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Word Play: Teaching Puritans to sing

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WORLD Radio - Word Play: Teaching Puritans to sing

The legacy of Isaac Watts’ hymn writing


MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

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EICHER: Me, too!

BROWN: Time now for Word Play for the month of March. Today, we highlight a hymn writer known as the father of English hymnody. Here’s George Grant.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: Isaac Watts wrote more than a thousand hymns and psalm settings including O God, Our Help in Ages Past, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Alas and Did My Savior Bleed, Jesus Shall Reign, How Sweet and Awful Is the Place, and Joy to the World. Church musician Mike Cosper has aptly called him, “the reformer you know by heart but perhaps not by name.”

In addition to being a prolific poet, Watts was a scholar of wide reputation. A contemporary of Samuel Johnson, Cotton Mather, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards. He was a gifted preacher, a careful theologian, and an ardent apologist. He published more than two dozen theological treatises; essays on psychology, astronomy, and philosophy; three volumes of sermons; the first children’s hymnal; seven pioneering works on educational pedagogy; and a treatise on logic that served as the standard university text at Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard for generations.

Watts was a prodigy, demonstrating early genius: he began learning Latin by age four, Greek at nine, and Hebrew at thirteen. When Southampton, his hometown, took in a surge of Huguenot refugees, he added French to his linguistic arsenal. This mastery of language was evident in all that Watts wrote. His phrasing, syntax, and vocabulary were unerringly elegant but always understandable.

Thus, according to Samuel Johnson, “He was the first who taught Puritan Dissenters to write and speak like other men, by showing them that elegance might consist with piety.”

His carefully worked out theology of language—and its implications for grammar, logic, and rhetoric—enabled Watts to articulately bemoan the devastating effects of the fall, where “sins and sorrow grow.” But he also joyously celebrated the fact that Jesus has come. Indeed, “He rules the world with truth and grace;” and not in just a few isolated corners, oh no: “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains” all bear testimony to the fact that “He makes His blessings flow as far as the curse is found.”

Watts could not have said it any more simply; nor could he have said it any more profoundly.

I’m George Grant.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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