Isaac Watts (1674—1748) was a famous hymn writer, minister, and logician. His parents were Nonconformists, meaning they had separated from the Anglican Church of England. Watts’ father was frequently imprisoned for his beliefs. At an early age, Isaac Watts proved his intelligence. He knew five languages by the time he was 13 years old, and he was adept at writing poetry. After attending a Nonconformist college, he tutored for a while before becoming the pastor of the Mark Lane Independent Chapel in London from 1698 to 1712.
Isaac Watts wrote many books on theological topics and books on reason and logic, including Logic, Or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth, used for many years as a standard text at Oxford University. Watts is best known for his hymns, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” based on Galatians 6:14 and called “the greatest hymn in the English language” by poet and critic Matthew Arnold. Some of Watts’ hymns were paraphrases of the biblical psalms, such as “Joy to the World,” based on Psalm 98; “Jesus Shall Reign,” a paraphrase of Psalm 72; and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” from Psalm 90. His other hymns include “At the Cross,” “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed,” and “We’re Marching to Zion.” Watts also created a children’s hymnal, Divine and Moral Songs for Children, in 1715.
The trailblazing hymns of Isaac Watts were popular in England, but they were not without controversy. In that day, churches usually sang metrical verses based on the book of Psalms, and some rejected Watts’ hymns as being of human composition and not divinely inspired. His hymns caught on in America during the Great Awakening, as George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards utilized Watts’ hymns in their ministries.
Isaac Watts wrote between 600 and 750 hymns, and many are still used across Protestant denominations today. Later in life, Watts suffered from health problems, and some of his theological positions caused confusion. Some of his theological treatises contained unorthodox views of the personhood of Christ and the Holy Spirit. For instance, in his work The Glory of Christ as the God-Man, Watts argued that Jesus’ human soul pre-existed before His incarnation (p. 153). Jonathan Edwards wrote a detailed refutation of Watts’ teaching (The “Miscellanies”, entries 1153–1360), although he continued to use Watt’s hymns in his church.
Christians have enjoyed Isaac Watts’ hymns in worship since they were written, and those hymns continue to point people to Christ and increase faith. Watts himself comments on the importance of singing in worship: “While we sing the praises of God in His church, we are employed in that part of worship which of all others is the nearest akin to heaven” (from Hymns and Spiritual Songs).