Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 25th November 2012

25 November 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

I faced a dilemma over the address this morning. I am quite sure that the vast majority of bishops, clergy, and laity in the Church of England want there to be women bishops. So the extraordinary vote of the General Synod last Tuesday, when six members of what I am quite sure is a very unrepresentative House of Laity prevented the two thirds majority in each house needed for it to happen almost made me change what I was going to talk about this morning. It has, after all, provoked what is probably the greatest crisis in the Church of England since I was ordained forty-three years ago.

Nonetheless, while I thought the problem should at least be acknowledged from this pulpit this Sunday I am going to stick to my original plans, because during these Matins sermons this month I have been thinking about some of those who we are invited to remember on days set aside for them in the Church of England's Calendar for November. Today I want to think about the earliest person in the calendar who is there simply because he wrote hymns, Isaac Watts. There are other people earlier than him in the list who wrote poetry that was later set to music, George Herbert and John Donne for example, but Watts is simply described as a hymn-writer, and he died on this day, 25th November in 1748. Some have described him as the father of English hymnody.

Watts came from a respectable family, his grandfather had commanded a British warship and was killed in a naval battle, and his father, also called Isaac, was a schoolmaster in Southampton. They were a comfortable and I suppose we would now say middle-class family, except that they were dissenters; they could not accept the Church of England as it was then constituted after the Act of Uniformity of 1662, which sought to impose the Book of Common Prayer in all churches. 2,000 clergy were expelled from the Church of England in what became known as the Great Ejection, including the incumbent of the church to which the Watts family went. Thereafter they preferred to worship in what became known as Non-Conformist Churches. And at times in England during that period that was not always a comfortable decision. Isaac senior, although in every other way a model and respectable citizen, was on two occasions imprisoned for being part of a dissenting congregation.

It was into such a family that his son, Isaac, was born in July 1674. He was academically able, he began to learn Latin at the age of four, and he also showed a precocious ability at versifying. According to his biographer as a boy he once laughed while family prayers were on. His father demanded an explanation and the young Isaac said he had seen a mouse running up a bell rope, and the verse came to mind:

There was a mouse for want of stairs,
ran up a rope to say his prayers.

His father took down a rod to beat the child, whereupon Isaac fell to his knees and said:

Oh father, father pity take
And I will no more verses make.

History does not record whether he was beaten or not, but his parents were discerning enough to recognise their young child’s unusual abilities and they did not want to discourage him in his versifying.

At that time in most non-conformist churches the only singing allowed was text from the Bible, usually the psalms, sung to metrical settings. At the age of sixteen the young Isaac complained to his father that he was not allowed to sing any hymn of praise to Jesus, and his father, wisely, challenged him to produce something. This the young Isaac did and wrote a hymn ‘Behold the glories of the Lamb’, based on verses from the Book of Revelation and still sometimes sung in some churches.

It was an innovation that Watts was to take further when he produced far freer paraphrases of psalms than were usual at the time. For example the opening verse of Psalm 90 ‘Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another’ becomes in Watts’ hands:

O God our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come.

and verse four of that psalm ‘For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday, which passes like a watch in the night’ becomes:

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

He was also able to take psalms, but set them in an explicitly Christian context. A verse about God in Psalm 72, All kings shall fall down before him; all nations shall do him service’ becomes for Watts the hymn we have just sung:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run.

What Watts achieved in a remarkable way was to take biblical ideas and to set them in verse form that remained fixed in the Christian mind. It was an extraordinary achievement.

Although the young Isaac had shown himself to be a brilliant scholar, attending a university at that time would have required him becoming a member of the Church of England, but he was by then fixed in loyalty to non-conformity. Instead he studied at the Non-Conformist Academy at Stoke Newington, then a village just to the north of London, where he developed his ability to write verse in the company of three other students who remained close friends throughout his life. In 1696, when just twenty-two years old, he was invited to became a tutor for a landed family who lived near the Academy as well as having a country estate, but he was also occasionally invited to preach as a layman. As a result he was then invited to become also an assistant preacher to the minister of the Church which his employer attended in London and in time was also invited to become Chaplain to The Lord Mayor of London, who was himself basically a non-conformist, although he was willing on occasions to receive the sacrament in a Church of England church, as required of someone with such a high office as Lord Mayor. Then the minister of the church where Watts sometimes assisted died and Watts was invited to become its minister. He was ordained in 1702 at the age of twenty-eight to the non-conformist chapel in Mark Lane in Stoke Newington.

While there, and indeed throughout his life, he suffered bouts of ill-health and was invited to move to the household of a wealthy patron in Stoke Newington who supported him both in his ministerial work and as a writer beyond the production of hymns. And he was a serious academic on other subjects; he produced a major work on Logic, which in time was to be the standard work on the subject used for about a hundred years in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the emerging universities of Harvard and Yale in America, and in many ways Watts was a far broader person than his non-conformity might suggest. Calvinist preachers certainly thought he was unsound in his doctrine basically because he was too sympathetic to other points of view and Watts was more committed to promoting education and scholarship than to defending any particularly narrow theological view point. His aim, he said, was to unite those who hold the important doctrines of the gospel, but differ upon minor points. His biographer said of him 'He was by nature of a passionate and waspish temper, but because, convinced of the goodness, loving kindness, and justice of God, he had, with great pains schooled himself into serenity.’ It made him a good man.

But it is for his hymns that he will be best remembered. He wrote over 600 during his life time, many of which will be very well known in congregations throughout the world. In addition to the ones I have mentioned already they include

Come let us join our cheerful songs
There is a land of pure delight
When I survey the wondrous Cross

When he died in 1748 aged seventy-four, he was a man recognised in academia as well as in non-conformity and in a far wider church than that. But his contribution to Christian life has been more subtle than simply being well-known then, because I suspect his verses have edged their way into the minds of all sorts of people without them even knowing consciously he was the author. His was a significant contribution to Christianity in the English speaking world and it is surely right that we remember him on this, the anniversary of his death.

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