Like so many young people today, Isaac Watts (1674-1748.) was frustrated with the quality of the hymns at his church. After one Sunday service, he complained to his father, who challenged Isaac that if he did not like the hymns, he should produce something better. The next Sunday, at age 18, young Watts brought his first hymn to the congregation. It was very well received. For the next two years he produced a new hymn text for every Sunday service. Over his lifetime he produced over 600 hymns and today is known as the “Father of English Hymnody.”
As a youth, Isaac studied Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew. Thus he had an ability to read the Scriptures in their original languages. As a teenager, he was a student of philosophy and theology. As an adult, he wrote books on theology.
His hymns and carols are an amazing combination of deep theological understanding and beautiful lyrics. Of course, we all know his most famous Christmas carol, Joy to the World. But Watts also composed favorite hymns such as When I Survey the Wondrous Cross; O God, Our Help in Ages Past; Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed; and This is the Day the Lord has Made.
Watts wrote hymns because he understood the power of music to speak to both heart and head, and thus to shape lives and eventually nations. It was the Greek philosopher Plato who first acknowledged the power of music to shape a nation. He said: “Give me the songs of the nations, and it matters not who writes its laws” [Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, page 342].
The carol Joy to the World was written from Psalm 98. In fact, Watts wanted to “translate” some of the Psalms of David into their New Testament fulfillment, so he produced Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.
Joy to the World comes from this volume of hymns. It is a hymn of praise for the coming of the Messiah and his work to overcome the curse of Adam’s rebellion. In it we see that Christ is Lord and Savior of both the world – its peoples, cultures, nations – and the natural earth, this planet where we live.
Following in Watts footsteps was Charles Wesley (1707-1787), the brother of John Wesley. While John preached Christ crucified, calling for people to repent and for England to be transformed, Charles wrote 5,500 hymns and the lyrics for another 2,000 to be used as tools to engage the hearts and minds of the people and therefore help build a godly nation. In fact, God used the preaching of John and the songs of Charles to bring huge changes in English culture and life in one generation.
What we need is a new generation of Wesleys and Watts who understand the power of truth and music to transform a society. To read more on this theme please see my paper Worldview and Art: The Call of the Balladeer.
Our discussion on Joy to the World specifically, will continue in more detail in the next installment.
-Darrow L. Miller
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