WATTS, Dr. Isaac

Isaac Watts – The Bard of the Sanctuary – Chapter 1

His birthplace and personality ; his devotional and poetical spirit ; his literary productions and his scholastic attainments ; the historic places and incidents that suggested the themes.

Dr. Isaac Watts was born in the year 1674, in French Street, Southampton, England. The house is still standing, and much admired, because of its association, with the early days, of the man, who knew how to cheer the hearts of Christians, on their way to Zion, and taught the secret of living right to his fellowmen, was the true art of living, and like all other arts, must be learned, and practiced with incessant care.

Dr. Isaac Watts, unquestionably, was a unique and prominent character in the religious life of his day. His devotional spirit, was only equaled by his sainted life. And his poetical productions, were only surpassed by his abiding faith, in his Redeemer; his hymns will cheer the hearts of saints, throughout all time, and are ever bright, with hope and pardoning grace, shining brighter and brighter with more luster, as the days roll by.

Dr. Watts was not only a force under God during his earthly career, but he lives in his contributions today, in the songs of Zion, which are held, with cherished affection by our modern church life, and throughout the civilized Christian world, his musical, and devotional spirit that characterized his contributions are as refreshing, as they are helpful, and as soul stirring as they are spiritual. His name is known far and wide as “The Bard of the Sanctuary,” to which service he devoted his great scholastic accomplishments. Dr. Watts was a very great and learned man, which his literary productions attest, and so gentle and unassuming, that the little children loved him for his gracious kindly spirit, and Christians of every phase of denominational life and fellowship united in praising God for his spiritual songs, and services to the whole Church. Dr. Watts was a Congregationalist by name, and Church fellowship, but he was in no sense, confined to the circumscribed limits of the Congregational body. His ministry was so wide, that it embraced all who loved his Lord, and could unite in singing:

Come, gracious Lord, descend and dwell,
By faith and love in every breast,
And then shall we know, and taste and feel,
The joy that cannot be expressed.

Dr. Watts was as broad as the Ocean, and as wide as the Universe, and as sweet spirited as the grace he so much loved. He was in every sense worthy of the esteem and admiration that Christians the world over have accorded him. His contributions have never been surpassed or ex- celled, for their spiritual conception, and for the joy of the gospel, for the sinner, and the blessed hope for the Christian. Suited alike for the Castle or Cottage ; the devotional, soul-stirring, up- lifting, hopefulness of his hymns have made for them a front rank in the hymnology of the Church. They are like the blessed grace they pro- claim. New every morning, and fresh every evening, enabling the ritualistic brother, who loves the genuflections at the altar, or the devotee of the ornate and stately cathedral services to join with the humble cottager, who at his fireside surrounded by his family unite in singing “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.” The Lord graciously raised up this gifted poet for the Church at the opportune time, just when
her devotional life needed quickening, and her spiritual powers were all but dormant and her influence correspondingly weakened and impaired for effective work in the salvation of the lost. Because of her world-loving, man-made, and man-evolved conformity to the spirit of the age. Dr. Watts was born of very respectable non- conformist parentage, who enjoyed the confidence of his fellow-townsmen and held an official position in the local Church. Young Isaac Watts was placed in the care of a well and favorably known local clergyman of the Established Church of England until his 16th year, when it was decided to send him to London, to receive his academic training in an academy controlled by the non-conformist. Here he continued for five years, devoting close attention to his study, graduating with credit. It was while pursuing his academic course that his mind became so strongly imbued with the idea of the need of greater devotional fervor in the worship of the sanctuary. He read with interest the poetical compositions and Hebrew songs, of the old testament scripture, the imaginary and poetical expressions of the psalmist appealed to him. He became familiar with the poetical phrases of the Bible to a very marked degree. It was whilst here pursuing his academic course that the young poet laid the foundation of his poetical career. Here he gathered the material for later matured thought. The little spark here kindled the flame which later became the controlling and consuming power and passion of his life, namely, to make the devotional service of the sanctuary more up-lifting and spiritual. It was a worthy and noble resolve ; how he succeeded eternity alone can tell. Several poems that gave evidence of considerable poetical ability were composed while he was yet a student at the academy.

On his return to his home in Southampton, he continued to pursue his studies with great diligence and developed his talents, so much so that his fame extended beyond the local circle for his scholastic and poetical abilities. His name as a man of letters began to appear in the public prints as the gifted young poet; his fame ex- tended beyond the boundaries of his home town. Men and women of the social and literary life of the times were attracted toward him. He was coming to the front as the coming literary man. His contributions were accepted and regarded with favor in the ever-widening circle of his literary acquaintances, and to his great delight he was invited to visit London by the then great merchant Prince Sir John Hastopp, who learned of the scholastic attainments of Isaac Watts and requested him to become tutor to his only son, a young man of unusual caliber. The task appealed to Isaac Watts and he entered upon the discharge of the duties with the same concentrated vigor that characterized his every effort, and to the joy of the distinguished father the son made excellent progress and became noted for his proficiency in mathematics and philosophy. It was while engaged as tutor in the home of Sir John Hastopp, Isaac Watts became acquainted with the noted non-conformist minister, Rev. Dr. Chauncey, the distinguished Independent Clergy- man who held front rank among the pulpit orators of the metropolis and widely known for his controversial and combative spirit, in the defense of non-conformity. Dr. Chauncy was considered a great theological force in his day and many persons of “quality” were attracted to his Church because of his masterful pulpit “deliverances”. Isaac Watts became much attached to Dr. Chauncy for his charming manner coupled with his graceful captivating literary style, which so impressed the young poet that on Dr. Chauncy’s inviting him to become his assistant, Isaac Watts accepted and discharged the duties of the office of Assistant Minister to this distinguished clergyman’s acceptance, and on Dr. Chauncey’s retirement from the pastorate, on account of the infirmities of advancing old age, Dr. Watts became his successor and filled the pastorate with great ability. His ministry was even more popular than that of his predecessor. He soon became a marked man among the men of his time. His Church was a center of the social and religious life of the city ; his sermons were of a very high literary order, with a decidedly refreshing spiritual tone, freed from the controversial spirit so characteristic of his predecessor.

Dr. Watts’ pastorate gave to the Congregationalist Ministry of London and vicinity a decided up-life that won for the Independents a recognition in the social life of the metropolis never before attained. The pastoral labors of this Church became too taxing upon his physical strength which constrained him to relinquish his pastoral duties much against the wishes of his non-conformist brethren. He resigned just at the height of his very acceptable ministry. His highly cultured scholastic pulpit deliverances had attracted about him the social and literary men and women of his time. His fame as a man of letters had now gone abroad ; his star had ascended very high in the popular esteem and his reputation had gone out to the “regions beyond.” As the poetical preacher, it was the opportune time again for Dr. Watts. His resignation be came known to his admiring friend, the wealthy London Alderman, Sir Thomas Abney, who invited Dr. Watts to accept his hospitality and re main as his guest which Dr. Watts did for several years. It was while Dr. Watts was entertained beneath the roof of Sir Thomas Abney, whose gracious spirit was so much in accord with his own, that he gave to the world some of his best literary productions which continue to hold front rank, so diversedly among the scholastic and professional life of his and our own times. A number of hymns were composed while in this home which are doubtless among the choicest of his contributions found in all our sacred songs of praise.