Today the church honors the person who is largely considered the “creator of the English hymn”: St. Isaac Watts, Hymnwriter and Inspirer.
St. Isaac was the first-born of nine children whose father was a nonconformist minister who was twice jailed for “heretical ideas.” He was an excellent student, particularly astute at rhyming, and many pushed him toward the priesthood.
Isaac wasn’t interested in a clergy life, though, and after a few years in higher education, set his brain to writing. He was not happy with what he considered to be “poorly arranged psalms,” and attempted to do better for the church. It was during this time in his early twenties that the majority of what would be published in Hymns and Spiritual Songs was written.
At the age of twenty-four, Isaac began informally preaching and, though he had rejected the offer to enter the priesthood, found a home as an independent minister. He assumed the pulpit of an independent congregation in Mark Lane, Britain, and soon after he began to lead the congregation his health began to fail.
He was forced to live his last thirty-six years of life in the home of Sir Thomas Abney, preaching and teaching only occasionally.
Despite his illness, his fame, as well as theological, and philosophical writings flourished abroad. Having read parts of these books in my University years, I can attest to his brilliance. His work Logic and Speculations on the Human Nature of the Logos come to mind.
He fundamentally changed the course of hymnody as well. Horae Lyricae and Psalms of David, as well as the afore mentioned collection of hymns and songs, became (and continue to be!) staple pieces in the liturgy of the church.
He even made an appearance in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as his book of children’s songs was parodied in those pages.
But the reason you know St. Isaac the best is because you sing him every year when you shout loudly, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” He penned that now famous Advent/Christmas hymn and our Decembers have never been the same.
St. Isaac finally succumbed to his illness and suffering, and was buried on this date in 1748. He never married, and is still called the Melanchthon of his day (a high honor in Lutheran circles!) for his learning, gentleness, and devotion.
St. Isaac Watts is a reminder for me, and for the whole church, sometimes the most brilliant minds are found in what many would consider challenging bodies. Watts spent much of his life ill, but the fruits of his relentlessly engaged intellect remain quite healthy.