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Isaac Watts Remembered

April 7, 2011

Mike Cosper at The Gospel Coalition honors Isaac Watts with this excerpt from David G. Fountains’ biography of the reformer you know by heart, but not by name:

It is the year 1674; the place is God’s House Tower, Southampton. A woman sits on a horse-block outside the prison, nursing her child. It is a hard seat, but not so hard as the hearts of her husband’s persecutors, for he is inside, imprisoned for refusing to conform to the laws of the land relating to the worship of God. He is prepared to pay the price, as he would rather serve God than man, for he believes that Scripture alone should be our guide in worship.

He and his wife had been married but a year, and although he could not see the child’s face, the sound of his crying would give him pleasure. How much more pleasure it gave him in later years when that child, who was born so small and sickly, was to influence the worship of the nation more than any other single man.

Cosper gives these legacies from Watts:

  • Worship leading is pastoral. Watts was first and foremost a pastor. His work in bringing reform to worship practices flowed from concern for the people of God. In an age of celebrity worship leaders and pastors, we can be reminded that Watts, with his profound contribution to the church, was concerned primarily with shepherding and encouraging his flock. People don’t need a rock star who can wow them with talent. They need a pastor who can help them sing, discerningly choose songs, and craft a culture of worship that effectively shapes the spirituality of a congregation.
  • Contextualization is about comprehension. I don’t think anyone would ever accuse Watts of watering down the gospel. His version of Psalm 22, which reflects on Christ’s suffering and victory, contains the lyric “all the kindreds of the earth shall worship or shall die.” Worship or die is not a phrase often heard in compromised congregations. For Watts, contextualizing meant ensuring that the offense of the gospel is made clear to both insiders and outsiders. He is a hero of contextualization, willing to buck tradition and risk persecution for the sake of presenting the gospel in a way that was fresh, clear, and compelling.
  • Worship should be concerned with truth and beauty—but beauty is a servant of truth. This is one of the most interesting facts about Watts; he was the consummate pastoral artist. He found the English Psalms written by his contemporaries to be wanting for their lack of beauty. He wrote many times about the power of poetry to stir emotions, and it serves as a reminder that worship should not only be concerned with truth. It should also be beautiful. The Psalms themselves are magnificent poems. New Testament hymns like Colossians 1 and Philippians 2 are beautiful and poetic, and the work of the pastor should include wrestling with language that illumines the beauty of the gospel and the glory of Jesus. But we can also see that beauty is a servant of truth—it is put to use for the sake of illuminating and illustrating the truth, not for its own sake.
  • Worship should be both wide and deep. Even a brief summary of Watts’s hymns reveals a breadth of content that stands in contrast with the songs we sing. He wrote hymns of adoration, lament, thanksgiving, confession; even the imprecatory Psalms found a place (like the aforementioned Psalm 3). Here’s a challenge: Spend some time with Watts’s hymns, make some notes on their breadth and diversity, and contrast that with you own “hymnal” (your own collection of songs). See where you’re strong and where you’re weak.
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