Thursday, 22 October 2015

Isaac Watts 1674-1748 A PAPER BY SUSAN SOUTHALL

On Tuesday the 20th of October Susan Southall gave the following paper to the Spiritual Reading Group in the Carmelite Library. Readings and discussion of the hymns then followed.  

‘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.’

Congregational hymns in English are a product of the Reformation. Use of the vernacular in liturgy was the sign of a reformed church. Where Columbus and his sailors of the 15th-16th centuries would sing the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ in Latin at evening, the soldiers of Frederick the Great in the 18th century were singing Luther’s German hymns of the 16th century on the eve of battle (including ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’): (‘My buggers are getting nervous,’ Frederick remarked, ‘they’re singing hymns’). And Cromwell’s men, in the 17th century, sang metrical psalms in English, as well as such English hymns (mainly paraphrases of the psalms) as were then available.
            Isaac Watts was of the opinion that the hymns of his Cromwellian grandfather’s day were dreary, and on expressing this thought to his father, he was dared to produce something better. The hymn the twenty-year-old Watts brought the next Sunday (1694) was ‘Behold the glories of the Lamb’, the first of over 800 great hymns that gave Isaac Watts a lasting fame as ‘the father of English hymnody.’ Worship in English churches, both Nonconformist and Anglican, would never be the same after Watts.
            Hymns, of course, have long been part of the liturgy, and some are very ancient. The Sanctus, for example, became part of the Eucharistic prayer in the fifth century. The Sanctus hymn represents the arrival of angels into the ceremony, where it was believed they would protect the congregation during the service. Paul, Matthew, Mark and Acts all refer to hymn singing in the earliest church.
Thomas Aquinas defined hymns as ‘the praise of God with song; a song is the exaltation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.’ Medieval Latin hymns like the Stabat Mater were later given polyphonic choral settings, in contrast to psalms which were chanted.
The Calvinist reformers insisted that only Biblical texts could be used in worship, and no instrumental accompaniments at all. Hence we see J.S. Bach, a fervent Lutheran and author of many chorales, restricted to writing secular instrumental music while employed at the court of a Calvinist prince. (The congregation for a Bach cantata would know the chorales which were based on Lutheran hymns and Bach would accompany hymns in the service as organist; in the 20th century Benjamin Britten reintroduced the idea of congregational singing in the cantata Saint Nicholas, with ‘All People that on Earth do dwell’: the Old Hundredth.)[Geneva Psalter, 1551; English text William Kethe, 1561.] Isaac Watts’ hymn ‘From all that dwell below the skies’ a paraphrase of Ps. 117, is sung to this tune.)

            Watts would today be called a Congregationalist, and there was not a lot of congregational singing in these churches at the time. The singing of psalms was an influence from monastic practice prior to the Reformation, and the dominant Calvinism of Puritan Nonconformist churches in England allowed only metrical psalms as music in worship. Most hymns before Watts were based entirely on Scripture, and he is credited as writing the first independently sourced hymns.
            Some of psalms were pretty rough. Even today we would object to chanting such lines as ‘That thy foot may be dipped in the blood of thine enemies; and that the tongue of thy dogs may be red through the same’. For Watts, some of the Hebrew poetry was ‘almost opposite to the spirit of the Gospel’ and some of it was purely historical, he said,  as ‘our lips speak nothing but the heart of David: Thus our own Hearts are as it were forbid the Pursuit of the Song’ and then naturally enough, the psalms do not contain purely New Testament material, so that they are ‘many of them foreign to the State of the New Testament, and widely different from the present circumstances of Christians.’
            Watts did paraphrase psalms with the intention, however, ‘to accommodate the Book of Psalms to Christian worship.’ ‘Our God our help in ages past’ (Ps.  90), ‘Jesus shall reign where’er the sun Doth his successive journeys run’ (paraphrase Ps. 72) and ‘Joy to the World’ (Ps. 98) are among the great hymns Watts based upon the psalms. However he was clear that Christian churches should also have hymns based upon the Gospels.
            Prior to Watts, English hymns of the Elizabethan period were intended for meditation and private prayer, not for public worship. Sir Philip Sidney and his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, together wrote devotions based on metrical psalms, as did Elizabeth I herself. For example, the Sidneys wrote…
            Do thou thy best, O secret night
            In sable veil to cover me;
            Thy sable veil
            Shall vainly fall;
            With day unmasked my night shall be;
            For night is day and darkness night,
            O Father of all lights, to Thee.

            It should be noted that Catholic hymns continued to be sung in Latin until the nineteenth century when such writers as John Henry Newman (formerly an Anglican) wrote famous hymns such as ‘Firmly I believe, and Truly’ and ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Heights’ and Frederick Faber, with ‘Faith of Our Fathers’, although many Catholic hymns remained in Latin.  Catholic Hymnody became more prominent only after Vatican II declared that the liturgy could be performed in the vernacular, and encouraged the use of hymns including Anglican and Lutheran hymns.
            Watts had the basic education in Latin and Greek common to his time; his university could not be Oxford or Cambridge, which would have required him to sign the 39 articles of the established Church of England, so he attended the dissenting Academy which taught the same subjects, with emphasis on preparation for Nonconformist ministry. (It may be added that the Anglicans were so impressed by his promise that several patrons offered him an education at Oxford or Cambridge, but he turned it down). From earliest life he experienced a lively sense of sin and personal guilt, again common to the time and encouraged in the upbringing of children.
            His career as minister and preacher, as well as chaplain and tutor to various aristocratic and wealthy Puritan families gave him time to write both poetry (mostly hymns) and prose. His Collected Works (1720) contained sermons, poems, treatises and hymns. He never married (apparently having reacted badly to rejection by one Elizabeth Singer, who married his schoolmaster) and his health was frail throughout most of his life, but he was sustained by his patrons, living with the Abney family from 1712 until his death in 1748. His hymns were admired by Anglicans as well as Non-conformists, and are well represented in hymnals today. There is a monument to Isaac Watts in the South Choir of Westminster Abbey.
            Watts lived in a time when reason was primary in literature and art: children, held to lack reason, needed instruction, particularly in morality, but serious writers ignored young unreasoning persons. Watts, in Hymns and Spiritual Songs and Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children tried to inspire children with love and obedience towards God. Dr. Johnson said of Watts that he ‘has left neither corporeal nor spiritual nature unexamined; he has taught the Art of Reasoning, and the Science of the Stars.’ And this necessary teaching is instruction in how to avoid the pains of Hell.
            There is a dreadful hell,
            And everlasting pains:
            There sinners must with devils dwell
            In darkness, fire and chains.

You might recognize Watts’ cradle hymn:
            Hush, my dear! Lie still and slumber!
            Holy angels guard thy bed!
            Heavenly blessings, without number
            Gently falling on thy head.

Yet in the same Divine Songs for children we read:
            There is an hour when I must die
            Nor do I know how soon ‘twill come:
            A thousand children, young as I,
            Are call’d by death to hear their doom.
Lewis Carroll refers to Watts whose morality was popular with Victorians:
            How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower.

This song (Against Idleness and Mischief) also contains the words:
            For Satan finds some mischief still
            For idle hands to do.

The Victorians loved this! Lewis Carroll take on this:
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

            The hymns of Isaac Watts are full of appreciation for the visible world, and of an invisible world informed by the senses. Divine Song 2 says:
 Lord, how thy wonders are display’d
 Where’er I turn mine Eye,
 If I survey the Ground I tread,
Or gaze upon the Sky.
There’s not a Plant or Flower below
But makes thy Glories known;
 And Clouds arise and Tempests blow
 By order from Thy throne.

            Robert Louis Stevenson gives an account of the singing of Watts’ hymn Jesus Shall Reign at the giving of a new constitution under a Christian government in 1862 before a congregation of Tongans, Samoans and Fijians. “But old and young alike rejoiced together in the joys of that day, their faces most of them radiant with Christian joy, love, and  hope. It would be impossible to describe the deep feeling manifested when the solemn service began, by the entire audience singing Dr. Watts’ hymn…Who so much as they could realize the full meaning of the poet’s words? For they had been rescued from the darkness of heathenism and cannibalism and they were met that day for the first time under a Christian constitution, under a Christian King, and with Christ himself reigning in the hearts of most of those present. That was indeed Christ’s kingdom set up in the earth.
Isaac Watts’ great strength was in taking the Calvinist emphasis on the sovereignty of God as a joyful and spacious reality, commanding faith and belief in ‘the universal, cosmic significance of the Gospel.’            [1]

Jesus Shall Reign

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Behold the islands with their kings,
And Europe her best tribute brings;
From north to south the princes meet,
To pay their homage at his feet.

There Persia, glorious to behold,
There India shines in eastern gold;
And barbarous nations at His word
Submit, and bow, and own their Lord.

To Him shall endless prayer be made,
And praises throng to crown His head;
His name like sweet perfume shall rise
With every morning sacrifice.

People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on His love with sweetest song;
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on His name.

Blessings abound where’er He reigns;
The prisoner leaps to lose his chains;
The weary find eternal rest,
And all the sons of want are blessed.

Where He displays His healing power,
Death and the curse are known no more:
In Him the tribes of Adam boast
More blessings than their father lost.

Let every creature rise and bring
Peculiar honours to our King;
Angels descend with songs again,
And earth repeat the loud amen!

Shall Atheists Dare Insult the Cross?

Shall atheists dare insult the cross
Of our Redeemer, God?
Shall infidels reproach His laws,
Or trample on His blood?

What if he chose mysterious ways
To cleanse us from our faults?
May not the works of sovereign grace
Transcend our feeble thoughts?

What if His Gospel bids us fight
With flesh, and self, and sin,
The prize is most divinely bright
That we are called to win.

What if the foolish and the poor
His glorious grace partake,
This but confirms His truth the more,
For so the prophets spake.

Do some that own His sacred name
Indulge their souls in sin?
Jesus should never bear the blame,
His laws are pure and clean.

Then let our faith grown firm and strong,
Our lips profess His word;
Nor blush nor fear to walk among
The men that love the Lord.


Our God, Our Help in Ages Past
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Under the shadow of Thy throne
Still may we dwell secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense in sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

*Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
Return, ye sons of men:
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

*The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

*Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Joy to the World
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and heav’n, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Saviour reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and flocks, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground,
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.


How Bright These Glorious Spirits Shine

How bright these glorious spirits shine!
Whence all their white array?
How came they to the blissful seats
Of everlasting day?

Lo! These are they from sufferings great
Who came to realms of light,
And in the blood of Christ have washed
Those robes which shone so bright.

Now with triumphal palms they stand
Before the throne on high,
And serve the God they love amidst
The glories of the sky.

His presence fills each heart with joy,
Tunes every mouth to sing:
By day, by night, the sacred courts
With glad hosannas ring.

Hunger and thirst are felt no more,
Nor suns with scorching ray,
God is their sun, whose cheering beams
Diffuse eternal day.

The Lamb who dwells amidst the throne
Shall o’er them still preside,
Feed them with nourishment divine,
And all their footsteps guide.

Midst pastures green he’ll lead his flock
Where living streams appear;
And God the Lord from every eye
Shall wipe off every tear.

To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
The God whom we adore,
Be glory, as it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.

There is a Land of Pure Delight

There is a land of pure delight,
Where saints immortal reign,
Infinite day excludes the night,
And pleasures banish pain.

There everlasting spring abides,
And never-withering flowers:
Death, like a narrow sea, divides
This heavenly land from ours.

Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood
Stand dressed in living green:
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.

But timorous mortals start and shrink
To ross this narrow sea;
And linger, shivering on the brink,
And fear to launch away.

O could we make our doubts removed,
Those gloomy thoughts that rise,
And see the Canaan that we love
With unbeclouded eyes!

Could we but climb where Moses stood,
And view the landscape o’er,
Not Jordan’s stream, nor death’s cold flood,
Should fright us from the shore.

When I Survey the Wondrous 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.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

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?

*His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

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.

[1] Jefferson. H. A. L. Hymns in Christian Worship. London: Rockliff, 1950.