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Isaac Watts from NPG

Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Isaac Watts (17 July 1674 - 25 November 1748), was an English poet, hymnist, theologian and logician. He was recognised as the "Father of English Hymnody", as he was the first prolific and popular English hymnwriter, credited with some 750 hymns. Many of his hymns remain in active use today and have been translated into many languages.



Born in Southampton, England, Watts was brought up in the home of a committed Nonconformist — his father, also Isaac Watts, had been incarcerated twice for his controversial views. At King Edward VI School (where one of the houses is now named "Watts" in his honour), he learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

He displayed a propensity for rhyme at home, driving his parents to the point of distraction on many occasions with his verse. Once, he had to explain how he came to have his eyes open during prayers.

A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.

Receiving corporal punishment for this, he cried

O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.[1]

Watts, unable to go to either Oxford or Cambridge on account of his non-conformity, went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690, and much of his life centred around that village, then a rural idyll but now part of Inner London.

Adult lifeEdit

His education led him to the pastorate of a large Independent Chapel in London, and he also found himself in the position of helping trainee preachers, despite poor health. Taking work as a private tutor, he lived with the non-conformist Hartopp family at Fleetwood House and later in the household of Sir Thomas and Lady Mary Abney at Theobalds, Cheshunt, in Hertfordshire, and at their second residence, Abney House in Stoke Newington.

Though a non-conformist, Sir Thomas practised occasional conformity to the Church of England as necessitated by his being Lord Mayor of London, 1700–1701. Likewise, Watts held religious opinions that were more non-denominational or ecumenical than was at that time common for a non-conformist, having a greater interest in promoting education and scholarship, than preaching for any particular ministry.

On the death of Sir Thomas Abney, Watts moved permanently with his widow and her remaining daughter to Abney House, a property that Mary had inherited from her brother, along with title to the Manor itself. The beautiful grounds at Abney Park, which became Watts' permanent home from 1736 to 1748, led down to an island heronry in the Hackney Brook where he sought inspiration for the many books and hymns he wrote.

He died in Stoke Newington and was buried in Bunhill Fields, having left behind him a massive legacy, not only of hymns, but also of treatises, educational works, essays and the like. His work was influential amongst independents and early religious revivalists in his circle, amongst whom was Philip Doddridge, who dedicated his best known work to Watts. On his death, Isaac Watts' papers were given to Yale University, an institution with which he was connected because of its being founded predominantly by fellow Independents (Congregationalists).



Sacred music scholar Stephen Marini (2003) describes the ways in which Watts contributed to English hymnody.[2] Notably, Watts led the way in the inclusion in worship of "original songs of Christian experience"; that is, new poetry. The older tradition limited itself to the poetry of the Bible, notably the Psalms. This stemmed from the teachings of the 16th century Reformation leader John Calvin, who initiated the practice of creating verse translations of the Psalms in the vernacular for congregational singing.[3] Watts' introduction of extra-Biblical poetry opened up a new era of Protestant hymnody as other poets followed in his path.[4]

Watts also introduced a new way of rendering the Psalms in verse for church services. The Psalms were originally written in Biblical Hebrew within the religion of Judaism. Later, they were adopted into Christianity as part of the Old Testament. Watts proposed that the metrical translations of the Psalms as sung by Protestant Christians should give them a specifically Christian perspective:

"While he granted that David [to whom authorship of many of the Psalms is traditionally ascribed] was unquestionably a chosen instrument of God, Watts claimed that his religious understanding could not have fully apprehended the truths later revealed through Jesus Christ. The Psalms should therefore be "renovated" as if David had been a Christian, or as Watts put it in the title of his 1719 metrical psalter, they should be "imitated in the language of the New Testament."[2]

Marini discerns two particular trends in Watts' verses, which he calls "emotional subjectivity" and "doctrinal objectivity". By the former he means that "Watts' voice broke down the distance between poet and singer and invested the text with personal spirituality." As an example of this he cites "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross". By "doctrinal objectivity" Marini means that Watts verse achieved an "axiomatic quality" that "presented Christian doctrinal content with the explicit confidence that befits affirmations of faith." As examples Marini cites the hymns "Joy to the World" as well as "From All That Dwell Below the Skies":[5]

From all that dwell below the skies
Let the Creator's praise arise;
Let the Redeemer's name be sung
Through every land, by every tongue.

Other worksEdit

Besides being a famous hymn-writer, Isaac Watts was also a renowned theologian and logician, writing many books and essays on these subjects.

Watts was the author of a text book on logic which was particularly popular; its full title was, Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. This was first published in 1724, and its popularity ensured that it went through twenty editions.

Watts' logic text book was written for beginners of logic, and the book is arranged methodically. He divided the content of his elementary treatment of logic into four parts: perception, judgement, reasoning, and method, which he treated in this order. Each of these parts is divided into chapters, and some of these chapters are divided into sections. The content of the chapters and sections is then subdivided by using some combination of the following devices: divisions, distributions, notes, observations, directions, rules, illustrations, and remarks. Thus, every contentum of the book comes under one or more of these headings, and this methodical arrangement serves to make the exposition clear.

In Watts' Logic there are some notable departures from what one would expect to find in a text book of logic from Watts' time, and there are also some notable innovations. Detectable throughout the work is the influence of British empiricism, and in particular, the influence of philosopher and empiricist John Locke. For, Locke was a contemporary of Watts, and in the Logic there are several references to Locke and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding,[6] in which Locke espoused his empiricist views. Another departure from most other authors of logic is that Watts was careful to distinguish between judgements and propositions. According to Watts, judgement is "to compare... ideas together, and to join them by affirmation, or disjoin then by negation, according as we find them to agree or disagree".[7] However, he continues by saying, "when mere ideas are joined in the mind without words, it is rather called a judgement; but when clothed with words it is called a proposition".[8] Watts' Logic follows the scholastic tradition and divides propositions into universal affirmative, universal negative, particular affirmative, and particular negative. In the third part, Watts discusses reasoning and argumentation, with particular emphasis on the theory of syllogism, which was a centrally important part of the classical logic which Watts' was treating in his work. According to Watts, and in keeping with the common practice of logicians of his day, Watts defined logic as an art (see liberal arts), as opposed to a science. Throughout the Logic Watts revealed his high conception of logic by stressing the practical side of logic, rather than just the speculative side. According to Watts, as a practical art, logic can be really useful in any of our inquiries, whether they are inquiries in the arts, or inquiries in the sciences, or inquiries of an ethical kind. It is Watts' emphasis on logic as a practical art which distinguishes his book from others. For, by stressing that there is a practical and non-formal part of logic, Watts was able to give rules and directions for any kind of inquiry, including the inquiries of science and the inquiries of philosophy. These rules of inquiry were given in addition to the formal content of classical logic that one would expect to find in a text book on logic from that time. Thus, Watts' conception of logic as being divided into its practical part and its speculative part, and therefore containing more than just formal logic, marks a departure from the conception of logic of most other authors. Instead, Watts' conception of logic is much more akin to that of the later, nineteenth century logician, C.S. Peirce.

Isaac Watts' Logic became the standard text on logic at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale; being used at Oxford University for well over 100 years. C.S. Peirce, the great nineteenth century logician, wrote favourably of Watts' Logic. When preparing his own text book on Logic entitled A Critick of Arguments: How to Reason (also known as the Grand Logic), Peirce wrote, 'I shall suppose the reader to be acquainted with what is contained in Dr Watts' Logick, a book... far superior to the treatises now used in colleges, being the production of a man distinguished for good sense.' [9] The Logic was followed in 1741 by a supplement, The Improvement of the Mind, which itself went through numerous editions and later inspired Michael Faraday.



Statue of Isaac Watts, Southampton, UK, in 2005. Photo by Alan Ford. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Samuel Johnson admired Watts, and included him in his Lives of the English Poets.[10]

Two of his poems, "The Day of Judgement" and "A Cradle Hymn", were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900.[11] [12]


File:Isaac Watts DD tomb in Bunhill Fields.jpg

The earliest surviving built memorial to Isaac Watts is at Westminster Abbey; this was completed shortly after his death. His much-visited chest tomb, in its photogenic setting at Bunhill Fields, dates from 1808, replacing the original that had been paid for and erected by Lady Mary Abney and the Hartopp family. In addition a stone bust of Watts can be seen in the non-conformist library Dr Williams's Library in central London. The earliest public statue stands at Abney Park, where he lived and died before it became a cemetery and arboretum; a later, rather similar statue, was funded by public subscription for a new Victorian public park in the city of his birth, Southampton. In the mid nineteenth century a Congregational Hall, the Dr Watts Memorial Hall, was also built in Southampton, though after World War II it was lost to redevelopment. Now standing on this site is the Isaac Watts Memorial United Reformed Church.

One of the earliest built memorials may also now be lost: a bust to Watts that was commissioned on his death for the London chapel with which he was associated. The chapel was demolished in the late eighteenth century; remaining parts of the memorial were rescued at the last minute by a wealthy landowner for installation in his chapel near Liverpool. It is unclear whether it still survives.

The stone statue in front of the Abney Park Chapel at Dr Watts' Walk, Abney Park Cemetery, was erected in 1845 by public subscription. It was designed by the leading British sculptor, Edward Hodges Baily RA FRS. A scheme for a commemorative statue on this spot had first been promoted in the late 1830s by George Collison, who in 1840 published an engraving as the frontispiece of his book about cemetery design in Europe and America; and at Abney Park Cemetery in particular. This first cenotaph proposal was never commissioned, and Baily's later design was adopted in 1845.

In popular cultureEdit


Poetry and songsEdit

  • Horae Lyricae. Poems, Chiefly of the Lyric kind. In Two Books. London: Printed by S. & D. Bridge for John Lawrence, 1706
    • enlarged as Horae Lyricae. Poems, Chiefly of the Lyric kind. In Three Books. London: Printed for J. Humfreys for N. Cliff, 1709; Boston: Printed & sold by Rogers & Fowle, 1748.
  • Hymns and Spiritual Songs. In Three Books. London: Printed by J. Humfreys for John Lawrence, 1707
    • revised and enlarged edition, 1709; Philadelphia: B. Franklin, 1741).
  • Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children. London: Printed for M. Lawrence, 1715; Philadelphia: Reprinted & sold by B. Franklin & D. Hall, 1750; facsimile, London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, And apply'd to the Christian State and Worship. London: Printed for J. Clark, R. Ford & R. Cruttenden, 1719; Hartford, CT: Printed by N. Patten, 1785).
  • An Elegy on the much lamented Death of Mrs. Elizabeth Bury. Bristol, [1722?].
  • "An Elegiac Ode written in the form of a Soliloquy or Mourning Meditation at the Death of Sir Thomas Abney, Knt. and Alderman of London," in The Magistrate and the Christian, by Jeremiah Smith. N.p., 1722.
  • The Poetical Works of Isaac Watts, D.D. (7 volumes), Edinburgh, 1782.
  • Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (edited by Samuel M. Worcester). Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1834.[13]
  • Psalms and Hymns (arranged by Rev. John Rippon, D.D., corrected & improved by Rev. Charles G. Sommers). Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1843.[14]


  • A Sermon Preached at Salters-Hall (London: Printed by J. Humfreys for John Lawrence, 1707).
  • A Guide to Prayer: or, a Free and Rational Account of the Gift, Grace and Spirit of Prayer; with Plain Directions how every Christian may attain them. London: Printed for Emanuel Matthews & Sarah Cliff, 1715; Boston: Printed by J. Draper for D. Henchman, 1739.
  • The Art of Reading and Writing English: or, the chief Principles and Rules of Pronouncing our Mother-Tongue, both in Prose and Verse; with a Variety of Instructions for True Spelling. Written first for Private Use, and now published for the Benefit of all Persons who desire a better acquaintance with their Native Language. London: Printed for John Clark, Em. Matthews & Richard Ford, 1721.
  • Sermons on Various Subjects. London: Printed for John Clark, E. M. Matthews & Richard Ford, 1721; Boston: Printed & sold by Rogers & Fowle, 1746.
  • Logic: or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth with a Variety of Rules to guard against error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. London: Milner & Co., 1724; Boston: Thomas & Andrews, 1796.
  • Prayers Composed for the Use and Imitation of Children, suited to their different Ages and their various Occasions: together with Instructions to Youth in the Duty of Prayer, drawn up by way of Question and Answer. And a Serious Address to them on that Subject. London: Printed for John Clark, Richard Hett, Emanuel Matthews & Richard Ford, 1728.
  • An Essay towards the Encouragement of Charity-Schools, particularly those which are supported by Protestant Dissenters, for teaching the Children of the Poor to Read and Work. London: J. Clark, 1728.
  • The Doctrine of the Passions Explained and Improved; or, a brief and comprehensive Scheme of the Natural Affections of Mankind, and an Account of their Names, Nature, Appearances, Effects, and different Uses in Human Life; to which are subjoined Moral and divine Rules for the Regulation or Government of them. London, 1729; New York: Printed for Robert Hodge, 1795..
  • Discourses of the Love of God and the Use and Abuse of the Passions in Religion, with a Devout Meditation suited to each Discourse. London: Printed for J. Clark & R. Hett, 1729.
  • Catechisms; or, Instructions in the Principles of the Christian Religion, and the History of Scripture, composed for Children and Youth, according to their different Ages. London: Printed for E. Matthews, R. Ford & R. Hett, 1730; Boston: Reprinted by Rogers & Fowle for J. Blanchard, 1747.
  • An Humble Attempt toward the Revival of Practical Religion among Christians, and particularly the Protestant Dissenters. London: Printed for E. Matthews, 1731.
  • The Strength and Weakness of Human Reason: or, the Important Question about the Sufficiency of Reason to Conduct Mankind to Religion and Future Happiness, Argued between An Inquiring Deist and a Christian Divine: and The Debate Compromis'd and Determin'd to the Satisfaction of both, by an Impartial Moderator. London: Printed for J. Pemberton & R. Hett, 1731.
  • Reliquiae Juveniles: Miscellaneous Thoughts in Prose and Verse, on Natural, Moral and Divine Subjects; Written chiefly in Younger Years. London: Printed for Richard Ford & Richard Hett, 1734; Boston: Printed for William P. Blake, 1796; facsimile, Gainesville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1968.
  • Preface to Devout Exercises of the Heart, in Meditation and Soliloquy, Prayer and Praise, by Elizabeth Rowe. Coventry: Printed for M. Luckman, 1737.
  • "His occasional Poems during his Studies, or very soon after his closing them,"
  • Self-Love and Virtue Reconciled only by Religion; or, an Essay to prove that the only Effectual Obligation of Mankind to practice Virtue depends on the Existence and Will of God; together with an occasional Proof of the Necessity of Revelation. London, 1739.
  • The Improvement of the Mind: or, a Supplement to the Art of Logick: containing a Variety of Remarks and Rules for the Attainment and Communication of useful Knowledge in Religion, in the Sciences, and in Common Life. London: Printed for J. Brackstone, 1741
    • enlarged edition, 1751; Boston: Printed for David West, 1793.
  • chapter 3 of Memoirs of the Rev. Isaac Watts, D.D., by Thomas Gibbons. London: Printed for James Buckland & Thomas Gibbons, 1780, pp. 64-83.

Collected editionsEdit

  • The Works of the late Reverend and Learned Isaac Watts, D.D. Published by himself, and now Collected into Six Volumes (edited by D. Jennings and P. Doddridge). London: Printed for T. & T. Longman, 1753.
  • The Posthumous Works of the late Learned and Reverend Isaac Watts, D.D., In Two Volumes. Compiled from Papers in Possession of his immediate Successors: Adjusted and Published by a Gentleman of the University of Cambridge. London, 1779.
  • Devout Meditations from Dr. Watts. N.p., 1791.


  • The Posthumous Works of the late Learned and Reverend Isaac Watts, D.D., volume 2. London, 1779.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[15]


Watts' hymns include:

Many of his hymns are included in the Methodist hymn book Hymns and Psalms. Many of his texts are also used in the American hymnal The Sacred Harp, using what is known as the shape note singing technique.

See alsoEdit


  • Marini, Stephen A. (2003) Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Trust in Freedom: The Story of Newington Green Unitarian Church 1708 - 1958 by Michael Thorncroft. Privately printed for church trustees, 1958.
    • Chapter titles: The Fertile Soil; The Church is Built; The Early Years (1714–1758); The Age of Richard Price; New Causes for Old; The Ideal of Service; The Lights Go Out; The Present Day.


  1. Norman Mable, Popular Hymns and their Writers, p. 179.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Marini 2003, 76
  3. Marini 2003, 71
  4. Marini (2002, 76) lists the following as hymnwriters who can be considered as followers of the tradition established by Watts: Charles Wesley, Edward Perronet, Ann Steele, Samuel Stennet, Augustus Toplady, John Newton, William Cowper, Reginald Heber and (in America) Samuel Davies, Timothy Dwight, John Leland, and Peter Cartwright.
  5. Reference for this paragraph: Marini 2003, 76. The full text of "From All That Dwell below the Skies can be found at and other Web locations.
  6. Watts, I (1825 reprint) Logic or the Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth; with a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the sciences Kessinger Books, United States, see footnote on pg 14
  7. Watts, I (1825 reprint) Logic or the Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth; with a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the sciences Kessinger Books, United States, pg 115
  8. Watts, I (1825 reprint) Logic or the Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth; with a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the sciences Kessinger Books, United States, pg 117
  9. Peirce, C.S. (1933) The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol.II, Paul Weiss and Charles Hartshorne, eds. Cambridge MASS, Harvard University Press
  10. "Selected Poetry of Isaac Watts (1674-1748), Representative Poetry Online, University of Toronto,, Web, Dec. 26, 2011.
  11. "The Day of Judgement". Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 12, 2012.
  12. "A Cradle Hymn". Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 12, 2012.
  13. The Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs of the Rev. Isaac Watts, Internet Archive. Web, Dec. 18, 2015.
  14. The Psalms and hymns of Rev. Isaac Watts, D.D., Internet Archive. Web, Dec. 18, 2016.
  15. Isaac Watts 1674-1748, Poetry Foundation. Web, Dec. 29, 2012.

External linksEdit


Poems and hymns
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