurance.  5
  Dr. Watts’s ‘Divine and Moral Songs for Children’ are quaint and loving; most beautiful indeed in their effort to link the life of a child with the life of God. His works throughout are the works of a sincere and good man, seeking to translate the unutterable language of the “angelical choirs” into the homely speech of the people to whom he ministered.  6
 
 
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