POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Isaac Watts - Joy to the World


There have been many things born in barns over the years. In one sense, Jesus himself had such a rustic beginning and in many ways the modern hymnody movement in the English speaking world was born in a barn. In May 1731 Philip Doddridge, a minister in the congregational church, dispatched a joyous letter to his friend Isaac Watts.  Watts and Doddridge were a part of a movement who were known as non-conformists, those who were not a part of the official state church on England.  Doddridge had held a service in a barn for “plain country people” in which they sang one of Watts’s hymns which had brought a tearful and celebratory response within the congregation present.[1] The church in the English speaking world began to sing, and write its own songs, and sing some more. In many ways, we are the recipients of their work.  The churches in Europe had typically sung from the Psalter, the psalms of the Old Testament.  Watts and those following after him wrote songs in the language of the common people expressing biblical theology in the style and language of the people.  The Protestant churches of England and the American colonies were profoundly impacted by this upheaval. Historian Mark Noll in his early chapter of the book Wonderful Words of Life – Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology sums up well the influence of hymn singing on the faith and religion of people in the early days of the evangelical movement of the early 18th century:

From the early generations of evangelicals, hymn singing became almost sacramental. It was the one physical activity that all evangelicals shared and it was the one experience that bound them most closely together with each other. In fact, it is difficult to discover any significant event, person, or structure of early Evangelicalism that did not involve the singing of hymns. It is likewise difficult to discover any significant experience of singing or hands have not been freshly written by the evangelicals themselves (or by Isaac Watts who befriended them and his hands they embraced enthusiastically from the start)[2].

In the 18th century revivals of England and her colonies figures such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles and John Wesley and George Whitfield take up much of the historical horizon. Isaac Watts perhaps had as large an impact upon this time yet his voice is not as pronounced in our histories. Interestingly it was this man’s hymns and his courageous break with tradition that brought a myriad of voices to life in those striking years of awakening and revival.  So much is the influence of Watts on the history of evangelical hymn writing that Mouw and Noll entitled the first section of their book on English Protestant Hymn singing, “In the Beginning was Watts”. [3]

The Beginnings of Watts

Isaac Watts was born in 1674 in the town of Southampton in England.  He was raised by a father of strong biblical convictions.  His father stood so much by his convictions that he did some jail time for his dissent from the Church of England and was apparently on lock down when little Isaac was born.[4] During his lifetime England underwent tumultuous vacillations with the forces of Catholicism and Protestantism still yet in struggle for the soul of the island nation. Bernard Manning, in a paper on Watts delivered at Cambridge in 1937, made this commentary on the times in which Watts lived his life:

At the very end of his life, Dr. Watts had the satisfaction of witnessing in the failure of the ‘45 the collapse of the Young Pretender, and the final deliverance of Great Britain from the dangers that had menaced it since the death of Oliver Cromwell. The Constitution was saved from Divine Right. Protestantism was saved from France and the Pope. Dissent was saved from Toryism and persecution. Watts, then, was one of those fortunate persons whose life coincides with the increasing triumph of his own cause. The right people win. The wicked are cast down. All things — visibly — work together for good to them that love God. The note of cheerfulness — perhaps the most distinct note in Watts’s poetry — comes appropriately from such a setting.[5]

Though the end saw the triumph of Watt’s community and its beliefs, his life was lived in a time of great change, some of which he would later bring to the churches himself. 

As a young boy Watts showed himself to be quite intelligent and somewhat a master of languages.  He began learning Latin at age four and went on to master of Greek, Hebrew and French.[6] Apparently he had a tendency towards rhyming which makes me think he would drop some great freestyle if living in our day. One impish little instance from his youth is recorded by Norman Mable:

One morning while the household were engaged in family prayers little Isaac was heard to giggle. The other worshippers were very shocked, and when devotions were over his father demanded in a freezing tone why he had laughed. ‘Because, replied the boy nervously, while he pointed to the bell-rope that hung by the fire-place, I saw a mouse running up that; and it came to my mind: There was a mouse for want of stairs, Ran up a rope to say his prayers. The father, without a word, turned to a shelf and took down the rod, whereupon poor little Isaac, falling on his knees, begged with streaming eyes: father, father, pity take, And I will no more verses make.[7]

Nice flow, young Isaac, nice flow. 

As a member of a non-conformist community he was not permitted to study at Oxford and Cambridge the bastions of English intellectualism.[8] This lack of pomp and pedigree did not thwart him becoming a first rate thinker and scholar albeit at what would have been considered a secondary school. Watts’s studies led him into Christian ministry as a pastor and theologian but he was also a first rate logician.  It is less known but Watts’s textbook on Logic was used in as the standard text at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale and it found use for decades in the academies.[9]  Yet most rightly remember Watts for the six hundred or some hymns he wrote and the precious poetical gems still sung in churches until this day. Isaac Watts departed this earth in 1748 but his influence would echo long after his flesh had passed away.

Watts’s Influence

We cannot say enough about Watt’s influence upon the singing scenes of the English speaking churches in the 18th and 19th century.  After his studies in college he began to be frustrated with the singing and music in the churches and complained about it. Having a good dad, Watts was challenged by his father to come up with something better.[10] He did.  Watts began writing “new hymns” and published several volumes in the early 1700s.  Hymns and Spiritual Songs, in Three Books (1707) and Psalms of David Imitated (1719) were perhaps most influential in his efforts to reform singing in the churches.[11] The latter was an effort to state some of the biblical Psalms with Christ-centered meaning and the poetic structure of the times.  Not surprisingly this was opposed vigorously by some traditionalist with some wonderfully titled pamphlets Vindication of David’s Psalms from Mr. I. Watts’s Erroneous Notions and Reasons wherefore Christians ought to worship Go, not with Dr. Watts’s Psalms, but with David’s Psalms.[12] Particularly opposed was Thomas Bradbury who referred to Watts’s works as whims instead of hymns.[13]Yet Watts’s work would find traction in hungry souls seeking some freshness and heart expression in the worship of their great God and King.  His hymns took particular root in the American colonies.

Watt’s work was known in the colonies from his personal connection and correspondence with church leaders in New England.  It is known that Cotton Mather, had received copies of Watts’s work directly from the English poet himself[14] and in 1729 his Psalms of David was published in the colonies by none other than Benjamin Franklin.[15]

Watts’s influence on colonial and then later American Christian faith has been profound. His songs crossed racial boundaries which were being sung in black and white churches. Congregations of African slaves took to Watts’s music so much that a certain type of singing became known as “Dr. Watts” singing.[16] His hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross has been labeled by some greatest hymn in the English language.[17] The 19th century abolitionist and preacher Henry Ward Beecher had this to say of the impact of Watts:

When believers analyze their religion emotions, it is as common to trace them back to the early hymns of childhood as to the Bible itself. At least until very recently, most English-speaking Protestants who thought about heaven did so more in the terms of Dr. Watts than of the Revelation of St. John.[18]

This broad influence continued in England as well with a profound influence on the singing of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle.[19]  Finally, in our own day, churches continue to sing classic hymns by Isaac Watts. Today Sojourn Community Church in Louisville Kentucky has put out two albums which remix the hymns in fresh new music and styles.[20] I think Dr. Watts would likely approve.   Yet one cannot miss Dr. Watts as Christmastime when his wonderful hymn Joy to the World bursts forth new each year with resounding joy. We will close with a brief treatment of that work.

Joy to the World

The text of Joy to the World was originally titled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom” when it first appeared in Watts’s Psalms of David Imitated of 1719.[21] It was his interpretation of Psalm 98 which read in the King James Bible, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” Watts connected the joy found in the Psalm to the worship and praise of the coming Messiah. The song was conceived by Watts as a poem celebrating the second and final coming of Jesus but as we know, it has become a precious Christmas carol for the churches.  It would not get set in its current musical form until a Jersey born son named Lowell Mason put his musical arrangements to the hymn in 1836.[22] In 1911 a recording of Joy to the World by Elise Stevenson and Trinity Choir climbed up into the top five on contemporary charts; a remarkable feat for a song typically sung in houses of worship.[23]

Joy to the World continues to receive love and attention by Christians who sing the words of Dr. Isaac Watts set to the Lowell Mason tune.  It celebrates the King of Kings who comes to make blessings flow as far as the curse of sin and death is found.  Sins and sorrows will flow no more when King Jesus renews all things.

Repeat the sounding joy my friends, repeat the sounding joy.


[1] Mark A. Noll, “The Defining Role of Hymns in Early Evangelicalism,” in Wonderful Words of Life : Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology, ed. Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll(Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2004), 3-4.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001), 108.

[5] Bernard Manning, “The Hymns of Isaac Watts,” in The Hymns of Wesley and Watts: Five Papers (The Epworth Press  1942). Online edition published in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/manning/wesleyhymns.P4.html

[6] “Biography of Isaac Watts.” http://www.ccel.org/w/watts/ (accessed 12/15/2011).

[7] Norman Mable, “Popular Hymns and Their Writers ” ( Independent Press Ltd.). Locations 3004-3011

[8] “Biography of Isaac Watts.”

[9] The book’s short title is simple Logic but in the original form, and typical of titles in that time, it was Logic, or, The Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry 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

[10] Collins, 108.

[11] Esther Rothenbusch Crookshank, “We’re Marching to Zion: Isaac Watts in Early America,” in Worderful Words of Life, Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology, ed. Richard Mouw and Mark Noll(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 18.

[12] Ibid., 22.

[13] Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul 2vols. (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2004), Book 2, 24.

[14]  Crookshank, 24.

[15] “Biography of Isaac Watts.”

[16] Crookshank, 34.

[17] Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1982), 278.

[18] Crookshank, 17.

[19] C. H. Spurgeon, Our Own Hymn Book: A Collection of Psalms and Hymns for Public, Social and Private Worship (London: Passmore & Alabaster., 1883).

[20] See Sojourn Music, Sojourn Community Church http://www.sojournmusic.com/category/albums/ (accessed December 16 2011). I particularly recommend the Watts remix “Over the Grave”

[21] Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace : 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1990).

[22] Collins, 112.

[23] Ibid., 113.


“Biography of Isaac Watts.” http://www.ccel.org/w/watts/ [accessed 12/15/2011].

Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001.

Crookshank, Esther Rothenbusch. “We’re Marching to Zion: Isaac Watts in Early America.” In Worderful Words of Life, Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology, edited by Richard Mouw and Mark Noll. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Mable, Norman. Popular Hymns and Their Writers Kindle Edition ed.: Independent Press Ltd.

Manning, Bernard. “The Hymns of Isaac Watts.” In The Hymns of Wesley and Watts: Five Papers: The Epworth Press  1942.

Morgan, Robert J. Then Sings My Soul 2vols. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2004.

Music, Sojourn, Sojourn Community Church http://www.sojournmusic.com/category/albums/ (accessed December 16 2011).

Noll, Mark A. “The Defining Role of Hymns in Early Evangelicalism.” In Wonderful Words of Life : Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology, edited by Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll, xx, 288 p. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2004.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. 101 Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1982.

________. Amazing Grace : 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1990.

Spurgeon, C. H. Our Own Hymn Book: A Collection of Psalms and Hymns for Public, Social and Private Worship. London: Passmore & Alabaster., 1883.