Greg Bailey, Executive Director of Editorial at REFORMATION TRUST (Ligonier Ministry; Greg is now Editorial Director at Crossway) asked me to write another biography for the Profile series, THE POETIC WONDER OF ISAAC WATTS (click to listen to an excerpt from the book), now available.
THE POETIC WONDER OF ISAAC WATTS, listen to part one of Bond's lecture delivered at the ACM Church Music Symposium, October, 2010.
The Isaac Watts Profile is in the same Ligonier series as my biography THE MIGHTY WEAKNESS OF JOHN KNOX.
Douglas Bond may be available to speak at your church, conference, symposium, or event. Click for more information on his SPEAKING SCHEDULE.CONTACT US to inquire about scheduling.
Doxology for All Time
It was an autumn Sunday evening in 1976 when as a seventeen-year-old the gospel of grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone became irrevocably real to my soul. I remember it vividly: the awakened hearing of truths I had been tenderly taught since my earliest recollections, but now the sense of wonder at divine grace, the experiential thrill of the reality of the cross and of Christ my Savior shedding His blood, suffering and dying in my place, for my sin and my guilt. I remember the hot tears stinging my cheeks as the genuineness of grace and the gospel washed over me that evening.
With a trembling hand and a heart nearly bursting with love and gratitude for the free grace of God, I reached for the elements of bread and wine, Christ therein pictured, symbolized, and made spiritually real before me.
What was the means of so awakening a teenage young man that glorious evening? Was it the result of an entertaining sermon delivered by a celebrity preacher? Was it the result of emotional hype concocted by the latest Christian rock band? Was it the result of high-church ceremony attempting to fabricate the transcendent? No, it was none of these.
It was Isaac Watts.
I had sung the words of his hymn at communion every month for the past eleven years, but that evening Watts’ rich poetry dazzled my imagination, and made a deep and lasting impression on my heart. It’s not cool at seventeen to weep publicly, but I wept, and though I did, I managed to join Watts in his slack-jaw wonder at the cross.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
By his incomparable imagination, Watts had transported me back to hot, dusty Golgotha, where I heard the thudding of the hammer on the spikes, the taunting and spitting, the moaning and sorrow. With Watts’ words, I became the young man surveying that wondrous cross. With eyes of faith, I was the one seeing the Prince of glory forsaken by His Father and dying in anguish. And because I was now seeing it, I was the one resolving to count but loss all my aspirations to riches and greatness. It was I who was, for the first time, pouring contempt on all my delusional pride of body and mind.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the cross of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
Watts, by his own sense of wonder at the cross of Christ, and with skillful strokes of his poetic pen, showed me the absurdity of my view of the world. He deftly stirred up in me the ugliness and utter inappropriateness of my pride and boasting, my preoccupation with empty things that so captivated my teen world. By vividly holding before me the cross of Jesus, Watts demanded that I drop everything and reckon with that cross. By his words, Watts compelled me to join him, to see with him the One who hung on that cross for me.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Watts’ rhetorical question caused me to see how ridiculous my sense of value had been. I had been scrambling after the world’s riches, the world’s wisdom, the world’s entertainments. But here Watts held before me Christ--His head, His hands, His feet--the surpassing richness of His thorny crown. And it was as if I was there, could see it, could hear Him groaning, could feel the penetration of each thorn in His crown. And in that gracious seeing, I was compelled to respond.
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.
Watts assaulted my deeply flawed value system with this closing quatrain. How absurd it was for me to think that I could own every piece of wealth in the entire natural world, and then to imagine that I could offer it as a gift, and it would somehow be proportionate to Jesus Himself. With a few strokes of his quill, Watts smashed all that for me. His imaginative comparison of all the temporal riches of nature heaped up as a present on one side, and the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for my sins, on the other, made me ashamed, made me “hide my blushing face while His dear cross appeared.”
In sixteen short lines of poetry, in 128 syllables, Watts demolished my twisted sense of value and had me on my knees at the foot of that cross. He had peeled back the glitter of the temporal world, he had parted the clouds with his pen, and in that parting he had dazzled me with divine love, love so amazing that it demanded my soul, my life, my all—every part of me belonged to Jesus. My life was purchased by Him on that cross, and such amazing love for me graciously drew me, irresistibly compelled me to want more than anything to forsake all else and follow Jesus.
WHY ISAAC WATTS?
As a consequence of having my spiritual imagination baptized by Watts’ imagination, he has long held an important place in my mind and heart. When my devotion is cold and stale in public or in private, I turn to Watts who “give[s] me the wings of faith” and turns me to Jesus. I’m inclined to think that if Watts, more than 200 years after his death, can be the means of awakening the soul of a seventeen-year-old young man, there just may be a great deal in Watts that no generation of Christians can afford to live without.
WE NEED HIS POETRY
Our world clambers after the latest thing, and as we wear ourselves out in the process, great poets like Isaac Watts often get put in a box on the curb for the thrift store pick-up. How could a gawky, male poet, living and writing 300 years ago, be relevant today? Our postmodern, post-Christian, post-Biblical culture has almost totally dismissed what was called poetry in Watts’ day. Few deny it: ours is a post-poetry culture. But who cares?
Martin Luther insisted that in a reformation, “We need poets.” Most of us scratch our heads and wonder what on earth we need them for. Christians often accept the decline of poetry without a whimper, with barely a wafture of good riddance. Won’t the machinations of society carry on just fine without poetry? Won’t the church do just fine without it? It’s not like poetry contributes anything vital. You can’t eat it. So thought Hanoverian King George II. “I hate all poets!” he declared. But are Christians to stand deferentially aside as culture pitches poetry—the highest form—into the lowest circle of hell?
So what happened to real poetry and why do we so desperately need Watts to help us recover it? Arguably the decline was fueled by Walt Whitman, a man with new ideas simmering in his bosom, new ideas that demanded a new form. “Through me,” he wrote, “forbidden voices, voices of sexes and lust, voices veiled, and I removed the veil.”
Whitman-like vers libre poetry dictates against any conventional structure of meter or rhyme, lyric elements necessary to make poetry sing-able, as Watts understood so well. Whitman’s throw-off-the-shackles impulse created a blurring of literary genre wherein poetic form was abandoned in favor of irregular bursts of feeling. What often remains is fragmented prose. “Poetry” thus conceived provides a pseudo-form for saying private things about one’s self, things one would never utter in direct speech—until Whitman removed the veil.
Such redefining of what poetry is has led to a proliferation of what one classics professor termed, “therapeutic soul-baring by emotional exhibitionist[s].” Or as John Stott once quipped in Seattle, Washington, “The trouble with you Americans is you’re constantly engaged in a spiritual strip-tease.”
Abandoning form for raw emotion is not unique to poets. Most artists are quite pleased with themselves for smashing outmoded forms in favor of new structures, ones better suited to self-expression, the now primary sphere of art.
It’s no coincidence that poetry began its descent into “gaseous emotionalizing” in egalitarian America. Alexis d’Tocqueville placed the blame squarely on the devolutions of democracy. “Nothing is more repugnant to the human mind, in an age of equality, than the idea of subjection to forms.” As he continues, one wonders if d’Tocqueville was thinking of his contemporary Walt Whitman, “Democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man, and fixes it on man alone. Each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely, himself.”
Meanwhile, Whitman was working on his signature poem, Song of Myself, the prototype of vacuous praise—of the wrong object. Man-centered praise poetry was born. How vastly different from Watts who wrote of his poetic purpose:
Begin, my tongue, some heav’nly theme,
And speak some boundless thing.
The mighty works, or mightier Name
Of our eternal King.
While Watts had made Christ the theme of his poetry, Whitman’s Song of Myself set the mortar of poetic self-referentialism. Much of Whitman’s poetry was disgusting material. “I believe in the flesh and the appetites,” he crooned. “Divine am I inside and out… The scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer, This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds… nothing, not God, is greater… more wonderful than myself.” One wishes Whitman would stop. But he does not. Nor have poets since.
One tragic result is that we’ve forfeited the ability to measure the quality of poetry, so free verse proliferates without censure as everyone and his cocker spaniel gets in touch with the poet within, including well-intentioned youthful worship leaders. There’s little place for Watts in such a literary world. Ours is without a rudder, where poetry has no boundaries, no canvas, no walls, no arches, no vaulted ceilings—and, hence, no enduring grandeur. Today one can create verse and call it poetry by doing a Google search then blending the results into lines of absurdity. And, yes, it has a name: Flarf. Flarf poetry and its derivatives have redefined what poetry is. Redefining is what postmodernity does best, and hence, the result is that the rich literary legacy of the past is on the verge of being forgotten. And Watts with it.
Were he alive today, I doubt that it would occur to Isaac Watts to celebrate cyber randomness with his pen—or to write a hymn in celebration of himself. Watts was an extraordinarily gifted poet, one who virtually thought in rhyme and meter and who wrote most of his poetry in first draft. With such skills he could have been a leading man of letters in Neoclassical Britain. Watts’ age was termed the Age of Johnson, and it was Samuel Johnson himself who ranked Watts among the great authors and said of him, “His ear was well tuned, and his diction was elegant and copious.” Though in 1728 both the University of Edinburgh and Aberdeen conferred on Watts the honor of Doctor of Divinity, many literary critics have considered Watts’ poetry to be too explicitly Christian for literary acclaim. This was by design. Brilliant poet that he was, Watts avoided, as he termed it, the “excess baggage of intricate form as well as of poetical adornment.” His was a gospel objective first and last. Poetry, for Watts, was a means to a higher end, perhaps a requirement of all great poetry.
Hence, he was unapologetically a biblical and theological poet who has given to all Christians a rich legacy of sung worship, full of imagination, skill, deep theological perception, vivid sensory insight, full of cheerfulness in the midst of suffering and disadvantages, and full of a contagious sense of wonder at the majesty of God. Ours is a world that desperately needs Watts’ poetry
WORSHIP NEEDS WATTS
Christian worship desperately needs Watts. I have recently sat in worship services with well-meaning Christians singing, “Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord.” In another service I sat bewildered as all around me folks held their hands aloft, caressing the air, singing “Just think about it, just think about it, just think about it.” Not wanting to stand there being the critic, I attempted to get my mind around just what it was I was supposed to be thinking about. Try as I might, I could find little in the vacuous lyrics they were crooning that required any degree of thinking about anything.
I pity a world without Isaac Watts. I pity a church without him. Why would Christians want to cut themselves off from such rich theological passion, so skillfully adorned as in the finest hymns of Watts?
In yet another service I did watch others sing Watts’ When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, but I was little moved by the words. As near as I can tell the reason that Watts did not move me this time was that there were so many elements in that worship that distracted me from participating, in taking the words on my lips and into my heart as my own in singing them. The swaying worship leaders and all the paraphernalia of the Indie-rock band filled the stage; the volume was cranked up so loud that I was eventually forced to take my seven-year-old out of the place, his hands clamped tightly over his ears. I say, I watched rather than sang Watts because this kind of entertainment venue is not designed for the congregation to participate in the singing. It’s fine if they do, of course, but it makes no difference to what one hears whether they do or not. The emotive vocal inflections and the pinched facial contortions of the well-meaning worship leader are difficult for most of us to emulate, and the occasional improvised lines added or unexpectedly repeated leaves one singing something other than what the worship leader is now singing. Not to worry, no one will hear you anyway.
I stood next to my eldest son in an urban warehouse church in Seattle, Washington, the walls painted black, various colored lighting flashing around the stage and room, the videographer projecting on the screen behind the band a giant close-up of the lead guitarist’s fingers sliding up and down the neck of his instrument. Under the assaulting influence of the new nightclub liturgy, I was again bewildered and wondered if I was supposed to be singing something. There were 2,000 nineteen to twenty-nine year olds in the room but I could not hear anyone singing except the lead guitarist, and he was groaning in a manner I felt intensely uncomfortable attempting to emulate. I turned to my son, took a deep breath and yelled, “Are we supposed to be singing?” He turned and hollered back in my ear, “I don’t know!” No one around us was disturbed in the slightest by our exchange.
Just as the medieval church had cut off the congregation from participating in the sung worship of the service, so today many well-meaning Christian leaders have reconstructed a sung worship where congregational participation does not matter. We sit or stand as our medieval forbearers did and watch others sing for us. It has become a show, amusement, an entertaining means of connecting to the hip, youth culture with, ostensibly, the gospel. Such a venue produces a response in the hearer—one super-charged with raw emotion--but I wonder if it is the emotional response produced by a mind renewed by deep consideration of the objective truths of the gospel of grace, or is it emotion concocted to order by the music itself. Watts clearly understood all this. He no doubt learned it from the Psalms and perhaps from John Calvin’s preface to his commentary on the Psalms:
We know by experience that singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty (as St. Augustine says), and also, there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels.
In an age of entertainment-driven worship, a recovered appreciation of Watts as a hymn writer is critical to correcting the “light and frivolous” tendencies of the postmodern church, and perhaps the dark and edgy ones too. Every biblically mature generation in the church will want to contribute poetry and music to the church’s worship—alas, so will every biblically immature one. Watts, the Father of English Hymnody, makes an excellent role model to guide perpetually the new generations of poets who presume to write lyrics for the corporate worship of God's people. Instead of being guided by the transient poetic and music appetites of the moment, Isaac Watts’ father taught his son Who must guide his pen:
In ancient times God’s worship did accord,
Not with tradition, but the written word;
Himself has told us how He’ll be adored.
Watts got his father’s message: What Christians sing in worship must be guided by what God has revealed about how we are to sing to such a God. Watts mastered the poetic gift he was entrusted with and earned the undisputed title, The Father of English Hymnody. If hymns are poems written in praise and adoration of God, then that makes Watts the father of English-speaking praise of God. Every Christian who cares about living a life of praise will want his sung worship to be guided by Isaac Watts’ heart, mind, and doxological genius. Why? Because Watts was consumed with wonder at Jesus Christ the supreme object of Christian worship.
WATTS FOR FRAIL CHRISTIANS
Yet another important reason for surveying the life and work of Watts is that his life is a model of patience in affliction for all Christians who suffer. The first years of his life were ones of constant political struggle, uncertainty, and persecution, during which his father was in and out of prison for his faith in Christ. His entire seventy-four years were ones of overcoming great difficulties. Chronically ill throughout much of his adult life, Watts suffered with a continual low-grade fever, often enduring intense physical discomfort.
Moreover, Watts lived with inescapable personal unattractiveness. Put bluntly, he was no handsome dude. This is big for Americans who spends $15 billion a year on cosmetic surgery—that’s 100 times the entire annual GDP of Uganda. We might dismiss the significance of his ugliness by assuming his society didn’t care about such frivolities. But it did. Perhaps next only to our own, people in the Enlightenment were profoundly preoccupied with physical appearance and adornment, including ridiculously elaborate wigs, male make-up, and pink satin coulletts—for men. In our therapeutic culture, Watts would be a candidate for insecurity and a life of low self-esteem. Today his doctor would prescribe counseling, perhaps a regiment of anti-depressant drugs—and a face lift. He held religious views that were the mockery of the elite in his society, and he made the unforgiveable social blunder of not attending the right schools. As a nonconformist, he was unwelcome at Oxford and Cambridge and was forced to attend small, insignificant institutions, under the censure and scorn of a refined society.
We need Watts for many reasons. We need his poetry to aid us in recovering a sanctified understanding and imagination; we need him to help reform worship and singing in our churches today. All of us who have ever felt marginalized for our frailty, our unattractiveness, our lack of formal learning in elite schools, or for any other limitation--real or perceived--need Watts. All people will find a wealth of enrichment and encouragement by learning more of the theological gentleness and doxological genius of Isaac Watts.
 Trinity Hymnal, Revised Edition (Atlanta, Philadelphia: Great Commissions Publications, 1997), 252.
 E. Paxton Hood, Isaac Watts: His Life and Writings, Homes and Friends (London: Religious Tract Society, 1877), 120.
 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 268.
 Raymond A. St. John, American Literature (Greenville, South Carolina: Bob Jones University Press, 1991), 225.
 John Stott in response to a Q & A question after delivering a message on Radical Discipleship at University Presbyterian Church, Seattle, Washington, October, 2000.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Mentor Book, 1984), 180-181.
 Hood, Isaac Watts: His Life and Writings, Homes and Friends, 115.
 St. John, American Literature, 225.
 Samuel Johnson, Lives of the British Poets (London: Nathaniel Cooke, 1851), 330.
 Isaac Watts, The Poetic Interpretation of the Psalms, with a Biography of Watts (St. Louis, MO: Miracle Press, 1974), 264.
 John Calvin, Genevan Psalter (Geneva, 1565, accessed on-line August, 2010, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ccel/eee/files/calvinps.htm), Preface.
 David Fountain, Isaac Watts Remembered (Harpenden, England: Gospel Standard Baptist Trust, 1978), 20.