I’m constantly being surprised by the unlikely, peregrine paths of grace.
There was a time when English church singing was limited to settings of Biblical poetry and especially the Psalms. Isaac Watts (1674-1748), a prolific and popular writer of over 500 hymns, helped to change that. His works (which include “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”) are now sung worldwide by Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and Episcopalians.
Here’s a well-known Watts hymn, “We’re Marching to Zion” (sometimes titled “Come Ye That Love the Lord”) from The Redemption Hymnal.
Most of us are familiar with this type of congregational singing. Another form of hymn singing is “lining out,” a form of call and response where the leader first sings a line which is then repeated by the congregation. Lining out was especially useful in churches with few hymnals and many people who could not read. In African-American musical tradition, lining out is also known as “Dr. Watts hymn singing” though not all of the texts sung were written by Watts. This words to this hymn, “I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry,” first appeared in Watts’ The Psalms of David.
And if being a hymnist was not enough, Watts was also a logician. His logic textbook Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences, went through 20 editions over the course of a hundred years. His writings for children were so well known that one of his poems was parodied by Lewis Carroll (himself a logician). But of all these many accomplishments, Isaac Watts is best remembered as the “Father of English Hymnody” who enriched Christians’ experience of worship in ways he could surely never have imagined.