I heard a minister who should know better state on multiple occasions that Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was “just a rebellious teenager who wanted to get rid of psalm singing.” However, if one takes the time to actually read Watts, one discovers that at the age of 22, he wrote in the Foreword of his Hymns and Spiritual Songs (emphasis mine):
*Far be it from my thoughts to lay aside the Book of Psalms in public worship; few can pretend a value of them so great as myself: it is the most artful, most devotional and divine collection of poetry; and nothing can be supposed more proper to raise a pious soul to Heaven than some parts of that Book; never was a piece of experimental Divinity so nobly written, and so justly reverenced and admired…*
And continuing on in the same Foreword, writing of his own psalm versifications or paraphrases, Watts says (emphasis mine):
If the Lord Who inhabits the praises of Israel, shall refuse to smile on 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 the retired soul in the exercises of love, faith, and joy, it will be a valuable compensation for my labours.
Clearly, Watts did not want to “get rid of” psalm singing; rather, he wanted to reform it. And far from being a rebellious teenager acting in a rash fashion to “rid” the church of such a rich repository of worship, he humbly articulated his purposes. He prayed that God would bless his efforts, if not for the Church then at least for individual Christians. Watts believed, as most churches have since, that the New Testament finished work of Christ was worthy of being sung about. Revelation 5:9 underscores this truth for us.
Isaac Watts often wrote hymns or psalm paraphrases as poetic summaries of his sermons. This was a way to reinforce what he had preached—something memorable that the people could take home with them. We see in Watts’ work what Horton Davies calls in his book, The Worship of the English Puritans, a desire to create a “Christian re-orientation of the Psalms.” Watts found ways to specifically point to Christ in his psalm versifications (as Christocentric preaching does). He makes direct reference to Christ or the Gospel in at least one stanza of most of his psalm paraphrases. For example, in his setting of Psalm 103, “O Bless the Lord, My Soul,” the final stanza reads:
His wondrous works and ways
He made by Moses known,
But sent the world His truth and grace
By His beloved Son.
So instead of criticizing Watts (and especially instead of criticizing him inaccurately), let us along with him praise our Lord Jesus Christ in both psalm and hymn singing, as the New Testament evidences and demands.
(This is the third in a series of short articles correcting errors heard in pulpits and in conversations about church music. We hope these will be helpful in arming and aiding people who are interested in truth.)