Issac Watts Hymn Writer, Theologian and Independent Pastor
Born in Southampton in 1674, Isaac Watts was educated at the local grammar school and had the opportunity to go on to university, but was unable to do so as he was a Dissenter – Oxford and Cambridge were only open to Anglicans. Instead he attended the the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington. He received there an education of high academic standard and he went on to become a pastor to an Independent (later known as Congregational) Church. Because of his deteriorating health, he resigned this post in 1712 and retired to Stoke Newington. Isaac wrote many collections of hymns, and his own faith showed clearly through them: When I survey the wondrous cross, Jesus shall reign where’er the sun, and many others still used in worship. He died at Stoke Newington on this day in 1748.
Matthew 13. 44–46, 52
‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’
If you’ve ever visited Southampton city centre, you’ll have heard the clock chiming the tune St Anne, to which Our God, our help in ages past (not “O God”, as John Wesley famous edited it!) is sung. This is because Isaac Watts was minister of the Above Bar Independent Chapel in the centre of Southampton (that building was destroyed by enemy action, and the congregation became a part of what is now known as Avenue St. Andrew’s URC). It is said that Watts wrote There is a land of pure delight as he looked across the Solent to the Isle of Wight! However, Watts’s most famous must surely be When I survey the wondrous cross, which is best sung with all five verses.
In today’s reading we are given some snippets of signs of the kingdom from Matthew’s gospel: hidden treasure, which is worth everything that we have; a pearl so fine that it is worth everything we have. Matthew is suggesting these are signs of the kingdom of God, and these are what we can see in the hymns and poetry of Isaac Watts. Our reading ends with the comment about the best of the old and the new, and this is surely what we find articulated in Watts’s writings. Watts was clearly a Puritan, who lived and thought in the paradigm of the Reformed tradition, but he was a man of the eighteenth century, encountering the then new enlightenment ideas, and these two influences together make his work so profound, and so helpful in illuminating what it means to be a Christian.
Perhaps this is best summed up in words,
“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.”
God of truth and grace, you gave Isaac Watts singular gifts to present your praise in verse, that he might write psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs for your Church. Give us grace joyfully to sing your praises now and in the life to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Rev’d Michael Hopkins is the minister of Farnham and Elstead URCs, and Clerk of the General Assembly.