Young Isaac Watts had a serious dilemma. The son of a church deacon, Watts loved the Church, and he loved its worship. But, oh, those congregational songs! He needed to do something about them.
English congregational songs in the early 1700s featured Psalm-singing almost exclusively. Following the teaching of John Calvin, most churches stuck solely to sung Scripture. “We shall find no better nor more proper songs … than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit has spoken and made through him,” Calvin wrote, and thus it was so.
But because Calvin’s belief in the total depravity of man ran so deep as to include disdain for the musically ornamental in worship, lest such flourishes tempt the weak to sin, the tunes selected to accompany these Psalms, church musician Peter Lutkin (writing 100 years ago) tells us, “were of a sober, not to say forbidding, character.” Further complicating the matter was the scarcity of songbooks, which necessitated the practice of “lining out” the Psalms, whereby each line was sung first by the worship leader of the day and then sung back by the congregation. No, flow was definitely not present in the worship services in these instances.
As if all that weren’t enough, Lutkin notes the “principle of individual license in praising God was carried to such an absurd extent that everyone claimed the right to sing as he pleased, and tunes were distorted with all manner of grotesque turns and twists, according to the whim of the singer.” Your 21st century worship leader’s occasional flights of vocal improvisational fancy can’t hold a candle to those of the average English congregation in the 18th century—where, historian David Stowe tells us, members would, all at the same time, sing different notes, place words on different beats, sing similar words with different tunes, and slow the tempo down such that they might need a breath—or two!—in the midst of singing a single word.
No wonder, then, that Watts grew frustrated with such a racket. When his father responded with an exhortation to write something better, Watts did just that.
The New Song of Christ
Watts focused his energies on three characteristics of the Psalms which, he felt, made them undesirable for Christian worship—and the first concerned that adjective Christian. For Watts, believers in Jesus Christ—who were redeemed by Jesus Christ, who prayed in the name of Jesus Christ—needed to sing music that extolled the life, mourned the death, and celebrated the resurrection of that same Jesus Christ, who, of course, does not appear (at least not in name) in the Psalms at all. As Watts saw it, David was Jewish and, hence, couldn’t possibly praise God as a Christ-follower. In the preface to one of his major works, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Watts stated that he would rejoice to see “David converted into a Christian.”
Second, Watts resisted language in the Psalms which was anachronistic and/or absent of the grace by which Christians are saved through faith. How can Christians sing with authenticity, he wondered, lyrics about psalteries and harps when in most cathedrals only the sound of an organ was heard, and most rural churches sang a cappella for want of resources? In addition, Watts despaired over reading the Psalms and coming across what he thought were expressions that ran counter to New Testament theology. He lamented that while reading about “the loving kindness of God, and the multitude of his tender mercies, within a few verses some dreadful curse against men is proposed to our lips … which is so contrary to the new commandment of loving our enemies.”
Inspiration Outside the Inspired
Watts’ third concern with using the Psalms in Christian worship dovetailed with his second; in addition to their often anachronistic nature, he believed they lacked immanence for the current day. It was inconceivable God could be glorified in the manner he deserves if Christians limited themselves to the Psalms—or even, for that matter, all of Scripture. Watts felt it did Christians no good to sing songs featuring “confessions of sins which you never committed, with complaints of sorrows such as you never felt, cursing such enemies as you never had, giving thanks for such victories as you never obtained.” To rectify the situation, in addition to his psalm paraphrases, Watts also looked for inspiration outside of Scripture, not to supersede the sacred texts, but to complement them. Indeed, Watts felt the songs for corporate worship had to be—in the vernacular of today’s seekersensitivity—“ culturally relevant.”
To that end, like Luther before him, Watts strove to utilize language accessible to the common man, and so, hymnologist Harry Escott says, he willingly submitted himself to an “artistic kenosis . . . lay[ing] his poetic glories aside and dress[ing] the profound message of the gospel in homespun verse and language of the people.”
Watts appealed to the common man not only with his style but also with his structure—making extensive use of the three most popular and easy-to-sing metrical patterns in hymnody: Common Meter (220.127.116.11: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”), Short Meter (18.104.22.168: “Come, We That Love the Lord”), and Long Meter (22.214.171.124: “Give to Our God Immortal Praise”). His short, succinct opening statements, in particular, could be sung in one breath, historian Stephen Marini notes. In other words, Watts effectively captured the breath, psychoemotionally as well as physiologically, of those who would sing his lyrics.
Out of such deliberations came a body of work that included a number of songs we still sing today—the ones noted above, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and a song many of us will sing this December, perhaps several times: “Joy to the World,” a setting of Psalm 98. In typical Watts fashion, the text takes snippets of the psalm and embellishes them with literary devices that, although simple (as Escott correctly notes above) nevertheless attest to strong poetic sensibilities: personification (“rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy”), assonance (“the Savior reigns”), and alliteration (“sin and sorrow”).
An additional point of interest emerges when we study the tense of the verbs throughout. Though we sing this song at Christmas, celebrating an event that transpired over 2,000 years ago, we proclaim that “the Lord is come,” rendering the sentence in the present tense while describing a past event. Such wordplay is especially frequent in Christmas carols: “All is calm, all is bright”; “What Child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”
The theological term for this grammatical jury-rigging is anamnesis, which, with its relationship to the word amnesia, theologian Laurence Hull Stookey indicates, literally means “the drawing near” of memory—i.e., “the entrance into our experience of that which otherwise would be locked in the past.” Worshipers are, thus, invited into God’s understanding of time (kairos), which differs from our three-dimensional understanding (chronos). Events “that occurred only once,” Stookey concludes, “nevertheless become contemporaneous with us because the Risen One holds all time in unity, and by the Holy Spirit brings all things to our remembrance in this way.”
The Critics Pan
Not everyone was a fan of Watts’ efforts. Thomas Bradbury snidely referred to Watts’ whims (as opposed to hymns), and one London rector of the era was moved to ask, “Why should Dr. Watts, or any other hymn-maker, not only take precedence over the Holy Ghost, but also thrust him utterly out of the church?” Nevertheless, 300 years later, Watts’ “hymns of human composure,” inspired by a Jewish king and translated for a Christian audience, full of personal and culturally relevant praise, echo throughout houses of worship. A previous generation’s worship wars spawned songs that have stood the test of time. Perhaps the same will be said of our skirmishes of recent years. May it be so, Lord. You do, after all, rule the world with truth and grace.