1902 Encyclopedia > Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts
English hymn writer
(1674-1748)




ISAAC WATTS (1674-1748), theologian and hymn writer, was born at Southampton 17th July 1674. He was the eldest of nine children, and was named after his father, who kept a boarding establishment at Southampton. The father also wrote poetry, and a number of his pieces were included by mistake in vol. i. of the son's Posthumous Works. Young Watts is stated to have entered on the study of the classics when only in his fifth year, and at the age of seven or eight to have composed some devotional pieces to please his mother. His nonconformity precluded him from entering either of the universities, but in his sixteenth year he went to study at an academy in London kept by the Rev. Thomas Rowe, minister of the Independent meeting at Haberdashers' Hall. In his Improvement of the Mind (1741) Watts has expounded his method of study, but the precepts there laid down can hardly be said to be justified by his example, for it is overwork at this period of his life that is believed to have caused the weak and uncertain health of his subsequent years. Probably it was as much from this cause as from diffidence that he deferred preaching his first sermon till the day he entered on his twenty-fourth year. Meantime he resided as tutor in the family of Sir John Hartopp at Stoke Newington, where he probably prepared the materials of his two educational works,—Logick, or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth (1725), and The Knowledge of the Heavens and the Earth Made Easy, or the First Principles of Geography and Astronomy Explained (1726). His Logic, Dr Samuel Johnson states, " had been received into the universities," but this must be regarded rather as an indication of the decadence of logical studies there than a proof of the special excellence of the work. What merits it possesses are of a hortatory and moral kind, and, as Sir William Hamilton says, it is " not worth reading as a book of logic." In his twenty-fourth year Watts was chosen assistant to Dr Chauncy, pastor of the Independent congregation, Mark Lane, London, and two years later he succeeded as sole pastor. The state of his health led to the appointment of an assistant in 1703. In 1704 the congregation removed to Pinner's Hall, and in 1708 they built a new meeting-house in Bury Street. In 1712 Watts took up his residence with Sir Thomas Abney of Abney Park, where he spent the remainder of his life, the arrangement being continued by Lady Abney after her husband's death. Watts preached only occasionally, devoting his leisure chiefly to the writing of hymns, the preparation of his sermons for publication, and the composition of theological works. Being little over 5 feet in height, and far from robust in health, he did not specially excel as an orator, although the felicity of his illustrations, his transparent sincerity, and his benevolent wisdom gave to his preaching an exceptional charm. His religious opinions were more liberal in tone than was at that time common in the community to which he belonged; his views regarding Sunday recreation and labour were scarcely of Puritanical strictness; his Calvinism was modified by his rejection of the doctrine of reprobation, and he was in the habit of representing the heaven of the Christian as affording wide scope for the exercise of the special habits and tastes formed by the employments of earth. For an estimate of Watts as a hymn writer, see HYMNS, vol. xii. p. 593. He died 25th November 1748, and was buried at Bunhill Fields, where a tombstone was erected to his memory by Sir John Hartopp and Lady Abney. A memorial was also erected to him in Westminster Abbey, and a memorial hall, erected in his honour at Southampton, was opened 6th May 1875.

In 1706 appeared his Horse Lyricx, of which an edition, with memoir by Robert Southey, forms vol. ix. of Sacred Classics (1834); in 1707 a volume of Hymns; in 1719 The Psalms of David ; and in 1720 Divine and Moral Songs for Children. Various collected editions of his sacred poetry have been published, and in 1869 an edition appeared with music for four voices. Among the theological treatises of Watts, in addition to volumes of sermons, are Doctrine of the Trinity (1726); Treatise on the Love of God and on the Use and Abuse of the Passions (1729); Catechisms for Children and Youth (1730); Essays towards a Proof of a Separate State for Souls (1732); Essay on the Freedom of the Will (1732); Essay on the Strength and Weakness of Human Reason (1737); Essay on the Ruin and Recovery of Mankind (1740); Glory of Christ as God-Man Unveiled (1746); and Useful and Important Questions concerning Jesus Christ (1746). He was also the author of a variety of miscellaneous treatises. His Posthumous Works appeared in 1773, and a further instalment of them in 1779. Several editions of his collected works, with memoirs, have also been published.

The Life and Times of Watts by Milner appeared in 1834; a life is also included in Johnson's Lives of the Poets.








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