Songs of the Savior by Isaac Watts:
Several weeks ago I visited with some Christians in their Sunday morning church service for the Bible and the Lord’s Supper. In worship singing Isaac Watt’s song a hymn was chosen as is often done in many churches. This reminded me of the many years of hearing Watt’s hymns and songs and psalms used in Christian meetings. So in returning to my song submissions in this desire to share some of the Christian hymns I have encountered and influenced by it seems suitable and proper to offer for consideration and reflection these three that have found their way into the Christian churches.
((“Isaac Watts: (July 1674-1749 November) Known as the “Father of English hymnody,” Isaac Watts wrote approximately 600 hymns. He showed literary genius even as a boy. He was born to Isaac Watts, Sr. and his wife Sarah, who were “Dissenters.” That is, they were not Anglicans, which was a treasonous offense in those days. About the time that Isaac, Jr. arrived, prematurely, on July 17, 1674, the elder Watts was arrested. Sarah reportedly nursed little Isaac while seated on a stone outside the prison. In time Watts was released and the young couple soon discovered they had a precocious child. Young Isaac took to books almost from infancy. He loved rhyme and verse. At age seven, he wrote an acrostic spelling out the letters of his name. This acrostic not only showed his brilliance, but also the strong Calvinistic theology which was characteristic of his life.
“I” – I am a vile, polluted lump of earth
“S” – So I’ve continued ever since my birth
“A” – Although Jehovah, grace doth daily give me
“A” – As sure this monster, Satan, will deceive me
“C” – Come therefore, Lord, from Satan’s claws relieve me.
“W” – Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ
“A” – And grace divine impart
“T” – Then search and try the corners of my heart
“T” – That I in all things may be fit to do
“S” – Service to Thee, and Thy praise too.”))
((“Watts’ studies in language went far beyond everyday rhymes, however. He learned Latin at four, Greek at nine, French at ten, and Hebrew at thirteen. Noticing his abilities, a doctor and some friends offered him a university education, figuring that he would be ordained in the Church of England. Watts turned them down, instead attending the Nonconformist Academy under the care of Thomas Rowe, joining the Independent congregation at Girdlers’ Hall in 1693. He left the academy at the age of 20, spending the next two years at home. Frustrated with the heartless psalm singing of his time, young Watts sometimes criticized the singing at his church. Listening to his concerns one day, Watts’ father challenged him, “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?” He rose to the challenge by writing his first hymn. It was well received by the congregation of the Mark Lane Independent Chapel, where he attended, and for the next two years, Watts wrote a new hymn for every Sunday. It was during this time that he wrote the bulk of Hymns and Spiritual Songs. These were sung from manuscripts in the Southampton chapel and were published 1707-1709. Watts moved to London to tutor the children of a wealthy family of Dissenters. He joined Mark Lane Independent Chapel, where he was soon asked to be a teacher, then was hired as associate pastor. He preached his first sermon at the age of 24. In 1702 he was ordained as senior pastor of the congregation, the position he retained to the end of his life. He was a brilliant Bible student and his sermons brought the church to life. A short and frail man, Watts health began to fail at a young age. When his friends, the Abneys, invited him to visit their estate in 1712, Watts accepted. He ended up staying with them for thirty-six years, writing many of his hymns on their estate and preaching occasionally as his health permitted. Though German Lutherans had been singing hymns for over a hundred years by Watts’ time, Calvinists had not. Calvin preferred that his people only sing psalms. But Watts had become concerned about congregational singing with only grim, ponderous psalms to sing. Wanting to bring New Testament light to the psalms, Watts wrote paraphrases of nearly all of the psalms, publishing them in a hymnal titled Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.
Watts also wrote hymns that departed from the psalms and included more personal expressions. This literary license did not please everyone and some felt his hymns were “too worldly” for the church as they were not based on the Psalms. Yet Watts felt strongly that the Christian church should sing of Christ. He explained his approach to writing hymns this way:
“Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament.””))
((“The popularity of Isaac Watts’ hymns caused a tempest in his day. In his day, English congregations predominately sang Psalms, so singing verses that were of “human composure” (such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”) caused great controversy. One man complained, “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired Psalms and taken in Watts’ flights of fancy.” The issue split churches, including one in Bedford, England that was once pastored by John Bunyan. In America, in May, 1789, Rev. Adam Rankin told the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, meeting in Philadelphia: “I have ridden horseback all the way from my home in Kentucky to ask this body to refuse the great and pernicious error of adopting the use of Isaac Watts’ hymns in public worship in preference to the Psalms of David.””))
((“In 1728, the University of Edinburgh awarded Watts a Doctor of Divinity degree. Watts’ works include: Speculations on the Human Nature of the Logos; Horæ Lyricae, 1706-1709; Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707-9; The Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children, 1715; The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (London: J. Clark, 1719); Sermons, 1721-1727; Reliquiae Juveniles: Miscellaneous Thoughts in Prose and Verse, on Natural, Moral, and Divine Subjects (London: 1734); Remnants of Time (London: 1736)
The Improvement of the Mind, 1741; Logic; The World to Come, 1745; Catechisms, Scripture History, 1732.”))
Here I give Watt’s Preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs in which his desire and prayer to be used to change and better the Christian worship in the churches, which beginning with the Wesley’s till this very hour has continued as the Divine answer to request and labor. I have only altered the archaic characters, like the medial ‘s’ that looks like a ‘f’, indicated the italics in single quote marks ‘ …’, and capitalized some words or pronouns:
(( From Hymns and Spiritual Songs in Three Books, (1707-1709) 1805. Advertisement:
“The greatest part of the following composures are suited to the general state of the gospel, and the most common affairs of Christians: I hope there will be very few found but what may properly be used in a religious assembly, and not one o? them but may well be adapted to some seasons either of private or public worship. The mo?t frequent tempers and changes of our spirit, and conditions of’ our life, are here copied, and the breathings of our piety expressed according to the variety of our passions, our love, our fear, our hope, our desire, our sorrow, our wonder, and our joy, as they are refined into devotion, and act under the influence and conduct o? the blessed Spirit; all conversing with God the Father ‘by the new and living way’ of access to the throne, even the person and the mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ. To Him also, even ‘to the Lamb that was slain and now lives’, I have addressed many a song; for thus doth the holy Spirit instruct and teach us to worship, in the various short patterns of Christian psalmody
described in the ‘Revelation’. I have avoided the more obscure and controverted points of Christianity, that we might all obey the direction of the word of God, and ‘sing His praises with understanding’, Psalm 47:7. The contentions and distinguishing words of’ sects and parties are secluded [excluded], that whole assemblies might assist at the harmony, and different churches join in the same worship without offence. The whole is divided into three books. In the ‘first’, I have borrowed the sense and much of the form of the song from some particular portions of scripture, and have paraphrased most of the doxologies in the New Testament, that contain any thing in them peculiarly evangelical; and many parts of the Old Testament also, that have a reference to the times of the Messiah. The ‘Second Part’ consists of hymns whose form is of mere human composure ; but I hope the sense and materials will always appear divine. I might have brought some text or other, and applied it to the margin of every verse, if this method had been as useful as it was easy. I have prepared the ‘Third Part’ only for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, that in imitation of our blessed Saviour, we may sing an hymn after we have partaken of the bread and wine. Here you will find some paraphrases of scripture and some other compositions. There are ‘above an hundred hymns’ in the two former parts, that may very properly be used in this ordinance; and sometimes, perhaps, appear more suitable than any of these last: But there are expressions generally used in these, which confine them only to the Table of the Lord; and therefore I have distinguished and set them by themselves. If the Lord, Who inhabits the praises of Israel, shall refuse to smile upon this attempt for the reformation of psalmody amongst the churches, yet I humbly hope that his blessed Spirit will make these composures useful to private Christians; and if they may but attain the honour of being esteemed pious meditations, to assist the devout and retired soul in the exercises of love, faith, and joy, it will be a valuable compensation of my labours : My heart shall rejoice at the notice of it, and my God shall receive the glory.”))
1. Savior Bleed Sovereign Die at the Cross.
((“[In] the autumn of 1850…revival meetings were being held in the Thirtieth Street Methodist Church [, New York City]. Some of us went down every evening; and, on two occasions, I sought peace at the altar , but did not find the joy I craved, until one evening,…, it seemed to me that the light must indeed come then or never; and so I arose and went to the altar alone. After a prayer was offered, they began to sing the grand old consecration hymn, “Alas, and did my Saviour bleed, And did my Sovereign die?” And when they reached the third line of the fourth [6th] stanza, “Here Lord, I give myself away,” my very soul was flooded with a celestial light. I sprang to my feet, shouting “hallelujah,” and then for the first time I realized that I had been trying to hold the world in one hand and the Lord in the other. Crosby, p. 24.”))
((“Your assignment: Compose a poem no more than 24 lines in length. The poem must reflect upon the Passion and the Cross, painting a vivid picture of them in the mind of the reader. But more importantly, the poem must evoke all of the following emotions: pity, wonder, grief, humility, love and self-surrender. This entire array of sentiments must appear side by side without any of sense of incongruity or affectation. And, of course, it all has to rhyme.
Sound difficult? To cover a spectrum of feelings that ranges from intense devotion to caustic self-loathing, and to manage it within the close confines of six brief stanzas without ever giving the reader a jolt is a task that would daunt the most inspired poets. Yet so seamlessly and (it seems) effortlessly does Isaac Watts carry it off in “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed,” that we hardly notice as we sing the hymn what a tour-de-force is before us.”))
Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For (such a worm) as I?
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!
Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, Thine—
And bathed in its own blood—
While the firm mark of wrath divine,
His Soul in anguish stood.
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.
Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do.
2. Survey the Wondrous Cross.
(Verse 6 [Added by the compilers of Hymns Ancient and Modern])
((““When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is one of Watts’ finest poems and an excellent example of why he is considered a fulcrum in the transition to hymnody…..“When I Survey” is a hymn which is saturated with theology and a call for an emotional response from the singer. This hymn was transformed into a statement of faith that crosses denominational lines and generations. According to hymn scholar Lionel Adey, the lines “‘All the vain things that charm me most / I sacrifice them . . .’ have a meaning personal to each singer, one that might require either action or renunciation.” The three pledges at the climax of the hymn (“my soul, my life, my all”) are a sacrifice that had once been required only of those taking monastic vows.”))
((“Charles Wesley reportedly said he would give up all his other hymns to have written this one.”))
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.
[To Christ, who won for sinners grace
By bitter grief and anguish sore,
Be praise from all the ransomed race
Forever and forevermore.]
3. Joy to the World the Lord is Come.
((“”Joy to the World” is a popular Christmas carol. The words are …based on Psalm 98, 96:11-12 and Genesis 3:17-18, in the Bible. The song was first published in 1719 in Watts’ collection; The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. “The paraphrase is Watts’ Christological interpretation. Consequently, he does not emphasize with equal weight the various themes of Psalm 98. ….As of the late 20th century, “Joy to the World” was the most-published Christmas hymn in North America.”))
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And (Heaven and nature) sing,
And (Heaven and nature) sing,
And (Heaven, and Heaven, and nature) sing.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, 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.