Friday, November 25, 2022

Today on the show, we remember Isaac Watts, the father of English Hymnody.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***


It is the 25th of November 2022 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Today we have a first- a “flex” in the way that television stations can swap game times if the game they were to broadcast turns out to be less desirable and they want to, last minute, swap in a game. Today is the birthday of Amy Grant- the queen of Christian pop. I was planning this show but started digging so deep that I thought it would be a shame not to give her a weekend edition. So I rushed back to my books for a suitable replacement to find that, lo and behold, today marks the anniversary of the death of Isaac Watts- the father of English hymnody and a fascinating character who wrote hymns you undoubtedly know.




Isaac Watts was born in 1674 in Southampton to a family of dissenters. This was the era of the restoration of the English crown after Cromwell’s Commonwealth; His father would be twice imprisoned for being a dissenter. It is said that young Isaac could read Latin by the time he was four and was writing lyrics at the age of 7.  He excelled in school such that local families offered to pay for him to attend Oxford or Cambridge to study for the Anglican ministry. But, like his father, he was a dissenting Puritan and instead went to study at Stoke Newington in 1690 (a haven for dissenters). He only stayed two years but here he wrote his first hymn, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb.” In 1696 he became a tutor to the Hartopp family in Stoke Newington. Here he would preach on occasion and, in 1699, was called to be an assistant pastor at the Mark Lane independent church in London. In 1702 he became the full-time pastor.


In 1706 he wrote his first collection of hymns and wrote another in 1707 that included his “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”. In 1712 he suffered a fever for which he took a week's leave to stay with Sir Thomas Abney at an estate in Hertfordshire. He would never leave; he left his post as a pastor but would continue to preach when asked and would spend the rest of his life writing.

He is considered the father of English Hymnody in large part due to his 1719 work “The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament”. Remember, since the Reformation, many had been suspicious of singing in the church, especially songs that were not directly tied to scripture. This led to John Calvin and others allowing for singing if the songs were from the Psalms. Of course, only singing the Psalms has the problem of not having any explicit references to Jesus- something problematic for Christian worship. So Watts took the especially Christological Psalms and adapted them with appropriate updated language- consider his paraphrase of Psalm 72, which he wrote as the hymn “Jesus Shall Reign” with the lyric:


Jesus shall reign wherever the sun

Does it successive journeys run

His kingdom stretch from shore to shore

Till moons shall wax and wane no more


Psalm 90 was adapted as his “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” and Psalm 98 would become Joy to the World- perhaps one of the most famous hymns in the English language. He also wrote “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed,” and “He Dies the Friend of Sinners Dies.”


But he did more than write hymns- his friends compared him to Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s coworker who was known for his broad interests and voluminous mind. He wrote a treatise on Logic that would be used in schools and universities for the next century. When Watts died, he was buried at Bunhill Fields- the famous place for the interment of famous dissenters from John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, and Susanna Wesley- mother of John and Charles. Isaac Watts- the father of English hymnody- died two hundred and seventy-four years ago on this day, the 25th of November in 1748.



The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today from Hebrews 11:


Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 25th of November 2022, brought to you by 1517 at


The show is produced by a man who is so goth that every Friday is black Friday, Christopher Gillespie.


The show is written and read by a man who learned that interment is burial, and internment is being imprisoned. I’m Dan van Voorhis.


You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.


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