Isaac Watts (1674-1748): English pastor, author, teacher, and one of the greatest hymn-writers of all time. Many do not know that Watts was a polarizing figure in his day because of the startling changes he was introducing to Protestant worship. After the Reformation through to Watts’ time, congregations almost exclusively sang Psalmody—hymns whose texts were exactly or closely derived from those of the biblical Psalms. Young Watts found these “traditional” services dry and spiritually devoid, and one day (so the legend goes) he returned from worship complaining about the poor quality of the hymns. His father responded, probably wanting just to keep him quiet, “Give us something better, young man.” Watts’ whole life, as it turns out, seems to be a response to that initial challenge by his father. The Church experienced a rebirth as the “contemporary” hymns of Watts and others who followed flooded parishes with theologically rich, highly emotive, powerfully engaging songs of worship. Through Watts and others, the Holy Spirit breathed fresh life into the worship of Christ’s church, not taking away from the glorious heritage of biblical Psalmody, but adding to it a rich dimension of “hymns and spiritual songs.” It is ironic, then, that traditional worship is often pegged as boring, dry, or even lifeless, when it is heir to some of the most exciting revolutions in church music history!
You think that the glorious heritage of Biblical Psalmody hasn’t been neglected since Watts’ time? I think Watts was the first major step down a path of Music that has hugely neglected the Psalms.
Don’t get me wrong. I love many of Watts hymns, and I’m not a Psalms-only guy. I’m a ‘mostly Psalms (they are inspired, after all) also hymns and songs sung powerfully, emotionally and musically’ kind of guy.
I think Isaac would have agreed with me there. But he felt a need to (in his words) ‘make David into a Christian’. He felt the need to spiritualise and clean up the Psalms as if they are sub-Christian. And that attitude has led to big problems in church music for a couple of hundred years.
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