The accepted means of hymn sing for congregations and churches in the tail end of the 17th century was very different than what we experience in today’s church. Imagine your Pastor opening the bible to a psalm and reading, line by line, the entire verse, pausing after each stanza to allow you to sing it back, word for word. If it’s hard for you to imagine that as enjoyable or worshipful you are not alone. A young boy named Isaac Watts felt that way also, who in 1692, sitting in the pews with his father, refused to sing. When pressed by his father after the service the boy responded “there is no music in the Psalms”, and further complained “they don’t rhyme”. Incensed, his father responded that if his son felt he was smarter than King David he might try his hand at writing something better.
Isaac had a gift for writing verse, especially rhyme. He was in a constant state of poetry even rhyming within everyday conversations. Scolded and threatened by his annoyed father to stop Isaac responded, “O father do some pity take, I will no more verses make!”
At 18 he brought his first “modernized”, rhyming rendition of a psalm to church. The congregation was so moved that for the next two years he was ordered to bring a new one every Sunday!
Isaac Watts went on to pen 750 hymns over the course of his life changing hymnody in church forever. As the author Clint Bonner from his book, A Hymn is Born put it, “With his bold departure from Psalm singing, Isaac Watts gave to Christianity a popular and inspiring medium of worship and paved the way for Charles Wesley, Jon Newton, William Cowper, and hundreds to follow”.
When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died My richest gain I count but loss And pour contempt on all my pride
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
Thank you, Isaac Watts.