100. The Psalms & Hymns of Isaac Watts (aka Isaac Watts’ Hymns & Spiritual Songs)
Written by Isaac Watts, 1707
Reprinted by Soli Deo Gloria Ministries, 1997
Download the complete text from Christian Classics Ethereal Library


We’re beginning not with a song, but with a book of songs.

Isaac Watts was born in Southampton on July 17, 1674. He was the eldest of nine children of a minister, also named Isaac Watts, a deacon at the Above Bar Congregational Church, and a religious dissenter who spent time in prison for being a nonconformist, and was in prison at the time of his son’s birth.

Isaac Watts is considered the father of English hymnody. As a youth, he criticized the language of the psalms that were sung in church. His father encouraged him to write his own if he though he could do better. Isaac Watts is credited with writing over 600 hymns.

Watts was educated at the Free School in Southampton, where he studied Greek, Latin, French and Hebrew from the Reverend John Pinhorne, rector of All Saints. In 1690 he entered the Nonconformist Academy of Thomas Rowe in Stoke Newington, North London (dissenters were not permitted to attend universities by the Church of England).

After leaving the Academy at the age of 20, Watts spent two years at his father’s home where he wrote the majority of the Psalms & Hymns. In 1696 he became tutor for six years of the family of Sir John Hartopp, also in Stoke Newington. [1]

Watts, the man who ‘virtually single-handed, introduced, developed, invented, the hymn as we know it today’ [2], is a good place to start because it was through his songs that slaves in Britain’s American colonies were introduced to the idea that Biblical narrative could form the basis of a sacred music.

Slavery in America was 100 years old when a wave of religious fervour swept the American colonies between 1720 and 1750. [3] The Church of England established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in 1700, and had started sending missionaries to the slaves in the North American colonies in the early 1700s. [4] This fervour prompted slave owners to introduce Christianity to their slaves in the hope that anger and unrest among slaves would be stopped by Christian doctrine [5] – there had been slave insurrections in New York in 1712. [6] Slaves were taught Watts’ hymns, and these became so familiar to them that the term ‘Dr. Watts’ was often used to describe any hymn, whether or not it was composed by Watts. [7]

Watts’ collection of hymns was published in 1707, the year in which the Act of Union was signed, leading to the establishment of the kingdom of Great Britain, British sovereignty, a new Parliament of Great Britain in Westminster, and a new national flag – the red white and blue flag of the Union. [8] It was against this backdrop of events that Watts also used hymnody to project a vision of the British empire onto the world, in which he cast Britain as Israel.

In his abstract for the text ‘Isaac Watts and the Origins of British Imperial Theology’, John M Hull, Emeritus Professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham, tells us that in Psalms of David (1719) Watts removes references to Israel and Judah, replacing them with ‘Britain’ or ‘Great Britain’.

Hull writes; ‘Although his principal intention was to render the singing of the psalms more relevant to the daily lives of the dissenting congregations, examination of the psalms in the context of the sermons and other writings of Watts reveals a more comprehensive social and political outlook. In the light of the growing significance of the British empire and of the conscious and unconscious influence of such power upon later generations of Christians, Isaac Watts may be regarded as an influential figure in the creation of a faith attuned to the needs of empire. This legacy may be traced in many Christian attitudes today, on both sides of the Atlantic.’ [9]
Here is Watts, quoted by Professor Hull: ‘I think the names of Aamon and Moab may be as properly changed into the names of the chief enemies of the gospel, so far as may be without public offence: Judah and Israel may be called England and Scotland, and the land of Canaan may be translated into Great Britain.’ And here is professor Hull again, on the effect of Watts’ thinking: ‘This practice, innocent enough at first sight, tended toward an uneasy compromise in which not only the names of nations but the ethical demands of biblical faith were modified to suit the requirements of a rapidly developing acquisitive society. The philosophy of possessive individualism took the place of the social solidarity of the Hebrew community [...]. Through his theological geography, his Calvinistic history of providence and his identification of British political and military policy with the kingdom of God, Watts had created an ideology of British Israel. Corresponding to this rhetoric of public life, there is a withdrawal of faith and spirituality into the inner life.’ [10]

Watts’ songs were hugely popular in America in the 19th century. Communities on both sides of the racial divide found ways of using Watts’ work. In his book The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States (1842), the white minister Charles Colcock Jones described the value of Watts’ work for both the church and perhaps the slave owners who were forced, if only by the fact of proximity, to listen to songs laden with what must have been alien sounding, and perhaps threatening, African retentions: ‘One great advantage in teaching them (slaves) good psalms and hymns, is that they are thereby induced to lay aside the extravagant and nonsensical chants and catches and hallelujah songs of their own composing’.

But black ministers had their own way of engaging with Watts’ hymns. They took seriously Watts’ advice that ‘Ministers are to cultivate gifts of preaching and prayer through study and diligence; they ought also to cultivate the capacity of composing spiritual songs and exercise it along with the other parts of the worship, preaching and prayer’. Ministers and deacons began composing their own spirituals. [11]

Isaac Watts provided the blueprint for the tradition of spirituals that carried the slaves desire for freedom to audiences throughout the white world. We wonder what he would have made of the uses to which slaves put the genre he created.


[1] http://musicanet.org/robokopp/bio/wattsbio.htmlkubrickfilms
[2] Dr Jean Silvan Evans http://www.urc.org.uk/documents/isaac_watts/watts_index.htm
[3] http://www.aol.com/rnbhighway/journey.htm
[4] ‘Slavery and Religion in America: A Time Line 1440-1866’, by Carrie Bickner, 1998.
Published by the Internet Public Library http://www.mamiwata.com/bchurch.html
[5] http://www.aol.com/rnbhighway/journey.htm
[6] Bickner
[7] http://www.aol.com/rnbhighway/journey.htm
[8] ‘Commission for Racial Equality – Migration to and from Britain: A timeline of important events’
[9] ‘Isaac Watts and the Origins of British Imperial Theology’, by John M Hull. International Congregational Journal Vol.4 No.2, February 2005, pp59-79
Hull quotes Watts from The works of the late Reverend and learned Isaac Watts (Rev. D. Jennings and P. Doddridge [eds.]; 6 vols. London:1753)
[10] http://www.johnmhull.biz/Articles2/IsaacWatts2.html
[11] http://www.negrospirituals.com